A Professional Singer of Gyeonggi Minyo Heemoon Lee
Keeping Tradition Alive Today
Heemoon Lee is a singer who has received a lot of attention since his debut. In the beginning of his career, he was one of the rare male singers of Gyeonggi minyo, as most were female singers. Later, Lee would often become a hot topic for his fresh and free style of music and visuals that constantly broke stereotypes. As someone who reinterpreted Gyeonggi minyo in a contemporary way, he worked on a complex genre through the Order-made Repertory project. Over the years, he has tried various types of music with different artists. For example, he participated in the folk rock band SsingSsing and conducted the Korean Men project in collaboration with the jazz group Prelude. He also organized the band OBSG, released the Deep Love series, and took part in the NAL project. Last year, 20 years after getting his start as a professional singer, he staged Gangnam Oasis, the first performance that is part of his autobiographical repertoire Gangnam series. At the end of the year, he also had a special time singing all of the Gyeonggi 12 jabga under the title “Handal Hanok.” Should a traditional artist always keep the same image? Heemoon Lee asked this question back to himself regarding the public’s preconceptions. So what does tradition mean to him, and where does the driving force for his singing across genres come from?
Miyoung Ahn
Salt Studio
About the Interviewee
Heemoon Lee is a certified trainee in Gyeonggi minyo, National Intangible Cultural Heritage No. 57, and the son of Gyeonggi minyo master Ko Jurang. He majored in film production and directed music videos before starting his professional career as a singer at the age of 27 after following the advice of Master Lee Chun-hee. Based on a long, distinguished tradition, Heemoon Lee pursues music that crosses the borders of different genres. Lee was the recipient of the President’s Award at the 16th National Folk Song Competition in the comprehensive category in 2010, the Folk Song Award at the 2014 KBS Traditional Music Awards, and the 23rd Young Artist Award in 2015. He also received a commendation from the Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism at the National Gugak Center in 2021 and from the Seoul Culture Awards in 2021.
You started singing professionally in 2003, so it has been exactly 20 years that you have been doing this. You had a meaningful performance last December when you sang all the Gyeonggi 12 japga 1) for a whole month, holding an event titled “Lee Heemoon X Arumjigi Handal Hanok.” It must have felt really new doing all of that, didn’t it?
If a person who performs pansori has to sing five pansori works on their own, a person who performs Gyeonggi minyo has to sing 12 jabga songs. I had long wanted to sing the full version of the 12 japga one day, and that dream came true last year. I suggested holding the event to the Arumjigi Culture Keepers Foundation because the natural sound and echo of the hanok is really good. It was a concept of an event in which I actually lived in a hanok and invited guests every day to enjoy songs, refreshments, and talk. Unlike a concert hall, it was a space where only a small audience could be accommodated, and so we needed a whole month to make this happen. It takes about two and a half hours to complete 12 songs, but we mixed in some talking and organized a four-hour performance. One day, we even performed for five hours. A traditional singer goes into the mountains once every summer and winter, at which time they learn how to sing properly only from their teacher all day long. I thought the performance I was putting on was that kind of training. It was both very special and very scary to perform for that length of time with just one janggu (double-headed drum) in front of me. I started a little recklessly, not knowing if my neck would be okay throughout an entire one-month performance period, but fortunately things turned out well right up until the end.
Lee Heemoon X Arumjigi Handal Hanok © Heemoon Lee
You have held many new performances in a way that has broken with the existing framework. Your latest work was an autobiographical repertoire. Last year, you helped write lyrics for the first time when starting the three-year Gangnam trilogy. Tell us about that project.
After finishing the existing series and starting a new project, I thought it would be nice to talk about this in person. I thought about my childhood—up until I started singing minyo—and how it could support my move to sing minyo professionally. The new series consisted of changed songs with motifs from traditional folk songs and other songs newly composed by Taehoon Lee, the guitarist in the band Cadejo. I wrote the lyrics myself to tell my own story. Following last year’s first work, Gangnam Oasis, we are planning to perform the second part of the Gangnam series this November.
Gangnam Oasis, 2022. Present: LEE HEE MOON COMPANY © Heemoon Lee
Compared to other Korean traditional music, what is the distinctive charm of Gyeonggi minyo that has been handed down centering around Seoul?
If you look at the history of Gyeonggi minyo, you’ll definitely come across Master Chunjae Park, who was a star during the time of Emperor Gojong at the end of the Empire of Korea. His satirical songs were so witty that it’s no exaggeration to say he was the godfather of today’s Korean “gag” genre of comedy. Gyeonggi minyo has content that is both joyful and sad, but the sad songs were expressed in an ironic way. They are mostly performed in a major scale, or sung with a really gorgeous melody. In my opinion, it’s a little like black comedy. I think such aspects represent the personality of Seoulites and are the charm of Gyeonggi minyo.
You are trying to combine various genres based on Gyeonggi minyo. At what point was there a musical inflection point where you boldly accepted the challenge to cross over the proverbial border between genres?
I’d been thinking a lot about making a change since 2008, a time when I started to produce my own performances. But I didn’t make as much of a change back then as I’d hoped. Then, in 2013, I asked Eun-Me Ahn, a contemporary choreographer, to direct my performance, and I came to try a number of different things, many of which were influenced by Ahn. As she put it, “When you do what you want to do, you shine the most.” She went on to urge me to do what I wanted to do. She told me to perform like my favorite singers, such as Min Hae-kyung and Madonna, if I wanted to, saying that she would become my shield as the director. I think the biggest inflection point came at that moment when I was highly inspired and motivated.
