A fusion of Korean folk and jazz conveys emotion through nonghyeon

What happens when Korean folk music meets jazz?

What happens when Korean folk music meets jazz?

That’s what the quintet known as SE:UM wanted to find out, and on May 1, the group will bring its discoveries to Vashon Center for the Arts.

The five musicians who formed SE:UM are saxophonist Hachul Song, trumpeter Jongsang Park, bassist Jaeha Lee, and traditional percussionist Minhyeong Lee, led by music director and player of the gayageum, the 12-string Korean zither, Joon Lee.

Music director Joon Lee made time to share about SE:UM’s venture into creating new music.

“I think each player’s individual musical style comes first before classifying the music into genres,” Lee said. “In our group, each performer uses various instruments to express their own world within SE:UM ‘s music.”

Lee believes that the musicians’ Korean roots and their use of traditional Korean instruments, including the gayageum and janggu, are what distinguishes them.

“I like playing the 12-string silk sanjo gayageum the most,” Lee said. “Emotion is conveyed through the changing sensation of plucking the gayageum and the release that resonates in the space after plucking a string, using a playing technique called nonghyeon, which is like vibrato but with something more.”

In 2013, when the five musicians began to play jam sessions together and there were difficulties in communicating musically due to differences between jazz and Korean traditional music. “We have gradually become more harmonious through the unifying language of music,” he said. “That can be said to be the first result of our initial faith in music. That’s why our current music is our biggest discovery.”

Lee enjoys the collaboration involved in serving as music director for the group. He aims to create each piece while thinking about the balance of the music based on each musician’s contribution.

“Trumpeter Jongsang Park often presents very interesting new melodies and saxophonist Hachul Song creates amazing melodies that are both popular and stylish,” Lee elaborated. “Additionally, bass player Jaeha Lee always adds his own opinions and perspective, reminding us of things that are easy to miss.”

Since 2015, SE:UM has released albums and toured internationally, though they haven’t been able to do as much due to COVID-19. Other than commemorative concerts arranged by Korean Embassies abroad, SE:UM’s last international tour was in 2017, when they performed at the Penang Island Jazz Festival in Malaysia.

The Vashon show will be their first local performance.

“We started out playing at the festivals in different parts of the world from Edinburgh to Washington D.C. to Malaysia,” Lee said. “Since then, our music has become matured.”

For their performance on Vashon Island, SE:UM will present their album “Korean Breath: Manpa.” “We always seek to deliver a message of hope to audiences through our performances,” Lee said. “In particular, ‘Manpa’ contains the tale of ‘Manpasikjeok,’ a legendary Korean story, and within this tale, there is mythical music that makes people happy.”

Lee hopes that the album title itself will also resonate with the audience.

“In ‘Korean Breath: Manpa,’ ‘Manpa’ means ten-thousand waves,” he explained. “On the stage, we hope our music becomes a huge wave, and leaves a great impression on you.”

SE:UM performs at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 1 at the Vashon Center for the Arts. For tickets and more information, visit vashoncenterforthearts.org.

This article is reprinted with permission from the International Examiner. Established in 1974, the International Examiner is the oldest and largest nonprofit, pan-Asian Pacific American publication in the Northwest.