Although it was quite cold and windy, I ventured out, and I’m glad I did. I went to my weekend place at City Hall near the Deoksugung Palace wall. My arch-enemy the hard candy man was at the end of the lane, so I couldn’t play there, my second place was in the shade and it was much too cold to play there, to I sat down near the top of the lane on the smoothy stone seats. It’s a good spot, a little close to where the palace guard (for tourists) marches out on the hour, but I had no other choice. I was worried that my sound would drift too much into the palace where people were soaking up traditional Korean culture. Not sure how well that mixes with easy listening jazz, but on the other hand there are so many other noises there like ; sounds from City Hall Plaza about 50 meters away, frequent union demonstrations and frequent political rallies, that I thought it would be ok except that for the most fervent anti-fans.
Once I got settled, everything was fine. People stopped right away and I was on my way. I met some interesting people. There was a nice couple who listened for a while. She told me she was a musician too. I asked what kind and she said a Korean Percussionist. She played the janggu which is an hourglass shaped instrument that is played in a kind of harvest festival band in the small villages. It’s a part of traditional Korean culture that has survived the modernization process. Most universities have a samulnori (harvest festial) band. It’s a lot of fun. I suggested we try to play together. She agreed, but there was a problem, she didn’t have any drums with her. No problem. I suggested she play the Korean rhythms on her boyfriend’s back. She agreed and he liked the idea as long as she didn’t hit too hard. After all it was like a massage (or maybe a Korean “Sports Massage” which is a kind of torture you must pay for the privileged of having inflicted.) We had a good time doing that, and it even sounded musical at moments. Amazing!
Sometimes people run up to me and throw money in my hat and then run away, as if I am going to bite them. I can understand a kid doing that, but adults. It almost looks as if they are stealing money, not giving it. Sometimes parents urge their kids to go up and give the “foreigner” money. I’m not sure if this is a test of their courage or teaching them a lesson in charity. Probably both. Sometimes if they kid looks really timid when he gets close I will growl like a bear and the kid takes off (sometimes with the money) but its all in good fun and everyone has a good-hearted laugh about it.
Koreans have this thing they say, “an yung hi ka seyo “ and “an yung he ke seyo you”. One you say when you are leaving a person’s house and the other you say when someone is leaving your house. It only took me 8 years to learn to say which one where. Sometimes when people leave I yell out , “an yung hi ka seyo “ and its kind of funny, but its correct. Because they are leaving my place, even if my place is just a little space one sidewalk, it’s technically my place. Anyway, I rarely get to say the “ka” one, because usually I am the one leaving a home or restaurant.
By the way, the most important word in any language is “nongdam” which means “it was a joke”. Sometimes I say the wrong thing like when I said, “A very handsome couple, but I think he is prettier than you (she was a she not a he too).” That wasn’t good, even though it was true. I had to say profuse “nongdams” and then played them “Over the Rainbow” for the second time that afternoon, (which I usually don’t do) followed by a few more “nongdams”. The guy then came up and stood right by me and gave me some money and smiled at my music. “he’s so nice, “ I exclaimed. She nodded yes he is. “Can I borrow him?” Everyone laughed including her, and she shook her head “no”. That sounded a bit gay, so I said, “But I’m not gay.” (which reminded me of Avenue Q”) but it would be ok if I were”
They left at the end of the song. In the meantime 2 other women walked up. One was very beautiful and well dressed and the other was well….she had a very nice personality. NO really. She was really fun. After giving me their great attention and smiles I asked what they did. “I am a fashion designer and my friend is in law.” The funny thing was that the fashion woman was dressed worse than I was, which is saying a lot. I had on torn blue jeans, a vest filled with cotton, another leather coat that was torn all over but looked good from a certain angle if I didn’t move. Also I had a hot water bottle stuck down my shirt, 2 pairs of socks a hat and a scarf and gloves with the tips cut off. The lawyer looked great. I pointed it out. “You are a fashion person but you have no fashion!” She laughed. “Oh I get it, it’s no fashion fashion.” She nodded, “That’s right!” She did have a really cool Bozo the Clown patch on her huge jacket. “What do you think of my fashion?” I asked. “Good”, she replied. “No, really. “Really, good.” “Well, any suggestions to improve my look.” “No, perfect. Good street fashion. You could be on the cover of Street Magazine” (Is there a Street Magazine?) I couldn’t contain myself anymore. “You suck as a fashion person.” We all laughed. They asked where I was from. “Hongdae.” The fashion person blushed , “ that’s where my boyfriend lives.” I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why she was blushing, so I said, “I guess we can’t be lovers then.” She laughed , “That’s right we cant” This was turning out better than I could have imagined. “How about the lawyer, does she have a boyfriend in Hongdae?” Then we started playing the game of discussing the other beautiful woman as if she wasn’t there. “No, she doesn’t have any boyfriend at all.” “really? Why not, is there something wrong with her?” “NO. She’s really nice, even my best friend.” “Then why no boyfriend?” “I think she is ready now” “Will she give me her phone number?” The fashion person who was now acting more like a lawyer was consulting with the lawyer who acted more like a fashion person. “No she can’t give you her phone number but she will give you her email.” This negotiation was all done with mock seriousness. In the end I did get the pretty woman’s email but as they were leaving they told me that she lived far away from Seoul so probably nothing will ever come of it.
