Tomos Williams recently visited South Korea with the band Khamira. They were invited to perform at two major festivals in Gwang-ju. Here is his diary of the whistle-stop tour.
After 26 hours of traveling, we arrive at Ulsan, on the South East coast of South Korea.
Khamira have travelled here to perform at the Ulsan Jazz Festival tomorrow night, and then at the Asian Culture Centre (ACC) World Music Festival in Gwang-ju the following night.
Just as we were leaving Cardiff (on the bus to Heathrow) I had a call from Vishal – our tabla player originally from Delhi but now resident in San Francisco – he’d pulled a muscle and trapped a nerve in his back lifting his tablas into his car after playing a concert – there was no way he was going to be able to fly to South Korea or play his tablas for a few weeks. Devastating news! But it’s too late to find a replacement, and I’m confident Khamira will still be able to do the music justice.
We meet Aditya and Suhail at the airport (the other Indian members of Khamira) and despite it being late on our arrival at Ulsan we catch up over a few beers and fried chicken wings. We all get on very well and we discuss everything from Vishal’s absence, the Partition of India, music festivals in the UK and India to Narendra Modi’s current government.
Time to relax and socialise is pretty rare with this band, but is an integral part of acquiring a ‘band sound’. I’m a firm believer that if you get on socially, you’re more likely of getting on musically. I have no interest being in a band with clashing egos and divisive characters.
Today is all about the typhoon. We’re in direct line of typhoon Soulik which is currently battering Japan. We are all woken by an emergency message on our phones (how did they get our numbers?) but it’s in Korean script.
The lack of English is one of the great things about this part of South Korea. There are some restaurants with English translations, but as a rule all restaurants, cafes, pubs are purely Korean. This heightens our feeling of dislocation and being outsiders – which is one of the privileges of travelling this far from home as a musician.
The cool breeze and calm of Ulsan today is exactly as I’d imagined and read about New Orleans before a storm hits. The humidity of yesterday has disappeared, replaced by cool winds and gathering dark clouds. A local resident who speaks English passes us and asks us if we understand that a typhoon is coming and do we know what to do? Sure – we’re playing a concert tonight as part of the Ulsan Jazz Festival. On the way to the concert we check out a Luxembourg/Colombian band – ‘Choco y sus complices’ – they have a nice feel and play Salsa with passion and conviction.
Our concert goes well – we are the last band of the entire festival, and despite missing Vishal’s tabla initially, we enjoy the space created in his absence. The bar owner is slightly disappointed at the turn out – he says that the typhoon warnings are to blame for people staying indoors.
The owner of the venue then treats us all to an incredible meal at the restaurant across the street at 1.30am. Such generosity is always breath-taking. I often wonder whether musicians touring Wales (or the UK) get the same treatment.
Friday 24th August
This is our last day in Korea. Another four hour bus ride sharing the bus with bands from Spain, Serbia and Latvia, as well as the Colombians this time travelling west across the bottom of South Korea from Ulsan to Gwang-ju. During this journey I have a ‘moment’ reflecting on how important it is that we are here in South Korea representing Wales on the international music stage with a collaborative project like Khamira, amongst other international musicians.
The ACC World Music festival is held at a massive cultural complex – The Asian Culture Centre in Gwang-ju. The festival is free and is full of families, students and music fans coming and going. The stage is huge, the gear is top notch and the bass drum sounds like a bazooka. This is a great performance; Suhail mesmerises the audience with his virtuosic Sarangi playing and hushed vocals, Mark and Aidan lay down a thick, heavy groove on ‘Undod’ while Aditya takes flight with his inspiring guitar solos. A great gig to end the tour, and the kind of concert that it’s worth travelling half-way around the world for.
We have a lovely chat with the organisers after our performance, who invite us back out to South Korea in 2019. The ACC programme was interesting and full of international and cross-cultural projects – the only disappointment for us being that we couldn’t stay around to hear more of the music on offer. We played on the first day of the festival, and then had to return home due to other commitments rather than stay for the second day of the festival.
It must be said that without the support of the International Opportunities Fund from Wales Arts International, Khamira would not have been able to get to South Korea for these performances. Their continued support is very much appreciated by all members of Khamira.
A seven o’clock start for another four hour bus journey from Gwang-ju back up to Incheon Airport near Seoul (I’ve never spent so much time in a bus since playing for Penweddig First XV). After a 12 hour flight we’re landing back in Brexit Britain. Shit.
Tomos Williams is a free-lance trumpeter and teacher who also leads the Welsh jazz/folk outfit Burum and the jazz quintet 7Steps, which plays the music of Miles Davis exclusively.
Khamira are an ‘Indo-Welsh’ world music band fusing Welsh folk, Hundustani classical music, rock and jazz. They have toured India twice, performing at the Goa and Kolkata Jazz Festivals and toured Wales in 2017 culminating in a sold-out show at the Hay Festival.