A trip to Korea through art, music

Korean instrumental music player Sumin Kim plays the Haegeum instrument during the Korean Music and dance performance at Safari park hotel on October 11, 2022 [David Gichuru, Standard]

Africans are often in disbelief and take offence when a person from another continent does not seem to understand that Africa is a continent, not a country.

It is the ignorance of it as well as the lack of respect for a rapidly growing region made up of different countries with their own unique cultures.

But if we were to be honest with ourselves, everyone can fall short of knowledge when it comes to our vast wide world and the people in it. It is all a matter of educating oneself and getting to know what is truly out there.

I came to this realisation last week, when I was confronted with the beauty, complexity, and intrigue that is Korean culture.

I had the delight of being invited to a Korean Music and Dance Performance, which was held at a Nairobi hotel. Just like those that do not understand the difference between Africa and Kenya, I did not know much, if anything, about Korean culture.

Dubbed Karibu Korea, the evening was organised by the Embassy of the Republic of Korea, and promised entertainment and education in equal measure.

The musical performance included traditional musical instruments from the region, including the organ, haegeumdaegeum as well as a dance presentation.

The ceremony was set to take place at 5 pm, with food and drinks laid out to the fill - it was the perfect sundowner, and The Standard team had a culturally rich experience ahead.

A Korean YouTuber, who goes by the name Dan and describes his life as a Korean man living in the region made a much-needed video earlier this year - for someone looking to learn about Korea.

Noting that he was hungry and just coming home after a long day, Dan sat in front of the camera and showed viewers the take-out dinner he had just ordered - Spicy Rosé Tteokbokki.

“The main ingredients in making this spicy rose sauce are gochujang, cream, soy sauce, and of course, tteokbokki-tteok and toppings to complete the dish. The addition of dairy will give you the creamy gochujang sauce you need for this popular and trendy street food,” Honest Food Talk, a food blog, describes the dish.

Gochujang is described as a savory, sweet, and spicy fermented paste popularly used in Korean cooking. Tteokbokki is a simmered rice cake that is also beloved in the region.

Was the food at the Korean performance going to be anything like this?

Organist instrument player, Eunhae Park and Daegeum instrument Player, Hyejeong Im performing during the Korean Music and dance performance at Safari park hotel on 11th Wed October 2022. [David Gichuru, Standard]

Dan went ahead to describe his version of facts related to Korean people, noting that most Koreans like to eat but are always watchful of their calorie intake.

He added that stealing is not something that is often seen in Korea, saying that he captured that fact on a video he shared on TikTok.

“The video went viral, it had 10 million views. People do not really steal in Korea. Like you leave things on the table in a café- like a laptop, phone or bag and go outside for 10 minutes and it will still be there,” Dan said on his Thiz is Dan YouTube channel.

He added, “Some people say that it is because of all the CCTV cameras around, but it is not.”

As we arrived at the hotel for the event, the hallways leading up to the set-up greeted us with the sweet scents of fried food.

There were lots of South-East Asians in the room, but Africans showed up in equal measure.

The dress code was smart-casual, as most of those who were in attendance had shown up after a busy day at work or at their business places.

There was certainly no Tteokbokki on the menu, but probably because the organiser opted to serve bitings instead of full meals. There was fried chicken, deep-fried prawns, kebabs and cheese plates for everyone’s fill. The wine flowed too.

As we settled into the musical performances of the day, the ambassador of Korea to Kenya, YEO Sung-jun welcomed guests to the event.

“Today’s performance features traditional Korean music and Western music played together in harmony. Appreciating each other’s cultures fosters our sense of understanding and mutual respect,” YEO Sung-jun said, adding, “It is an opportunity to gain a deeper appreciation of Korean culture.”

The musicians of the day were organist Eunhae Park, Haeguem player Sumin Kim, Daegeum player Hyejeong Im and dancer Sehee Lee.

The musical pieces were a rhythmic flow of art, performed under dim light with the artistes in full traditional attire and make-up.

The programme kicked off with ‘Cheongseonggok’, described on the itinerary as a famous solo daegeum piece that conveys the charm of the daegeum.

“This piece takes its melody from the classical lyrics song repertoire, ‘Taepyeongga’,” the programme read in part.

The daegeum is described as a large bamboo flute popular in traditional Korean music.

“It is uniquely capable of producing a wide range of listening experiences from a single ancient woodwind instrument, Korean Herald, a website on Korean culture notes on the instrument, adding, “a one-of-a-kind woodwind instrument indigenous to Korea.”

The resulting sound is flute-like but unique, comparable to the musical sounds often heard in Korean films, especially traditional ones.

Next, the artistes performed Sangju Arirang, described on the programme as a folk song from a South-Korean province.

Other performances included Haegeum Sanjo, or scattered melodies, and Tarae, a piece that alternates between slow and fast rhythms.

There was a dance, the taepyungmu, which was performed through gentle, light and restrained footsteps.

Taepyungmu is also called the ‘great peace dance’ and is performed to pray for peace and harmony.

K-Heritage, a Korean station describes the dance as one that requires gracious footwork and high artistic quality.

“Rhythms of the dance are more complicated and individual than those of other dances. This dance features delicate and graceful movements,” K-Heritage notes.

Korean culture has come into the limelight recently, especially due to pop-culture enthusiasts’ love for Korean pop music, popularly known as K-Pop.

“The unlikely detonator of the Korean wave in the English-speaking world was Gangnam Style, the 2012 track by the Seoul-based rapper Psy that became the first YouTube video to be viewed a billion times,” The Guardian reports on the world’s love for Korean music.

The report adds: “Gangnam Style – a high-octane dig at the pretensions of Seoul’s newly minted and plastic surgery-obsessed elite – vocalised an easy and irreverent spirit at odds with received ideas of the earnestness of Korean culture. It offered dramatic evidence that the west’s complacent sense of a monopoly on irony and nuance might be under serious threat.”