LIFE&STYLE

[Herald Interview] Drag queen singer opens up new future for traditional Korean music

By Im Eun-byel
  • Published : Jul 4, 2019 - 16:21
  • Updated : Jul 4, 2019 - 16:21

Korean singer Lee Hee-moon sometimes goes onstage in gender-bending attire. Wearing a curly wig and high heels, Lee commands the stage, backed by a rock band.

The music, however, is inspired by traditional Korean music.

Though gugak -- Korean traditional music -- singers are usually associated with an old-fashioned image, Lee sets himself apart with his music, manner and appearance.

The Korea Herald met with the 44-year-old singer for an interview at the Grand Hyatt Seoul on Wednesday. He was a panelist at the 10th Culture Communication Forum organized by the Corea Image Communication Institute.
 
Korean folksong singer Lee Hee-moon (Courtesy of Lee)

“Since I was born, I only saw women traditional singers. The Korean folksong scene has been heavily dominated by women. For men to be a folksong singer, there are certain limitations. So I thought I would offer a twist on the reality,” Lee said.

“Also, traditional music is heavily connected to shamanism. Shamans were mostly women, too. The cross-dressing was inspired by that, too.”

Rather than holding onto tradition, Lee has been working on his own method of delivering the centuries-old art form to today’s audience.

Lee grabbed attention in 2017, when glam rock band SsingSsing -- in which Lee was the front man -- performed at the Tiny Desk Concerts series hosted by NPR, an American public radio station. The video, uploaded on YouTube, had 3.6 million views as of early July.



“Apart from the vocalist’s voice, everything else for SsingSsing is Western, from the instruments and rhythms to the melodies. The most essential element, however, which is the singer’s voice, is based on traditional Korean folk,” he said.

The band’s novel approach was largely appreciated both at home and abroad, and was often hailed as a successful attempt at modern interpretation of traditional Korean music.

As SsingSsing disbanded last year, Lee now hopes to move on to the next phase of his career.

“I love the work that SsingSsing has done. But I want to be more confident about my own sound. So I am now trying to work with rhythm instruments, without a melody,” he said.

Lee says he always searches for new styles and ways to deliver his story.

“Being an artist is about deficiencies. On stage, the deficiencies are laid out. Performing is a process of overcoming the deficiencies,” he said.

By Im Eun-byel (silverstar@heraldcorp.com)