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[Herald Interview] Jambinai instills 'gugak' with new life

Breaking barriers between the old and new, Jambinai presents innovative sounds with traditional Korean musical instruments piri, haegum and geomungo.

Jambinai, an award-winning band inspired by Korean traditional music, or “gugak,” was formed in 2009 by the three members -- Lee Il-woo, Kim Bo-mi, and Sim Eun-yong -- who met as gugak students at Korea National University of Arts. Lee plays the piri, a reed flute, Kim plays the haegum, a bowed instrument with two strings and a hollow wooden sound box, while Sim plays the geomungo, a six-string zither with both bridges and frets. For a fuller sound, drummer Choi Jae-hyuk and bassist Yu Byeong-koo recently joined the group. 

From left: Geomungo player Sim Eun-yong, guitar and piri player Lee Il-woo, and haegum player Kim Bo-mi of Jambinai, a musical band inspired by traditional Korean music. (Courtesy of the band)
From left: Geomungo player Sim Eun-yong, guitar and piri player Lee Il-woo, and haegum player Kim Bo-mi of Jambinai, a musical band inspired by traditional Korean music. (Courtesy of the band)

The group first released EP “Jambinai” in August 2010, and their first studio album “Difference,” released in February 2012, went on to win the Best Crossover Album at the 2013 Korean Music Awards.

“We refuse to label our music ‘gugak,’ since what we do is music,” said Lee in an interview with The Korea Herald at Jagyeongjeon in Gyeongbokgung Palace last week, where the original three members performed during the “Twinkle Concert in the Palace.”
 
“The term ‘gugak’ emerged as a counterpart of western music as western music made its way into the country. Gugak soon became considered outdated and has since given way to western music,” said Lee, explaining that he aims to present the music of today with gugak instruments.

Jambinai, a musical band inspired by traditional Korean music, performs at the “Twinkle Concert at the Palace” at Jagyeongjeon in Gyeongbokgung Palace on May 29. (Courtesy of the band)
Jambinai, a musical band inspired by traditional Korean music, performs at the “Twinkle Concert at the Palace” at Jagyeongjeon in Gyeongbokgung Palace on May 29. (Courtesy of the band)

Though most traditional Korean musicians have yet to welcome the group’s efforts, since their music deviates from the conventions of gugak, Jambinai’s Korean roots run deep.

“At the heart of our music lies careful deliberation about how to present the signature sounds and unique playing techniques of gugak instruments,” said Sim.

While the group’s music does not stick to tradition or conventions, they “don’t want to miss the unique feature of each instrument, neither mimicking the techniques used to play western instruments nor following western melodies,” said Lee.

Their music features traditional Korean tones and rhythms but in a wholly new way, blending in jazz, rock, hardcore, punk and more.

Jambinai, a musical band inspired by traditional Korean music, poses after performing at the Bam Music Festival in Barcelona in September 2015. (Courtesy of the band)
Jambinai, a musical band inspired by traditional Korean music, poses after performing at the Bam Music Festival in Barcelona in September 2015. (Courtesy of the band)

The group has been wowing the world, performing at a number of international music festivals including SXSW in the U.S. and Bam Music Festival in Barcelona, Spain. It is their energy and inventiveness that have made them one of the hottest indie bands from Korea.

They have garnered attention abroad, especially in Europe, but still, it is hard to consider them well-known back home in Korea.

“For sure, we would like to perform at home more often,” said Kim, adding that their family and friends often express doubts about what they are doing. Sim also expressed a desire for a local tour.

‘The Hermitage’

“The Hermitage,” Jambinai’s second full-length album, is expected on June 17, four years after its first studio album.

“We finished preparing the album about two years ago, but it took us longer to search for a label that would make it easier for our international fans to access our music,” said Lee.

The group signed with the U.K.-based indie label Bella Union last November and “The Hermitage” is the first album issued under the new label.

“We focused on breaking away from post-rock, which is often used to describe our music,” said Lee.

The upcoming album consists of eight tracks, including the remastered version of “Naburak,” a track included on their debut EP “Jambinai.”

Jambinai, a musical band inspired by traditional Korean music, performs at a concert during its Europe tour. (Courtesy of the band)
Jambinai, a musical band inspired by traditional Korean music, performs at a concert during its Europe tour. (Courtesy of the band)

“As we have performed the song all over the world, it has been improved a lot in terms of performance, composition, and more,” said Kim, adding that the remastered version presents the full-band sound with drum and bass.

Two tracks of the album -- “They Keep Silence” and “For Everything That You Lost” -- were unveiled ahead of the album’s release. “They Keep Silence” was inspired by the Sewol ferry disaster in April 2014, where the government, media, and others in charge stood silently by, Lee said. He added that it aims to express the anger toward those in authority, criticizing their “silence.”

Meanwhile, Jambinai is scheduled to kick off a Europe tour from June 11 to Aug. 27 in celebration of its upcoming album. The five-piece band will perform in 13 countries including France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and Holland, starting with the concert in Voronezh, Russia on June 11.

The band is also planning to hold a solo concert in Korea in November.

By Jung Eun-jin (jej2403@heraldcorp.com)
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