Transforming Tradition: Interview with Hong Sung-Hyun

Back in September, I had the chance to catch Hong Sung-Hyun & the Chobeolbi group perform at the Cedar Cultural Centers yearly Global Roots Festival here in Minneapolis. The Global Roots festival does it’s best to share traditional music from all around the world and encourages locals to join the celebration of music and history.

This year, we were graced with the presence of Sung-Hyun and his charismatic tribe of musicians, as they shared their unique style of music with the audience, who was singing, dancing and cheering them along from the moment they took the stage. It’s performances like these that keep people coming back to the Cedar, and enjoying music from all over the world with an open heart.  I had the chance to speak with Sung-Hyun himself, and hope you enjoy this slightly different style of music from what we usually cover.

Hong Sung-Hyun

Would you please introduce yourself, and describe your music/ act to our fans in your own words?

Hello, my name is Sunghyun Hong and I’m a Korean traditional musician. Even though I play Korean traditional music, my music is not stagnant. I always try to create new music based on the traditional shamanic music of Korea. My main instrument is the janggu (one of the Korean traditional percussion instruments, shaped like an hourglass.) I have always wanted to make music where the janggu leads, because percussion always stands behind on the music to support other melodic instruments. However, I thought that the percussion could make a melody itself as well as lead the music. That is why I started ‘Chobeolbi Project’. ‘Chobeolbi’ means ‘A rough rain’ which arrives at the first on the ground. And the aim of the music is to wet people’s hearts which are exhausted from the modern society. Based on the shamanic music from the East coast of Korea, my music represents nature and people’s emotion, it is always communicating with the audiences from the modern society.

How did you get your start in music? How or why did you decide to start playing traditional instruments?

I started learning music when I was in the 5th grade of elementary school. I don’t remember, but my mother said that I told her that I wanted to join Pungmul (Korean traditional farmer’s music) club right after I heard the sound of the Kkwangwari (Korean traditional small gong) from the performance of the club at the school festival. Since that time, I continued to play in school club from elementary school into high school. And when I was in the second grade of high school, I dreamed of entering the college of music, to major in Samul-nori. Therefore, I started to join a team called ‘Boksagol Madang’ to learn more music. At that time, I had no idea about the arts and the traditional music but just had a dream to play the janggu. As I’m thinking of that now, it was ignorant that I dared to do that. I entered  Chungang University in 2002 and I started to learn professional music there. While I was at university, I founded a Korean traditional percussion group ‘U-so’ with my colleagues and I still play with them now. After having graduated from university, I studied in graduate school and now I’m a candidate for a Ph.D degree.

The reason why I still play the traditional music with janggu, is that I love it. Another reason that I play is that I love to make people who come to my concerts be happy. I think that the arts are creating beauty and making people happy with it. Therefore, through my music, I would love to give the healing time and an energy to the audiences exhausted from the modern society.
Why do you think it’s important that you carry on the tradition of Korean shaman music?

Gut, the Korean shaman ritual was the communal ritual and festival in the village. Historically, Korean people have thought that the community is the most important thing and all people in the village shared happiness, sadness and arduous jobs together. However, after the western religions came to Korea, Gut has received negative connotation from the public and it began to disappear in the country.

The root of Korean music is from Gut. Therefore, I think that in this time when the traditional music is distorted by the combination with the western music, my duty as a traditional musician is playing the music which is based on the Korean shaman music but corresponds to the contemporary era.

What do you think of acts like Luna Lee & Jambinai that mix traditional music with contemporary sounds?

I think they are really great musicians. Their acts are necessary for the globalization and modernization of Korean traditional music and they introduce the Korean music in the world. However, the one thing to be desired is that the social system has no boundary between the traditional music and the western music. In Korea, people call the western music which is played by Korean traditional instruments also as a Gugak (Korean traditional music) as well as people call the fusion music as a Gugak. I think we need an act which based on the root of Korean traditional music.
Do you have any desire to collaborate with any other musicians?

Of course. I would love to collaborate with musicians from other countries, other genres and other cultures. As a musician, I have a desire to communicate with other musicians.
What is the greatest challenge when taking your act on tour?

Communication with the people from other countries. I think that we can understand a music when we understand the culture. I want to make a performance where everyone can understand and communicate together rather than musicians give a one-way performance.
When you were in Minneapolis, you had a really attentive audience, and you spoke openly with them. How important is audience participation and attentiveness to you while you perform?

It is the same for all kinds of performances, but the audience is the one thing which cannot be missed in the show. The participation of the audience makes different result of the performance. The best performance is one that touches the crowd.  The audience is the most important for my performance.
Did you get to do anything local while you were in Minnesota?

It was too short to experience the local things. But one thing that I could say is that the weather was sooo cold but the people were sooo warm.
If one of our readers were to visit Seoul, where would be a good place for them to go find music like yours playing?

It depends on the season. In Korea, performances are located in various places.
What are your biggest inspirations while writing music?

My music comes from nature and the emotions it brings out in me. I always try to describe the feelings from when I’m looking at nature such as the sky, the sea and the mountain. And I try to contain the human’s various emotions from nature. People have their own different emotion even if they are looking at the same scenery. For example, when it rains, someone likes to be under the rain and someone else doesn’t like it. Someone is thinking about their first love under the rain and another person has some drinks with friends. I imagine the emotions and play the instrument, then improvise the rhythms that come to me.

Thank you so much for your time, and for making Minnesota a stop on your tour! We hope you’ll come back again, it was a fun and inspiring performance!
Do you have any last words to leave with our readers at Rock ‘N Seoul?

Thank you for having such interest in my music! I hope to see you again in Minneapolis! Thank you!


You can keep up with Sung-Hyun and the Chobeolbi group on Facebook.

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