Gayageum player Luna Lee performs at Ansan Arts Center on April 13. / Courtesy of Tae Kim
Gayageum player pushes boundaries of traditional music
By Kim Young-jin
At first, traditional Korean musician Luna Lee was like most others. She never associated the gayageum, a twelve-string instrument used for royal court music, with the guitar, let alone the electrified riffs of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Then a friend turned her on to the blues.
Since then, the young musician has surprised the world with jaw-dropping performances of iconic Hendrix tunes and other songs, putting a hip spin on the old instrument, which is often compared to a zither.
In March, her version of Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" went viral after it was detected by Internet sites such as Reddit and publications such as Guitar World. Over 2 million YouTube hits later, Lee says the response will spur her efforts to keep the gayageum relevant.
"I'm so appreciative for all the feedback from around the world," she said in an interview near Hongik University in Seoul. "It makes me want to try harder."
Lee, who graduated from the Korean National University of Arts several years ago, began experimenting with the blues after a guitarist friend introduced her to "Tender Surrender," one of Vaughan's best-known songs.
"Before that I didn't know much about guitar or band music. But listening to it made me realize that the gayageum is similar to the guitar and can blend well with guitar music," she said.
"Gayageum has a technique called nong-hyun, which is quite similar to bending on the guitar. But nong-hyun can go further — it really has a dynamic range. This makes the gayageum perfect for playing the blues."
Korean traditional instruments can hit certain pitches that "cannot be defined in Western scales," Lee added, allowing her to catch all the nuances of blues guitar.
The experience prompted her to explore various genres, from blues to rock to soul, and she incorporated her experimentations into her solo concerts. Her video performance of Hendrix's "Bold as Love" in 2011 caused a stir.
Lee says she practices without sheet music because it frees her to insert changes that accommodate the gayageum. At first the process took a while, but now she can prepare a guitar-based song in less than a week, adding the right effects when necessary, such as the delay she uses on "Voodoo Chile."
Under her fingertips, the guitar licks find a rich, resonant tone. Playing with a prerecorded backing track in her videos, Lee takes full advantage of the gayageum's pliant strings. Where Hendrix uses a wah-wah pedal to create a human-like, "crying" effect; Lee does the same by pushing the strings deeply and with rapid vibrato.
She doesn't stop with the legendary ax man either: her YouTube channel is filled with covers that range from Tamia's "Officially Missing You" to Craig David's "Rendezvous."
Lee, who teaches traditional music at elementary school by day, was drawn to the gayageum at a young age due to her tactile nature. "I liked touching coarse things, so my mom thought the gayageum would be good for me," she said.
But while maintaining a love for traditional Korean music, she discovered that efforts to update the instrument for modern audiences were lacking.
"When gayageum players do fusion music, it's usually new age or jazz, but I thought there was more potential. I thought it could be used for blues, pop, rock and even electronica.
"Because of a lack of research into amplifying and enhancing the sound of the instrument, people have not yet learned how beautiful it is," she said. Lee is currently experimenting with "pickups" — which convert string vibrations into electric signals that can be amplified — as well as guitar effects to enhance the sound.
She also hopes to release her first album within the year, which she says will include songs by Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Air, Ryuichi Sakamoto and other well-known artists, as well as her own compositions.
As for her other passion — teaching — Lee says that Korean children still gravitate toward traditional music despite having a full buffet of musical options, including K-pop, at their disposal.
"Traditional music follows the breath, rather than the metronome. I think kids find that fun and easily understand it," she said. "I think my love for this music rubs off on them."
Asked whether the students' interest was enhanced by her popularity on the Internet, Lee laughs.
"I don't tell them about the videos, because I'm the teacher. But once, a student told me he had seen a woman playing gayageum on YouTube. I asked, ‘How was it? It looks like me, right?' The student said, "Yeah, I guess so!"
The enthusiasm of young people leads her to believe that traditional instruments will always have a place in Korea. But it is up to musicians to make sure they stay contemporary.
"If there are more musicians who play or study Korean traditional music and master other genres, I think new genres can be created such as Korean-style blues or Korean-style punk," she said.