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Korean Avant-Garde Folk Rock’s Ascension

Photo Credit: JAMBINAI
Words: | July 21, 2021
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In contemporary music, Korea is practically synonymous with K-pop. It’s easy to forget that beyond the K-pop and Krnb machinery, the country has a multitude of artists and styles just waiting to be discovered. Jambinai is tired of waiting. This five-piece band combines traditional Korean music or “gugak” with modern metal and rock. Although Jambinai has been described as post-rock, it might be more accurate to describe their music as epic folk metal and noise. All the elements of these contemporary rock genres are there. But they’re formed by the sounds of traditional Korean folk instruments, alongside electric guitars, a bunch of effects pedals, and some drums.

The band’s three founding members met back when they were gugak students at the Korean National University of Arts. Il-woo Lee who plays the guitar also plays the traditional Korean double-reed piri, a high-pitched flute. Meanwhile, Bomi Kim plays the haegum, a two-string bowed instrument with a hollow wooden soundbox. And for Eun-yong Sim, her preferred instrument is the geomungo, a large six-string zither guitar. Bassist Byeong-koo Yu and drummer Jae-Hyuk Choi later joined the band to complete Jambinai’s sound. “We refuse to label our music ‘gugak,’ since what we do is music,” explains Lee. “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 Gugak soon became considered outdated and has since given way to western music.” In short, Lee wants to use gugak instruments – but to create, develop, and present contemporary music. Apart from the piri, Lee also plays the taepyeongso or “Korean oboe,” and has a complex pedalboard setup for his guitar.

“Actually our music is not traditional. In the traditional Korean music scene, they don’t think our music is traditional. But traditional Korean instruments are our major and speciality. So that’s why we use that,” details Kim who has outfitted her Korean haegum with pick-ups. This is so she can run it through Boss guitar pedals for delay and looping effects. Kim’s unorthodox setup and otherworldly sounds have been integral to Jambinai’s identity. “We always think about how we can express ourselves more comfortably and effectively with our traditional instruments. So originality is a pretty high priority but it’s not all of our music. For us, good combinations are more important.”

Jambinai has been around for years. They even played at Coachella back in 2019. Most recently, they were featured by NPR’s famed Tiny Desk concert, which is a must-see performance both for its music and visuals. Filmed at Arte Museum Jeju at Jeju Island in South Korea, the band tapped a specialized projector to use different images and animations as backdrops, effectively traveling through dimensions during the less-than 13-minute online gig. One minute they’re in front of the familiar shelves at the NPR office, and the next, they’re playing under the Northern Lights. It’s the perfect metaphor for what Jambinai does. And if you want to hear and see more, you can follow the band on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and their other social accounts.

Colby Morrel