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April 09, 2009

Jang Sa-ik: From Seoul to Memphis

by John Oseid

Jang Sa-ik's super-sized voice gives you goosebumps. Big, fat ones. And if ever the trope of tradition meeting modernity held true, it's in the work of this Korean singer who at one moment belts out the ancient ballad "Arirang" and then sounds utterly convincing in his own bluesy compositions. I recently heard Jang give a powerful recital backed only by a guitarist and a drummer, and I kept wondering how he injected such a soulful sound into the performance. Turns out he's a fan of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding.

Next week you'll have the chance to hear Jang backed by a nine-piece ensemble and a choir in his one-off performance at New York City Center. Jang wears his signature white robe and rings a bell in the live video to "The Way to Heaven" (above, courtesy of Link TV). A rural funeral procession shot with a hand-tinted look drives home this doleful mood.

By the mid-90s, Jang had gone through a series of uninspiring salesman jobs before he found the pluck to launch his professional music career at 46. The first song in his most recent album, Volume 6, starts with an organ and a Spanish guitar, and then opens up to plaintive brass and a straining, melancholy Korean fiddle. Add a choral hum to Jang's unrestrained emotions and you get those goosebumps. Next, "Leaving Samgakji" sounds like the slow jazz club tale of a broken-hearted man. I've never heard regret, loneliness, and death sound so compelling.

More music:
* Jang's Web site includes background content on his eclectic group of musicians and choir.
* Jang's performance is another fine production by the non-profit (hint, hint) World Music Institute.
* Boom Box: An unabashed gusto for music of the world

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