Touring Korea – with Saritah
Australian songstress Saritah shares the story of her recent travel and tour adventures in Korea.
Korea. The land where I was born. I was a few months old when I left, visited a few times throughout my childhood, and then ten years passed until I returned, to perform for the first time, in 2007. I have returned every year but one.
Korea fascinates me. It is a land of dichotomy, with such a rich and intact traditional culture and yet is one of the world’s most rapidly modernising countries. The food is outrageously good and diverse, the people so respectful and generous, the landscapes epic (Korea is 77% mountains) and the capital city Seoul, with a population of 10 million, is as dense a megacity as they come.
My mama is Korean. And her mama. And her mama. And all the papas too. Totally, 100%, Korean. Which makes me half Korean I guess.
When I’m in Australia most new people I meet will ask ‘where are you from?’. If I answer ‘Australia’, the response inevitably comes, ‘but where are you really from?’. That’s just how it is when you look a bit different. And of course, when I’m in Korea, I still look ‘different’, and the same question comes—‘Where are you from?’ I tour regularly in many parts of the world and am often asked this question, yet there’s something curious about being in the land where you were born and clearly appearing foreign.
I have performed many shows in Korea over the years, from grungy basement clubs in the vibrant youth/hipster area of HongDae, to slick studio TV shows, to before thousands of people at outdoor festivals. Recently, in October 2013, I had my favourite Korean tour experience to date.
I was invited to showcase at APaMM (the Asia Pacific Music Meeting)—a trade-show type event, festival and conference all rolled into one. Taking place in Ulsan, a beach-side city in the South-East, this event gathers artists and industry people from all over the world. We also performed at Jarasum International Jazz Festival two hours north of the capital Seoul—an incredible, expansive festival for music lovers on an island surrounded by serene waters and mountains. Both shows were awesome. Big enthusiastic crowds, quality production and sound, the band played well, and vibes were high. New possibilities and partnerships were formed.
One of the things that made this trip/tour extra special was sharing it with family. My Korean native mama tour-managed (like a boss!) and made everything work. My Dad joined us for some of the time, and drove the tour van (like a boss!), earning the nickname Schumacher. So there I was, in the country I was made and born in, and on the road with the people who made me! How many people get to experience that!
Another unique thing about this tour was having a half-Australian, half-Korean band. When you don’t share a spoken language with someone who plays in a band with you, you need to communicate somehow, and it becomes so apparent that music really is a universal language. Pat Kilby (bass) and Anthony Murray (drums) from Melbourne, and Eunju (keys), Gapyeol (guitar) and Quandol (percussion) from Seoul each brought their magic to the songs.
Though I am able to—slowly—read and write Korean, my spoken Korean is very basic. I probably speak about the level of a 2 or 3 year old. Mum tried her best to teach me when I was young, but I apparently refused and only wanted to speak English because that’s what all the kids at school spoke at home. On this most recent trip to my motherland, a few linguistic pennies dropped and for the first time I had a (broken) conversation with my grandmother (halmuni). My heart rejoiced!
The food in Korea is spectacular. And while my meat-loving Australian band-mates couldn’t get enough of the world-renowned Korean Barbecue, this vegan song-lady always chose from an amazing array of good, nutritious delights. In Korea, they eat parts of plants I never knew were edible. Zucchini leaves are steamed and used to make delicious rice-filled parcels; sweet potato stalks, garlic stems and chilli leaves are blanched and seasoned. Ferns and other greens collected from the mountainside are served too.
One of my favourite places to eat in Korea is in a less neon, more folk-art oriented area of Seoul called Insa-dong. It’s a temple-food restaurant called Sanchon run by a Buddhist monk. You might think that temple food would be bland or plain, but this restaurant serves food to get excited by. And there’s something about eating with wooden utensils from wooden bowls and plates that is totally natural and that I prefer. Every time I go to Korea I stock up on wooden spoons to bring home.
When visiting Korea I always make the pilgrimage to Donghaksa—a wonderful Buddhist temple on a mountain surrounded by endless green (or oranges, yellows, reds and purples if you’re lucky enough to be visiting in the height of Autumn), about a half hour drive from the town where my grandmother lives. She is a practising Buddhist, and once showed me how she prays—the details of the bows, how many, and in which directions. There’s something indescribably profound about sharing that with her. If you ever travel to Korea, I urge you to visit a temple—they are mostly in the mountains and the pristine air is a welcome relief from the city bustle. You can even sign up for a ‘templestay’, where you live the life of a monk for a chosen time, from the grey temple clothes, to getting up at 4am to meditate and clean the temple. And the food, oh the food!
It’s often intrigued me that in English, there is no commonly used saying before sharing meals. The French say ‘bon appetit’, the Spanish ‘buen provecho’. In Korea it’s ‘mani mogo’, literally meaning ‘eat a lot’. And I did.
Feature article by Saritah
Photography by Saritah, Anthony Murray and Michael Newman.