september 15, 2013

September 15th, 2013

The wall of Deoksugung Palace is rumored to have the power to break couples up. If you walk there with your sweetie, you will soon break up, legend says. Some say that the reason for this is that the office where you needed to get a permit to get a divorce back in the days of the King was along this wall. Yet this belief doesn’t keep many couples from walking along this wall. 

As I started to play 2 women were posing in front of the wall. One put her cheek next to the wall and the other one took a picture. After that was done, I yelled, “Kiss it!” and she did. Then I yelled, “Lick it.” They gave me a strange look and hurried away. I guess that was crossing the line. It kind of set the tone for the day’s interactions.

Two women slowed down to listen to my music. One seemed more interested than the other. I watched closely. They communicated with looks only. One was saying, “do you want to stay and listen to this guy, It’s kind of interesting.” The other was saying, “NO. I want to go.” The weaker of the too reluctantly turned to go. I yelled after them, “Hey. Who made her the boss. Stand up for yourself.” They hurried away even faster.

Koreans are shy by nature. I made a big discovery. They understand “Carpe Diem”. From now on when I wanted to encourage someone, say to dance or sing with me,  I can say, “Carpe Diem”.

It is more exciting and fun to present yourself blatantly honest in all your flawedness than to present a false self and have to defend it or pretend it.

The problem arises, how do you make a friendly gesture when you are playing the saxophone. Many times a little kid or a person will walk by and I would like to show that I am friendly and not scary. Normally you would smile, but I cant do that. A wave might mean “stay away”.  A  thumbs up maybe, but then I have to limit myself to notes of the left hand momentarily.  Usually when I try to show people I am friendly, I just scare them away or they turn away and pretend they didn’t see me.

Do you want to hear Korean music or Jazz?” “Both ”   ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

When playing, I live on the verge between magical and mundane. The magical comes when it will and the rest is mundane. I feel like a tightrope walker or a fiddler on the roof if you will.

People are always asking what my instrument is. Usually when I say saxophone they object that a saxophone is curved. I have a new bit. “What’s your instrument?” “It’s a saxophone. (and before they can reply that its not a saxophone) A soprano saxophone. (and before they can comment) a straight soprano saxophone.” I’m searching for another alliteration, but haven’t thought of another one that isn’t forced yet.

“Are you guys students?” “I am a student.  She is a student too.” “Sooooo, you ARE students.” ”Yes” “What do you study?” English literature.” “Who is your favorite author, and don’t say Shakespere.” “Mark Twain.” “Wow, you got it right. Good job. Do you know William Saroyan. “ “No.” Ok its your homework.” “Homework?  No I hate homework.”  “this one you will like.” This is a nice young couple stops by. The young man speaks English pretty well and the woman not at all.  “What do you do in the relationship?, I ask the woman” They don’t understand. “He’s is the English translator, what is your job”  They still don’t understand. “Maybe she is rich and she pays for everything. “  The woman objects. “Oh she understands.” The woman shakes her head no, which is a paradox, because if she doesn’t understand how could she say she doesn’t understand. They are a nice couple so I talk to them more in depth. It turns out that this is their last time to see each other before he goes off to the military service.  “We are going into the castle grounds to look around.” I give him a piercing look. “look around??” I give him a lewd wink. He comes clean. “Ok a little kissing too” She blushes as does he.  “You can tell me, I’m not your mother.” Then suddenly to the crowd.   “I want to make an announcement. I need a translator.” The young man of course volunteers. “Ok. Can you tell the crowd (of about 15 people) exactly what I say?” He agrees.  I start. “This young man and woman are saying goodbye because he is going to the service on Monday. “ The man is reluctant to say it but he promised and so he goes ahead. “In order to show everyone how much I love my girlfriend I am going to kiss her passionately in front of everyone.” He reluctantly translates. The woman has a shocked look on her face. The crowd ooooohs and ahhss.  I start a rhythmic clap and the group joins in. The man looks at his girlfriend in the eye and goes for it to my surprise. The crowd goes wild. The woman resists a little but goes through with it.  When he comes up for air, he looks overcome with emotion and announces to the crowd, “I love her so much. “ he is so happy and wonders how he can repay me. “name your first child Frank”. He pauses for a minutes as if actually considering it “Ok, English nickname is Frank”. We agree.  I offer him to protect his girlfriend while he is gone but he refuses, starts to get mad, and then realizes I am only joking. ” Nongdam”….my most important Korean word (means joke)  Of course I make them kiss again for the camera. You know you can get anybody to do anything again for the camera and it is a nice way of extending a pleasant moment.  As they walk away I yell , “have fun walking in the park (wink wink) “

I get asked so often, “Where are you from?” I don’t like the stigma attached to saying Im from the USA. For one thing, “What are you doing playing music on the street and asking for money?”  “Do you speak Korean?” Plus a thousand other embarrassing questions and insinuations. Lately Ive been answering….I’m from U-sa that sounds like “you saw”…..That confuses them and when they finally get it they laugh and forget all about their stereotypes and fears.

