January. 5. 2022
[INTERVIEW] Joseon pop’s fanbase in the making
|Bill Bragin, co-founder and co-drector of the globalFEST world music festival and executive artistic director of the Arts Center at New York University in Abu Dhabi / Photo by Waleed Shah|
GlobalFEST co-founder Bill Bragin discusses Korean folk fusion bands and how the world music festival helped them become visible in North America
This article is the third and last in a three-part series on Joseon pop ― ED.
By Kang Hyun-kyung
Bill Bragin, co-founder and co-director of the globalFEST world music festival held every year in New York, has witnessed some Korean folk fusion bands gaining a foothold in the United States.
“I have seen audiences respond with a great deal of enthusiasm, both at festivals like Roskilde where I saw Black String as well as nightclubs in the United States like Joe’s Pub, the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center and of course globalFEST, where SsingSsing and ADG7 both had ecstatic receptions,” he told The Korea Times. “We saw how that also translated to video performances on NPR Tiny Desk and elsewhere.”
Bragin, also executive artistic director of the Arts Center at New York University in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates, said Korean musicians are innovators who know how to balance traditional and contemporary elements to create their own music styles and present their music.
“What strikes me most is how the artists bring mastery of traditional and contemporary forms and instruments but use them in innovative and personal ways. Through their showcases at WOMEX and globalFEST and support for touring artists, they have also been able to gain a strong foothold in international touring networks,” he said.
Korean folk bands owe their success ― albeit moderate ― to global world music platforms such as globalFEST, as they have been getting discovered there by influential music professionals.
Since its launch in 2004, globalFEST has become a career launchpad for talented Korean fusion folk bands. The annual festival is an industry event where hundreds of industry professionals, journalists and artists show up to enjoy global music and discover artists from around the world.
In 2003, Bragin teamed up with Isabel Soffer and Maure Aronson (since replaced by Shanta Thake) to start a festival to “move world music from the margins to the center of the performing arts fields” and serve as a cultural bridge to stop xenophobia that gained ground in the United States after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“We wanted to help international artists develop more sustainable tours of North America. It was years after 9/11 which led to the Gulf War and there was a rise in xenophobia and borders were tightening in the U.S., so it felt extra urgent to promote cultural exchange,” Bragin said.
SsingSsing, a now-disbanded six-member band, performed there in 2017, along with 11 other acts invited to showcase their music. The band, which was then obscure even among fellow Koreans, was able to see its career rise suddenly after being discovered by Bob Boilen, a musician and host of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts series, becoming the first Korean musicians to perform on that show.
Superstar boy band BTS performed on Tiny Desk Concerts in September 2020 when its career was already at its zenith.
Bragin said Korean bands are not the sole beneficiaries of the world music platform.
“The festival has helped launch and expand many careers of international artists in North America,” he said. “Nearly 20 years later, many of the artists we championed have become much more visible in the touring circuit.”
He noted there is another understated influence the globalFEST has played on the U.S. music scene: Thanks to globalFEST, the music industry has been more inclusive than ever before, as radio station producers and festival organizers who were inspired by the global artists have begun to include world music in their programming. Listeners increased, too, because they have a wider selection of music to enjoy.
“It helped artistic directors to discover new artists and consider a broader range of programming for concert halls and festivals, including many of which previously hadn’t programmed much world music,” he said. “Now with our partnership with NPR Music Tiny Desk Concerts, open-minded music lovers all around the world can experience these expanded boundaries.”
Bragin said the climate for Korean folk fusion bands has improved a lot recently, owing to a growing interest among Westerners in overall Korean culture following the successes of K-pop and Korean dramas.
Superstar boy band BTS, BLACKPINK and a few other K-pop singers have established fandoms in the United States, which was followed by Bong Joon-ho’s critically acclaimed 2019 movie, “Parasite,” winning four Oscars. Netflix’s global smash-hit, “Squid Game,” became Korean culture’s latest sensation last year.
“I think that through K-pop, as well as films and Netflix series, Western audiences have come to expect a very high level of quality coming from Korean artists, and so there is an increasing openness to artists whose music is more directly connected to traditional roots, but crafted with the same care and attention to detail,” he said.
Among other musicians, he named the bands ADG7, Black String and six-member band sEODo Band as musicians to watch this year.
“Bands like ADG7 and Black String use instruments and approaches that are uniquely Korean and are quite culturally specific, but put them in dialogue with global traditions,” he said.
He said sEODo Band seems to have found a strong middle ground and also draws from traditional forms while offering a more commercial presentation.