Yule Log (律誌)
I dedicate this piece to Mr Kim. I hope it would bring him some amusement in this strange Covid/ Holiday Season as his music has brought me comfort and enjoyment.
(Long story alert: I apologize for the length as I have wanted to write an old-school, cohesive piece. You may skip to the greetings at the very end.)
It has been a crazy year. I don't know about you but I am stuck in the house, I have gotten used to it. I am thankful. I am going to hunker down quietly at home this holiday season. I may watch some old classics with Jimmy Stewart in it. There is no hurry. No plane to catch to get to a lakeside cabin Christmas retreat in New England or Finland or a beach party in Australia or that fancy tropical resort dinner in Bangkok or Bali or wherever your Christmas dream destination is. Parties are a tad irresponsible. So nobody is going anywhere, you might as well take it easy. Grab a nice hot or cold drink, you are the boss. Put some music on. I have been listening to my usual favorites, "Have yourself a merry little Christmas", "God rest ye all merry gentlemen", "We need a little Christmas now" and "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas" plus a couple of Kimdongryul 's festive "Prayer", "Christmas Seonmul/Christmas Present " and "Christmas Janhayo/It's Christmas, you know". Now sit back. Let's hear a fan story.
Music to circuit-break brain overdrive
To know how I became a Kimdongryul convert, you have to come visit me at my work world. I am a translator, one of those language switching human robots in meetings. On a normal day, when I do my job right, people would not necessarily notice or remember I have even been there. Have you ever leisurely looked at ducks swimming back and forth in the pond? That looks like a day of my work. You probably do not see ducks' feet paddling furiously underwater. My brain paddles non-stop too. I would hear words in my head, in my own voice or other people's. I see them in visual forms, images or Chinese characters, shorthand symbols. Sometimes the pond is not so quiet, so to speak, if there are some loquacious, hyper-zealous participants in an understaffed meeting. In which case, I would feel like a psychic medium harassed by a roomful of eager ghosts who want to be channeled. I would hear multiple overlapping voices in my head sometimes. When too overloaded, I would physically feel nauseous (as a result of what I call inter-cranial verbal explosion). But I do have an advantage over a psychic who cannot physically escape from the invisible spirit. I can actually take refuge in the bathroom (safest place on earth as no one would ever question what takes a woman so long there) away from the meeting room, to regroup.
On one of those hectic days, I hid out in the bathroom during a break. Out of desperation, I randomly played on my phone and came Kim Dong (but) Hee's Someday. And the song miraculously hijacked my brain's attention and halted the verbal explosion in my head. Silence. No Chinese, no English. Peace I badly needed. But that song only worked a couple of times because it is too achy-breaky and predictable. My working brain rejected it. I subsequently searched for a replacement and serendipitously (or so the logarithms of the Youtube rabbit hole convinced me) landed myself on - "Gieogi-seubjag/Etude of Memory" and "Chwi-jung-jin-dam", these two were durable. The first verses, "Right, I may be drunk" and "Now I can't stand it anymore"(aptly) tricked my brain consistently for about 2 years.
Jeon Hangueoleul jal mos malhaeyo. Different ears, different chemistry
I am a native Hongkonger who hardly speaks any Korean. How big is Hong Kong's exposure to Korean cultural influence? Korean cuisine is rather popular in Hong Kong. I love Korean BBQ. Salad greens and charred meat "dumplings" are genius invention but I am digressing. As far as music goes, the Hong Kong market remains a stronghold of Cantopop and Western music. I dabbled in Korean music around 2014. One renowned Hong Kong lyricist was once so bitter about what he considered as encroachment of Korean music in the already fast-diminishing local music market that he said that no true Hong Konger could listen to songs other than Cantonese ones when nursing a lovesick heart. No Korean songs can ever do that. Hong Kongers are undoubtedly extremely attached to the Cantonese language but more than lyrics, great music seeps through the heart. I stumbled upon Kimdongryul's music around 2015.
"Chwijungjindam/醉中真談" has all the elements of a timeless hit. It was the first song I looked up the translation and tried to match the words and verses. It is the best kind. The lyrics have a strong focus but enough wiggle room for imagination and interpretation. It is rather animated as love is professed loudly and awkwardly in the middle of the song - a straight confession served, not shaken or stirred with any flirtatious compliments. Bold or reckless? My take is that it might have been a timid drunken booty call song, an adult version all along, the lyrics seem to fit somewhat (ok. kidding, this song is too malleable, too fun). I like the 2019 tipsy version equally, if not more, it is charmingly calm with emotional undertows.
It is literally listening with heart when one does not speak the language of the lyrics. I always listen to the songs without understanding the lyrics. My brain is free to interpret the emotions according to my own sensibilities but at times, it can be quite off. For a long time, I did not know the song "Nae Salam/ The one for me" was a love song.
