Scattered Melodies: Korean Kayagum Sanjo (4 stars)

Scattered Melodies: Korean Kayagum Sanjo

Remarkable and eerie music salvaged from 78 RPM discs from pre-war Korea

(Sublime Frequencies)

How to describe this remarkable music, transmitted from pre-war Korea via the dusty crackle of vintage 78 RPM shellac discs? 'Invented' around 1890 by Kim Chang-jo, sanjo, meaning 'the scattering of melodies', is a major form of traditional Korean music, most often played on the kayagum, a smaller relation of the Japanese long, flat, stringed koto.

The musicians develop melodic and rhythmic patterns through improvisation, establishing the basic material with the slow and stark chinyangjo before building tempo and intensity through subsequent movements. Like all great improvisers, the musicians here explore the full sonic properties of their instruments, plucking, snapping and bending kayagum strings in a manner that, to Western ears, recalls the rawest country blues.

You can’t help but revel in the eerie pentatonic scales, the woody thunk of a single drum and the encouraging murmurs that emanate from a dislocated voice. A companion volume, The Crying Princess: 78 RPM Records from Burma, is equally disarming.

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