In 2014, the following year after your performance of Jap (雜), an Order-made Repertory, you performed Kwae (快), and showed drastic changes in terms of your visuals, such as clothes and makeup. As for the fashion of a male traditional singer, hanbok was almost always a given, yet your fashion was really surprising.
At a time when male vocalists for Gyeonggi minyo were rare, I recalled the memory of imitating female vocalists while gazing at my mother when I was a child and singing in a gender-indeterminate costume. It was just fun. It’s hard to be accepted in Korean society when you’re different in such a way—even more so because I performed traditional music—but thanks to Eun-Me Ahn, I was able to gather the courage to wear such clothes and makeup. At first, I think I had a hard time mentally without even realizing it. When I wore shiny clothes, for example, I’d sometimes suffer from hives and reflux esophagitis caused by stress. But after going through that process, I was able to become bolder, maybe because I had become immune to it all. Whether it was a wig or high heels, once I tried it, it wasn’t a big deal anymore. Contemporaneity is essential regardless of the field you’re in, and fashion philosophy regarding visuals is important today. Wouldn’t people think that traditional music should be in museums if people working in the field always showed the same unchanging image? Such closed-mindedness didn’t suit me. I wanted to do it differently from others with the frame of mind of offering the audience a fantasy on a traditional music stage. When I actually did it, I felt like I was morphing into another person as a performer, which allowed me to gain confidence. The experience of directing music videos before becoming a singer also influenced me in terms of creating visuals and fantasies. I think the visuals I pursued can now be seen as an example for my colleagues and younger people in the field.
There are many performances where traditional music and contemporary sound meet and create a synergy, not heterogeneity. For example, you collaborated with the jazz band Prelude for the Korean Men project and you organized the band OBSG with the Heosongsewol band (led by Noh Seon Teck) and with the duo NomNom. How do you collaborate with musicians who perform different styles of music?
I think people come first. Rather than meeting for the purpose of making some music, I start working with the idea that I want to collaborate with the musicians I’ve known while working. There are musicians who are active in other genres, but surprisingly close to traditional music. When you collaborate with someone like that, boundaries are broken and principles are rewritten. But I try to keep my traditional sound and singing style. I’ve built up my basic skills and singing ability enough to persuade the other person I’m working with—no matter who the musician is—of my talent. I also emphasize to younger musicians that we must always have solid basic skills so as not to be rattled when in front of other musicians.
OBSG performing at a concert © Heemoon Lee
Out of all your activities to date, I cannot help but single out your appearance in NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts. And yet the band that was with you at the time, SsingSsing, broke up. In your opinion, what kind of distinctively charming sound based on traditional Korean music makes people talk about it in other countries?
First of all, listeners can’t really feel a significant difference in my sound from music played elsewhere in the world. I borrowed a lot of general “band sounds” and made songs by incorporating folk songs that fit various different rhythms. There’s an element with SsingSsing that makes you feel Korean. It comes from the unique vocalization of Gyeonggi minyo. Even if the styling is Western, the Korean nuance and natural gestures to it may have approached listeners differently. It’s not that unfamiliar, but it feels fresh at the same time.
It seems to me that there may have been some cases where people looked down at a certified trainee of Gyeonggi minyo going outside the traditional framework. I guess you have been concerned about tradition for quite a long time. What do you think makes something a tradition?
I don’t think tradition stays anywhere or is taxidermized. I think tradition is always alive. What we call a tradition is something that was popular and enjoyed by many people in the past, and the reason why it has been able to continue to this day is because of its powerful vitality. In addition, it’s impossible for someone to imitate the sound of others. Somebody’s voice, their oral structure, and the feeling of a person are all different, so each person’s song eventually becomes unique. When I sing, it’s Heemoon Lee’s song. Unlike a tangible heritage, such as a relic, I think intangible heritage is alive and its spirit or DNA is transmitted.
the Korean Men project in collaboration with the jazz group Prelude © Heemoon Lee
What advice would you give to an artist who is trying to make their own creative work, and thinking to themselves, “Is it okay to be this unconventional?” or “Is it okay to cross the line this far?”
Anyone can think. What it comes down to is the difference between actually trying or merely thinking about it. My work is never perfect. Only when you put it out into the world can you know what it’s going to be like and what people will think. Even if you can predict the results, you don’t know the real outcome until you actually carry it out. So, after releasing my music first, I complemented it and made it into a repertoire through trial and error. If the situation allows for it, I’d say you should try all sorts of things.
What kind of repertoire will follow in the future? I’m curious about your works we’re going to see and hear this year.
A performance of “Lee Heemoon Project NAL” is being held at the Tongyeong International Music Festival on April 2. OBSG is also preparing to release its second album. The performance will take place at Blue Square and the Gyeonggi Art Center from May to June. We’re going to release new songs along with existing songs. We’re also preparing to stage Gangnam Oasis in Tokyo in early June. In addition, I’m working on the second piece for the Gangnam series. In the second half of this year, I plan on performing some of my music at an exhibition featuring a Korean artist in L.A.
1) Popular folk songs sung by professional singers around Cheongpa-dong, Seoul in the 19th century.
Miyoung Ahn
Ahn is a journalist, interviewer, and writer. She has worked for a variety of media outlets, including the magazine Noblesse, and is the author of four books. She is presently working as a freelance editor and copywriter.
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