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Title [CCF] [INTERVIEW] Korean folk song master reveals why he acts like 'alien' [The Korea Times 2019-07-03]
Posted by webmaster Hit 223 Date 2019.07.11

Korean folk song master Lee Hee-moon during an interview with The Korea Times on Tuesday at the Grand Hyatt Seoul. Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min

By Dong Sun-hwa, Video by Kim Kang-min

Dubbed "an alien visiting the Earth," Korean folk song master Lee Hee-moon is one of the most extraordinary traditional singers here. 

He dresses like a woman or wears hot pants with high heels for his gigs, which combine rock and jazz with Korean folk songs known as "Minyo." 

Lee has dozens of other nicknames such as "freak" and "B-list Sorikkun." Sorikkun is a Korean term referring to a traditional lyrical storyteller like Lee.

"I try to exhibit who I am by revealing my 'deficiencies' on stage," Lee said during an interview with The Korea Times at the Grand Hyatt Seoul on Tuesday. "I believe art is about treating such deficiencies. As I grew up, I only saw women becoming folk song singers and faced many hurdles as a male artist. Thus, I wanted to take a sarcastic approach to tackle such an issue (by putting on distinctive attire for performances)."

"I also want to make 'Minyo' more accessible to people in my own way. In fact, the genre has become rather 'unapproachable' as it turned into a cultural property."

Although some people say such an approach is vulgar, others, including his mentor Ahn Eun-mi, understand he has justification. 

"I have forged my own path thanks to them," Lee said. 

Lee, 43, is the holder of National Intangible Cultural Property No. 57, "Gyeonggi Minyo." It is a type of folk song that originated in Gyeonggi Province. He is also the CEO of the Lee Hee-moon Company that promotes folk songs. 

"When I first started singing at 27, my mother ― Gyeonggi Minyo master Ko Ju-rang ― did not support me," Lee said. "She hoped I would get a more stable job instead."

Lee's life took another path as he encountered Ko's friend, modern dancer Ahn Eun-mi. 

"Ahn was the first person who offered me to become a Sorikkun," he said. "She devotes everything to her performances with endless stamina. I truly want to imitate her." 

Lee's ability has been well recognized. He won the Presidential Award in the 16th National Folk Song Contest in 2010, the KBS National Music Awards in 2014, and the 23rd Young Artist Award in 2015. He was also lead vocalist of the fusion folk band "SsingSsing" that garnered over 3.65 million views on YouTube. 

"I formed SsingSsing because I wanted to perform like a rock band," Lee said. "But it is a project band that has disbanded. I loved being a part of it, but as of now, I do not have a plan to do it again."

Lee sees his vocal style as the driving factor behind his popularity. In fact, many singers have attempted to combine Korean traditional songs and Western styles, but most have ended up creating dissonance. Lee has taken a different approach. 

"In my case, I do not use Korean and Western instruments together," he said. "They have different pitches and do not get along well. I only use Western instruments, but the vocal ― which I believe has the most intrinsic value ― is wholly Korean. Hence, Westerners find the instrumental sound familiar, but soon realize how different the vocal is."

"I also focus on vocal when arranging the song. To highlight vocal techniques, I minimize the instrumental sound, making it simple."

Lee is now enjoying worldwide popularity, even in Africa. 

"A legion of foreigners, even Africans, send me messages on social media," Lee said. "Maybe they learned about me when I visited Nigeria for a gig." He said he is planning to perform in Hong Kong, Japan and the U.S. soon. 

Lee performed for the 2019 Culture Communication Forum (CCF) at the Grand Hyatt Seoul on Tuesday. He was one of 11 content creator delegates to the event, which was organized by the Corea Image Communication Institute (CICI). 

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