Geomungo Factory sounds like nothing else

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      For a true sense of the diversity of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival’s programming, take a listen to Geomungo Factory’s latest release, Imago. This is not your everyday folk music—but it isn’t the fact that every note was played on Korean stringed instruments that sets it apart.

      Instead, it’s the Seoul-based quartet’s ability to touch on funk, flamenco, and hard rock without ever sacrificing its national identity. If you’ve never heard anything else like it, it’s because there isn’t anything else like it.

      That, however, might change. Part of Geomungo Factory’s mandate is to encourage other young Koreans to explore their indigenous stringed instruments, and it’s working.

      “After Geomungo Factory,” tour manager Lee Sujin explains, “a lot of students and younger musicians want to try this.”

      Band members Lee Jung-Seok, Yoo Mi-Young, Jung Ein-Ryoung, and Kim Sun-A are clustered around a speakerphone in a Winnipeg hotel room, with Lee Sujin translating the Georgia Straight’s questions and taking answers from all four. It’s not the easiest way to conduct an interview, but it’s a task I’ve willingly taken on, because Imago really is quite excellent.

      A superbly recorded undertaking, it features the harplike geomungo, its close relative the gayageum, and the chul-hyun-geum, a kind of Korean lap-steel guitar strung in a way that would baffle even David Lindley. Some of these instruments have been electrified, however, while Jung has modified the bridge of her geomungo so that it can be played with a cello bow.

      Geomungo Factory is part of a larger movement in Korea towards a fusion of Asian and European elements, While Korean traditional music has generally been performed by small ensembles, there are now many chamber orchestras that apply western harmonization to Korean instruments and compositions. The geomungo hasn’t found favour with these, however, because it’s almost too expressive. Played using a combination of aggressive pick attack and wide pitch bends, it’s hard to control in a chamber format—but the same qualities make the instrument ideal for Geomungo Factory’s more assertive approach.

      “Each member has very different tastes in music,” says Lee. “Some of our members like rock, and some of our members like flamenco. So for that reason they are making a new way of playing in the pentatonic style.

      “The traditional geomungo has quite limited sound, so this is one of the reasons why they’ve had to make a new-style geomungo,” she adds. “They use a bow, and they use a pick like a guitar, and they hit the geomungo in a particular style, like a percussion instrument. These are some of the ways they make their new sounds—and their new music.”

      Geomungo Factory plays a Stage 3 @ Sundown showcase at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival on Friday (July 18).