In the song "Tonghwa/Fairytale", the beginning verses gave me such warm and fuzzy feelings. He surely nailed the beginning with "Long, long ago" for a fairy tale. As he continued to sing gently " when I was little, I had two horns on my head. I used to beat up the bad guys in the world", a pegasus-superhero, really? But there you go.
There were also times that sentiments may turn out more broadly and universally, I think. Another favorite of mine, for example, " Geutaen malya (the title of the song is a mystery, what is Malya?) / By that what I meant "- a deceptively effortless and incredibly sensitive song. The lyrics, if I was not mistaken - the one you love is getting married and you are not over the person yet. People say sometimes you just have to forget what you want to remember what you deserve. Kim's singing in this one is inexplicably unisex, I cannot pinpoint it. Is it because his voice has just the right amount of yin and yang? I think anyone (who is of either gender) who has "one who got away"( of either gender) can relate to this song.
I could go on ...
It was said that Kim wrote poetic lyrics. I would imagine so but I cannot tell. I hardly consider it as an impediment to enjoying Kimdongryul songs though. It is a very comfortable place to listen to songs that are simultaneously familiar and exotic.
Music: I want to be entertained, not educated
One's musical preferences can always be traced back to a combination of cultural and sociological factors. I grew up with much Cantopop, cheesy TV drama theme songs and fun but not necessarily age-appropriate 80's Western music playing on vinyl at home, I happily sang along after school. Music was fun for me until middle school when things turned serious, sterile and joyless. I went to one of the oldest colonial middle schools in Hong Kong, which happened to be famous for its music education. Much emphasis was given to appreciate classical music, learning at least one instrument and singing properly. My first music teacher was a half-English, half-Chinese woman, a Miss Trunchbull look-alike from Roald Dahl's Matilda. She could smother you with music terms said in her crisp British accent or simply by her powerful voice. There instilled a great sense of authority and haughtiness that unfortunately I associated with "proper" music. There was always this subtext that you would really miss out if you did not play the piano. I began to find even the sound of piano slightly irritating.
Eventually I succumbed to the pressure and took up violin classes at school. My ring finger is relatively long. I never learnt how to manipulate it. My self-conscious finger 3 was often sliding awkwardly like a scouting meerkat, butting heads with the pinky. Plus there was the music summer camp, the unforgiving heat, the food coma, finger calluses, daydreaming about the beach to pass time. For over a year, I worked my butt off just to stay afloat in the school's string orchestra. I have no musicality. Playing second fiddle was challenging, it was autistically (mind you, I meant it in a neurological, not a discriminatory way) restrictive and repetitive. I was an illiterate in a Shakespeare class. I might have momentarily enjoyed it in the middle of some performance but mostly I was just a bundle of nerves. Was I a go-getter or just a wannabe? I finally quit to preserve my sanity and what little fun I still found in music.
Conjunction of double music flashbacks
For a long time, I was oblivious to why I kept listening to Kimdongryul's songs, I do not think I can ever get tired of his voice. When he speaks, he is a mere mortal. But when he sings, to me personally, it might sound strange, he is the embodiment of the Pied Piper's enchanted pipe.
One day I got so curious that I checked out some of the live clips of the songs. Kim was actually a geeky cool guy singing earnestly, intensely and sentimentally. Not particularly surprising. The revelation actually lied in seeing him always flanked by an entourage of string players or an orchestra, which at times almost seemed like gaudy accessories to his performance. All this time, after listening to hundreds of times of the songs and I didn't notice? Nope. I really did not pay attention. I listen to music to distract and relax. So Kim has a penchant for the orchestra. It is practically his trademark. So I consistently listened to his music because of his rich accompaniment, his orchestra as much as his singing voice? In retrospect, there was certainly a lot of string. It was like after converting to be a vegetarian for years, only to discover your new favorite food actually contained a lot of hidden fatty steak, how dare him! Although I understand not acknowledging good, rich music comes from a good orchestra is like picking up food at the supermarket in plastic packs and being unrealistic and conveniently forgetting about the butchering and farming. I since then came to terms with my own orchestra hang up.
Fire in his belly
The discovery also confounded me as to Kim's musical process. So he would create songs often with an orchestra playing in mind? For most of his songs, I have learnt that he produces, composes, write lyrics, arranges, sings them and also sometimes shown conducting his concert orchestra practice. This level of multitasking is unheard of in Hong Kong ( not unless you are an aspiring teenage singer on Youtube). Does this guy also grow his own vegetables and make his own furniture? I hope not or else he would be quite aloof. He should be only self-subsistent in terms of music as far as it is known. His resume shows that he is fully-proficient in the piano and is a top Korean university dropout and a bona fide music graduate at the prestigious Berklee College. Perhaps he is way over-educated to be a popular singer?