Someone walks by with a cup of bondegi. They drop some. The little boiled silkworms just lay there on the ground waiting to get squished and squashed.  Now and then I look at them. They are doing surprisingly well. At some point someone stops and I mention. “It’s a bondegi parade. Real slow. Look”

We have so many ways of contacting each other these days.  Email is the least intimate and perhaps most permanent. Then facebook. Then phone. If someone will give you their phone, that shows a high degree of trust and intimacy. Many people wont do that and I wouldn’t unless I really want to contact the person the person later that night or in an emergencey.  Facebook is nice because it is so easy. I have my fan facebook page written on my sign so it is very easy to say to someone, send me a message on facebook, even if her boyfriend is standing there or her friends.. This has the advantage that I can get the message clearly and try to remember who the hell they are by looking at their pictures.

Someone requests “Over the Rainbow” I start to play it but before I do I ask the good almost native English speaker to explain it. She declines. I sum it briefly. “Ok ‘Over the Rainbow’ means ‘someday Ongenga and lets all sing it together. They nod and we start singing together. “Somewhere over the rainbow, la la la (I am the only one to continue) ….I don’t know o the wore r er er  erds but I know the melody. “ As I am playing the big bass drums from the palace guard start drumming. “Wow. Thunder from over the rainbow. “ they get it.  As I am playing there is an ambulance in the distance. “Oh no. an accident over the rainbow. “ I start playing ambulance intervals and try to fit it in the song. I continue to play but I hear the band get closer. “ Ok Raindrops coming” and I start playing random notes which obviously turn into a downpour.  “Ok I am a little strange but cant I do comedy and music?”

As the drums from the palace band gets closer, I switch to the national song “ariang”. At first I play it straight. “Come-on everyone join in.” I actually get them to join in singing.  I play it the second time in a jazz style. Its nice because I play it close to the melody and the people can hear the melody and feel the freedom of the jazz and how it plays off the melody. There are a bunch of little monsters who are sucking on these sweet drinks that are in a kind of mylar coating bag that is very flexible. The kids wont take them out of their mouths even though they are listening very closey (real monsters…sensitive but in a monsterly kind of way) They are hiding behind those damned junk drinks. Sometimes when the kids exhale into them it makes a weird sound.  I try to get them to make a rhythm with their junk drinks and some of them do it and it actually works for a few seconds as I conduct. It turns out the monsters are a part of a class. There is the teacher. I am confused because there are only about 8 of them. “Where are the rest of your monsters , I mean students?” “These students get to spend the afternoon with me as a reward.” I wouldn’t mind being rewarded that way either. I take a risk and ask the teacher for her phone number in front of the kids. To my surprise the kids don’t tease her or get excited. Probably they didn’t understand. I never did get that number but they said would FB me.  As they are leaving I suggest that they should write a report on the crazy street musician they me along with pictures and other art. “I’m a teacher too.” The teacher looks surprised and delighted. I think she is considering the project.  “Oh really, what do you teach?” I don’t want to go there so I offer, “I teach life”.  She smiles shyly and leads her class away toward the museum.

2 woman come up and sit down next to me. From their body language I cant tell if they are interested in my music or me or not. The one is extremely made up with matching high class black and white skirt, black and white top, black sun glasses, black and white scarf, and fancy (you got it) laced up black leather shoes. After a while I say hello to them and can see that they are friendly. I tease the made up woman (who under all that makeup is really not very attractive) that she escaped from the museum where she was being imprisoned in a frame and kept as a work of art. Somehow she jumped out of her frame.  I find out later she is a yoga teacher. Would never have guessed that. Her friend is also somewhat made up, wearing all red and pink, including her hair. She is actually nicer than her friend who anytime I say anything to her, gives me a look like “Why are you talkin to me?”  “So when you do if you wear blue clothes, dye your hair blue.?  She thinks for a moment before answering …”maybe”. I have fun with them, taking some pictures and having them take pictures of me. They stay for a long time.  Later they become yoga girl and fantasy girl.  Its fun to give people new names and usually they don’t mind or even like it.

I play another song and do something different. I start the song of with a rap of whats going on and how I am feeling, then I go into the song.  (To the meody of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face”).


“I’m playing  jazz in south korea. It’s one of my favorite things to do. The people here are kind and seem to like to have contact with someone different…..” The people who can understand a little English strain to catch what I am saying. They seem amazed that I can make something up like that, but actually I’m just talking with a melody.  I like it. At any point I break into improvising and the contrast between my singing and my playing makes my melody sound 1000 times better.  

Some young athletic women stop. One of them has her legs taped in an unusual way. Turns out they are ballerinas. I try my damnest to get them to dance, “come on, it would be the first every live street jazz and ballet performance.” But they decline.  I try “carpe diem. No dice. I try to entice them further by playing selections from the Nutcracker. I figure every ballerina has probably played in Nutcracker countless times. Its like playing “the Girl from Ipanema” In fact I say that, “The Girl from Ipanema, over the rainbow and fly me to the moon” are my Nutcracker.” Somehow they understand that.  “Next time” they say. “next life” I say, which is satisfying and a lot more honest and also ups the stakes. When they say “Next time” they win, when I say “next life” I win.  Finally I get them to pose in position, I think 5th position.  I guess you could just grow up in Nutcracker. As you get older you just keep taking older parts until you are the grandparents.  Not sure there is a death scene in Nutcracker but there should be.

It was a great day. What makes for a great day?  Meeting nice people, acting out some interesting and surprising situations, and sharing the music with people.


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