Brooklyn Bike Beat talks with Vongku Pak

BBB: How did you get involved playing traditional music?

VP: Well, since high school, my passion was heading this way. But regarding [my] Korean family tradition, I couldn't go to music school or theater school. But after college I found this again, I didn't hesitate my passion...

BBB: Did your family want you to be a banker?

VP: [laughing] Yes, something like that... a lawyer, a teacher.

BBB: You found the traditional music on your own. Your family wasn't a part of the tradition?

VP: Yes.

BBB: That's very interesting...

VP: My family is pretty conservative.

BBB: Tell us first how you came to learn Korean traditional folk music?

VP: In 1987 even though my major in college was not drumming, not music, or theater, it was hotel management... I was visiting master drummers and dancers in Korea, most master folk artist live in the country side. So I visit them and got personal lesson from them, not just the skill but...you know, their life. I call them grandpa or grandma, they treat me not like a pupil but like family.

BBB: Is that common that someone who's outside the tradition can walk into learning this way?

VP: I just mention that was the late 80's but this day, social fundamentals have changed. Someone who wants to major in or study traditional Korean folk arts… can go to school, music school, art school, High School, Middle School or College.

BBB: Because it's been absorbed into the schools at that level?

VP: Yes the system is a little different...

But you had to go to the countryside?

VP: Right [laughing] Also Korea has something called Korean National Human Treasure, it's a law, it [refers to] a great, great master in some field. So my great teachers… Hyungsoon Kim, Kibock Kim…grand master Hyungsoon Kim is one of the Korea’s National Human Treasures.

BBB: That's the level people are appreciated on?
VP: Yes

BBB: So you came to Brooklyn, New York in 1998?

VP: Yes, I brought here theatrical passion because, especially Korean traditional drumming, it involves theatrical elements. These days we’ve lost many traditions, not just Korean but many ethnic groups. We just love computers, blah blah right? But I'm pretty much interested in the theatrical element. So I went to theater school.

You came from Korea specifically to Brooklyn College to study theater?

VP: Yes, well not Brooklyn College but to New York. Then, at that time I research which was a good curriculum and have to consider my budget...you know. It was reasonable price and good curriculum. Yeah! Brooklyn College!

And while you were there, were you able to study a broad curriculum?

VP: Character acting, costume design, lighting design…all fundamentals of theater. I like to say theater is a Bible of any stage performance. Dance, plays, musicals...

BBB: All under the one umbrella...

VP: Right theater is the fundamental. I love it...
For example, let's say theater technique... let's take acting method or directing method. They do not teach any skills, but if you read over carefully that kind of book... It's philosophy, it teaches you about life, that's the theater.

BBB: That 's what really inspires you?

VP: Yes, yes, yes

BBB: While you were going to theater school you were performing on the streets?

VP: Yes, wow, well you can you imagine 1998, I have no relatives, my English is much poorer than right now. At that time I could just say yes, no, and cops maybe yo! and honey, something like that. [Laughing]

BBB: very important!

I start from there one day. I thought at that time minimum wage in NYC… $6.50 an hour. And officially as a student cannot work, but I had to make some money for surviving and tuition. So one day I thought if I can make six point fifty an hour on the street...I can do that instead of waiter or bartender or dish cleaner. Right? So I tried it and it works! That’s how I started. But at the same time... okay...let's say I did that first time....as part time, as a student. But now I still do that… because on the street I got a lot of inspiration from human beings... New York City, can you imagine? New York City 42nd, times square area, if you perform for one hour, can you imagine how many people you can make eye contact with, eye contact right? A lot of inspiration...and not just in New York City. I've been street performer in all western European countries and Scandinavia, Istanbul... all countries.

BBB: Incredible, I see you perform on the street and then you perform in these incredible concert halls...and you find value in both experience?

Yes. Thank you, beautiful, a beautiful thing. Actually, as a performer I'm seriously lucky for that kind of thing you've mentioned. I've performed Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, BAM, all beautiful venues right? But the street is also a beautiful, beautiful, amazing venue for me because freedom is in there, and passion from daily life, people, daily life, just our life you know? That's why I love doing that.

You do a lot of theatrical productions that incorporate music that you write? Tell us about the blue and white concert?

It was my recent project, I got great artistic feedback, through the whole process I got a lot of lessons, directing, producing....
The Blue and White concert, The Book of Changes, that's the original title, which in American is called I Ching, a Chinese classic about things changing by dynamic balance of opposites. The one is Ying, The other one is Yang…not about which is good or bad, or which is superior or inferior. That's not what this is about. Opposite things make a combination…Make something right? That's how world is going to move on. That's my idea, that's the I Ching idea...
So [I mixed things together]
I have a traditional Korean folk-art background, my musicians…. [come from different backgrounds] electric guitar has a rock band background, the saxophonist comes from jazz, the bassist plays everything…I wrote the book, it has some scenario, a dialogue, I brought in a laptop artist… the story line and music based on Korean rhythms and improvisation.

BBB: So you’re merging the modern with the traditional?

VP: Yes

BBB: How is this received by your teachers? How do people feel about you taking the old and mixing it with new?

VP: Actually in Korea and NY in the 70's there's a lot of experimental music.

BBB: And in Asia there's a history of traditions moving around?

VP: Yes, for example, take the Erhu, the Chinese fiddle, originally it came from a different region, not in China.
Okay. So someday Janggu can become an American tradition....

BBB: Great! Let's talk about the Korean rhythms... There's this incredible forward motion in it. How were the rhythms communicated to you?

Most drummers learn through verbal language, but also we can translate to western notation…but the feel is a little different so still we use both. Also Korean has a notation called Chôngganbo. It uses different lengths.

BBB: Anything you want people to know about Korean drumming?

Not just Korean drumming, but all drumming...
Percussion came from our heart. This is really human beings. I believe music is third language. It doesn't matter your ethnic, your gender, your politics. Music is the language to communicate with people for peace and love.

Traditional Korean drumming came from agricultural society, it's not that far away let's say 1960's 70's. After that, Korea became industrialized, Korea lost many traditions. Mentally changed, too Americanized. But of course in ancient times, Drumming [was used for] spiritual things, shaman rituals, Korea used drumming to encourage the labor force…at the same time [also used for] party... celebrating. I like to say from the womb to the tomb, Koreans used this instrument...in Ancient times, not anymore, but ancient time’s not that far back, my Grandfather's generation...

*This interview was slightly edited for brevity and clarity.