It was quite chilly that day, and a number of mothers and families came by with their little babies and toddlers in strollers that had plastic in front and that were all zipped up, so that the baby was completely shut off from the world. “He must have been very bad to be punished like that. What did he do?” The mother laughs. “Can you open it just a little for a minute so he can listen to the music.” The mother unzips it. “Run kid, run, while you can.” Everyone laughs. I play and some of the kids were memorized, some of them started crying; too much stimulation I guess.
Sometimes I try to speak Korean when the music stops, but usually they don’t understand me. Of course I can say anyanghaseiyo (hello) . They get that. Anything else, the just don’t understand. Even though my pronunciation is correct, I guess it is off just enough to be unintelligible. Even when I say, “I’m sorry I can’t speak Korean …Chusang hamnida…hanggumal moyt mal haeyo” the look at each other with quizzical looks. Sometimes people come by who speak both languages well and they try to help me either by translating for me for by teaching me something. This week I learned “Shinchango issoyo?” which means are there any requests? Isnt that a lovely sound though shinchango. Almost as lovely as my favorite Korean word which in “naeng jang go”….which unfortunately means refrigerator….but the sound…
The best thing about playing is that when you are playing really well and the feelings are just bubbling up, you can see it reflected in the faces of the listeners. When I play something and it brings up a feeling in me, it usually brings up a similar feeling in someone who is really listening. Then if I look at them, we share that feeling and in that moment there is a soul connection. It sounds strange but that is what it is and that is probably the greatest reward in playing, that deep feeling of connection with another person, be they stranger or friend. Some people have different reactions when the music captures them. Some people look afraid, as if I am trespassing on their mind. Some look almost angry as if we are intimate now but I raped them and they know I will leave them soon. Some people look so happy, some people start dancing, some kids and toddlers start moving unconsciously. Some people look like they are in love and dreamy. I live for those moments of deep connection. I just have to remember that the connection is not about me, it’s about the music and its power to penetrate and move. Sometimes people are attracted to me to, because I was the one playing it, but the music always comes first.
A lot of people like to take pictures with me. I have found ways of dealing with that so it’s fun for everyone, like offering my arm to the women or handshake the guys. Koreans almost instinctively put up 2 fingers in a peace/victory sign when they take pictures. I asked recently what that means. “It means ‘cheers’” one well-spoken man told me. Even so, the symbol evolves over time. Now most people put it near their eyes or sideways. Recently I decided to innovate and put brainstormed and came up with a new way, as if I was going to poke myself in the eyes ala the Three Stooges. People laughed and I told them that it was mine and they couldn’t use it. The crowd replied and said that it was too bad and that they had it on camera so it was theirs now. I told them I would make up and new way and if they wanted to get it they would have to pay me and that this version was like a “light” app and not the full version. Sometimes when people are taking my picture when I am playing I make my right hand into a V sign. Then I play with only one hand and I have to limit my note choices. Sometimes I will turn my hand sideways and play with that one finger of my right hand. It’s a pretty good trick if I do say so myself. Sometimes someone looking through a camera seems so distant. I usually do that until I see them smile. Just because you have a camera in front of your face, doesn’t mean you are not here and I can’t interact with you. This brings me to the question of “am I famous?” How do you know if you are famous. Korea is such a connected society. Everyone is online very heavily and posting blogs and facebooks and cyworld (Korean facebook which predates Facebook by about 6 years), and some many people post my picture. A woman came up to me recently and said, “I know you. You are that famous street musician who is a professor.” I was surprised. So maybe I am famous in Seoul, but I don’t think you are really famous until you get groupies……. 140