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Busking With Won Jin, Ye Eum, Seo Hyun and MJ in the Street of the Roses in Mokpo, Korea

October 23, 2010

I think I found out last night why all the music bars have been empty in the new downtown area of Mokpo: The entire population of the city and all its visitors have been congregating down at the waterfront in a music and fun festival surrounding the Formula One race. I made a quick visit to see if there would be any chance of finding a microphone or stage for MY music, and quickly realized it was not possible.

So I headed back to the downtown area – the new downtown as opposed to the old downtown – and made my way to Rose Street, also known as “The Street of the Roses,” where I reported finding some music places yesterday. It was getting late and I’d had Korean barbecues for the last two nights, so I opted for pizza at the “11 A.M. Coffee Shop,” which is just below Moe’s Bar and Grill.

After I ordered the pizza I asked my waiter if he knew of any places I could go and sing and play my guitar and my music. I decided to cash in on his friendliness and his excellent English.

“Oh, just out there,” he said, pointing to the square on the pedestrians-only Street of the Roses that faced the coffee shop. “These guys go out and play there every night at 10 PM. You could go out and join them.”

I was slightly skeptical, and I could not quite believe that some guys would show up at precisely 10 PM to play in the square.

But as I sat down at 10 PM and began reading my MOJO magazine – still stuck in the August issue, though I have the November one too – as I waited for the pizza to cook, the waiter came up to me and said, “Come out here for a second.”

He led me out onto the terrace and pointed out two or three guys sitting on a bench and playing guitars and singing. They had just arrived.

“Great,” I said.

“They play pop music,” said the waiter.

“So do I,” I said.

“Oh, good, I’m really excited to hear you!” said the waiter, and that seemed to seal it for me.

Not to mention that I knew I had an open mic lined up for Monday in Seoul, so I did not want to take the risk of seeing all my time in Mokpo disappear without a little musical interlude of some kind. For the moment I had only managed a few songs each night in my hotel room.

So I ate my pizza, then ordered a cup of ice cream, then went out to the square. A small audience of mostly young women had gathered around the boys on the guitars. There were two guys who played guitar, and another guy who added some vocals and another who mostly watched, but occasionally drummed on the guitar case.

As soon as I entered the square one or two of the guys motioned me over to play, as they saw my guitar on my back. I nodded, took a concrete post as a seat and finished my ice cream while I listened to them.

Ice cream finished, I whipped out my guitar and began playing what would turn into an hour and a half of jamming, singing along, playing together, with Won Jin, Ye Eum, Seo Hyun and MJ. They all looked in their late teens to early 20s. They played some Korean songs, bust mostly the pop standards we hear all over the world, like “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” and all the rest. I played some Cat Stevens, Van Morrison, Dylan, Beatles, Lennon, and even a couple of my songs too, and they played along. We exchanged rhythm, lead, harmony and other vocal roles, and basically had a great time.

They all want me to return tonight. “Every night, here, after 10 PM,” said Won Jin, who seemed like the most dominant of them all – and the one I record mostly on the guitar and vocals on this page.

So I may well return there for another jam tonight. After I played last night I returned to Moe’s for a beer, and there I met an American expat English teacher woman from Florida, named Kelly, who told me that she saw these guys all the time. If they are indeed the same ones, she said they are actually professional musicians who play in bars in the old downtown area regularly. But they like coming to the Street of the Roses to play in that square at the end of the night.

I did too. Again, it built up the human dimension of my visit to this country I had huge misgivings about visiting before I came here – stories of a lousy rural area where the race takes place, a long horrible ride down from Seoul, inhospitable this and that – and which I actually now find to be one of my favorite trips this year….

Beginnings of a Musical Adventure in South Korea

October 22, 2010

I arrived exhausted in Seoul on Wednesday evening and immediately made my way over to a dinner date with Suki in the Hongik University area. Suki, whom I met at some musical evenings in Paris this year, and who is a music aficionado, wanted to show me around the neighborhood, which is full of bars and musical joints.

We had a dinner – actually, I did, since she had eaten already – at a Korean barbecue, and then headed over to one of her favorite joints, an underground music bar with a huge screen that shows music videos all night. You select the music you want to hear, and if they have a video, they put it up. I selected Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love,” and “Under the Bridge” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. No go on the Van Morrison – too old, no doubt – but the Chili Peppers was great.

The area reminded me very much of Tokyo, although until then I had been surprised at how western the city looked to me compared to the other places I have been in Asia (Singapore, Shanghai, Malaysia and Japan).

There was no open mic, however, but on my walk back to my hotel I did find a musical joint that seemed to be a cross between open mic and karaoke, with recorded music backing and people from the public singing and hitting a tambourine and another percussion instrument. But I was so exhausted after not sleeping on the flight and having an early rise the following morning, that I opted out. In fact, I have an open mic lined up for Monday evening on my return to Seoul – so standby, and I keep my fingers crossed on it.

I am now writing this post from the town of Mokpo, which is the nearest city to the Yeongam Formula One circuit, where the race takes place this weekend. Last night I scoured through the main bar and music area of Mokpo, which turns out to be right next to my hotel. The main street is called Rose Street, and it has all sorts of cafes, bars and musical joints of one kind or another.

(My hotel, by the way, is called the Charmant, and my room overlooks Love Square, and the hotel sits next to a “sexy girls” venue of some kind. This is par for the course accommodation here at the Grand Prix.)

Unfortunately, my explorations of Rose Street revealed no place for me to play last night. I did find one place called “Live Cafe,” which had a stage all decked out with speakers, drum set, mic and other musical apparatus. But there was no band and no public at all. The owner indicated there would be no music last night. But I will try it again this weekend, as it looks promising.

I also found on the Internet a bar called Moe’s Bar and Grill. It is run by a Californian, but it turns out that while it seemed to advertise live music on the internet, there was none. Not surprise, actually, as there was no grill either. Just booze. A nice place, though, and I enjoyed a beer there, along with some of the Australian track marshals for the Formula One race. The nice bartender woman from Mongolia told me I was welcome to play music if I wanted to, but the atmosphere did not seem entirely right – too many people having a nice talk around the bar and probably not wanting to have some guy interrupt them with his songs.

I have not given up on Mokpo, though, and tonight I will explore all of the areas that have been set aside in a festival to celebrate the Formula One race. There are concerts with Korean bands and other festivities. Maybe there will be a corner of a stage or some other place where I can get in a song or two.

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