BUSAN, South Korea — I’m in the packed basement of Ol’ 55, one of Busan’s more-storied live venues and home to the Wednesday night Open Mic. Since it’s consistently the only thing to do in town on that particular evening, it quickly fills up after the hagwon’s let out around 10pm. And, as often as not, the crowd’s attention can turn away from the stage as they let off the day’s steam with tequila shots and cheap gin.
The social media buzz today was all about Chico Cubo, a brand new Latin group fronted by Jamba OJ, a Seoul transplant, and featuring some of Busan’s most talented musos. I was excited to see An Woo Sung, in particular. He is the trumpet prodigy and frontman for Hot Pepper Pasta, a local jazz band that is known to turn entire crowds of normal people into frothing-at-the-mouth beatniks who scream âGO GO GO’ over the wailing tumble of improvisation and groove.
By the time Chico Cubo were ready to perform, the crowd was large and not at all interested in live music. It was just-your-basic dive bar with some bewildered looking Koreans in the corner who happened to be holding instruments. Although he is quite fluent in English, Jamba introduced the band in Korean and meekly asked that everyone keep it down so that they could perform. The request fell flat and I could see he was annoyed as they started over the din.
It took about thirty seconds of music to shush the bar; after a couple minutes, the crowd was up and attempting the sambas and jitterbugs that they had all learned for last summer’s Great Gatsby parties. I have been a regular at Ol’ 55’s open mics for the last four years and I’ve never seen a crowd reaction like this. Folks left their coveted bar stools to get closer as they recorded video on their phones. Friends sat bewildered and shook their heads in amazement when I made eye contact.
The music isn’t boring. That’s true. But the delivery is very toned down and confident. They don’t need to bop around the stage like teletubbies to engage the crowd. The band played a few originals, the Latin beat kept impeccably on cajÃ³n and upright bass. Some jazz standards, including Route 66, thrilled those on the dance floor. Jamba’s vocal phrasing and control reminded me of Frank Sinatra yet, when I offered him the comparison later on, he claimed he doesn’t even listen to Ol’ Blue Eyes.
I asked Jamba and Woo Sung about Busan music compared to Seoul. A long time ago, the music scene was very powerful but now every musician seems very busy with things other than music, said Woo Sung. They lamented the evident drop in musical happenings but were lifted by the fact that 6 months ago, Chico Cubo didn’t even exist. Now they are playing all over the city, their reputation gaining momentum, and promoting an album.
It’s the very first jazz album completely recorded in Busan by Busan musicians, beamed Jamba. He explained previous albums had always relied on session musicians from Japan or Seoul. We are jazz musicians, but we wanted to make something that was more accessible to the public. We wanted to make a pop kind of jazz album so that everyone, even people who don’t listen to jazz, can enjoy it.
So where can you catch Chico Cubo? They play a regular gig at Monk Jazz Club in KSU every 2nd and 4th Tuesday. They will play a very special show with Korean Jazz Legend Kim Jun at the Busan Performing Arts Center November 27th at 7:30. Tickets can be bought at the door or on Interpark. Also find the band on their DoIndie page.
For more Korean indie music news and info, visit www.doindie.co.kr.