Overkill may be at first glance, I have the benefit of looking at Kim's music journey in hindsight as well as an outsider's perspective. The 2008 Monologue album is apparently impeccable, a masterpiece. The hit songs were big, even the "small" songs like "The Concert" and "Back View/Dwismoseub" were shockingly good. I became fascinated even more by how Kim arrived there. Perhaps it stems from my Hong Kong sensibility, there is such complacency and lack of competition that singers here just have to be good, not spectacular. In contrast, Kim had relentless momentum and ferocious drive even long after he had fully established himself from his successful band days. Even after his first solo album, he still had that bite the world, show the world attitude. The three consecutive albums "希望/Hope", "歸鄉/Homecoming", "吐露/Outpouring" were exciting, and eclectic veryPleasant to Hear. In particular , "Nim/ Ma'am" and "/Serenade" were so cute. He should be proud of his attempt to have Korean elements welded-in, not because it was expected of him but because those songs really turned out quite nice and whimsical. There was so much fire in his belly as these three albums captured!
For my first two years, I only listened to two of his songs, "Drunken Truth" and "Etude of Memory". When I first tried to branch out to his other songs, I thought his songs were too sad, depression-grade sad so I avoided them. " Haneul nopi / Sky high " was so poignant. But then when I was in the mood for sad songs. I tried listening to them to emote but it did not work. I then realized that his voice was not necessarily sad but just nostalgic, exceedingly expressive and sensitive, sensitive to whatever he is he is sensitive to, artistically speaking. All sensitiveness is not the same. There are many shades and nuances. Kim's sensitive sentiments do not necessarily overlap with mine but his music does provide a frame for me to feel mine.
The elusive concert
The Kimdongryul concert is the holy grail of his music if you are a fan of course. Tickets are notoriously hard to get. I think the fact invariably increase fans' expectations and their preferences for the set list. I have seen quite a few online comments how long-time fans felt so adamant about the set lists and how disappointed they were not hearing certain songs. I suppose those were probably like sentimental mementos of their romantic past or camaraderie in the rat race. How would you like your Kimdongryul songs, ladies and gentlemen? Well-done? Medium-rare? Rare? For reference purposes, is "Deja vu" medium-rare? I am a newbie fan, so I am game for any songs. Although I think I have an inclination towards the medium rare ones and anything jazz. At the end of the day, I just want to listen to what Kim is most enthusiastic to sing. Those got to be the best.
Concert tickets had been impossible for overseas foreigners to get given the language barrier, restrictions on credit cards and phone numbers. I delegated this job to my cousin last year. He is a sports coach who speaks some Korean and visits Korea frequently. "Move heaven and earth and get me a ticket to the Kimdongryul concert," I said. I would offer some incentives such as dim sum treat or a quick drink to see the Hong Kong skyline at night to his friends who would help me out. He came up empty-handed as he explained, "the Koreans that are close to me - don't bother with the Cantonese dinner because the older coaches have lived in Hong Kong for so long they don't have Korean phone numbers. They only eat Korean food in Hong Kong. Don't bother with the alcohol because my Korean students are actually a bunch of teenage boys. They have cell phones but no credit cards." Alas, no tickets. A concert, however great, should not be a pilgrimage. Over-anticipation always ruins the fun. A concert is best enjoyed light-heartedly. Would I ever stop whining about not getting a ticket? Probably not until I attend one.
What's the fuss about a Kimdongryul concert anyway? I guess it is human nature to want to experience authenticity. I want to hear for myself the Piper's voice, its texture and tempo. At the concert hall, being enveloped by sound of my favorite music. Complete concentration (literally uninterrupted music as I am "blessed" with not understanding Korean) for a couple of hours. Let the world slip. Isn't that divine? Technology and sound engineering can do wonders to an album but I want nothing, no filter between my ears and the orchestra and the singing voice. I am also curious about the core band members. To add some human touch, who knows, maybe I can catch Kim cutting loose those adorable, hysterical, full-throated, bone(lung?)-rattling laughs, eardrums may crackle. Just like a burning Yule log crackles. The soothing sounds might be one and the same.
Dear Mr Kim: To say you already had a treasure trove of that many songs and any more songs from now is a bonus sounds like calling you a less than relevant musician, which is so, so untrue but to expect you to churn out regularly chart-topping, epic songs is taking your talent for granted. Really unfair. Still, I am ever curious. I am reluctant to say I look forward to your new music, so as to not jinx it. What is your secret to creating great songs out of thin air and brainpower? Grit? Mystic dreams? Cellular oxygen? Adventure? Whatever they may be, I wish Santa would give you an abundance because you certainly made the nice list after toiling for most of the year to have given people your 2019 live album. Merry Christmas, y'all!