Jambinai was one of my favorite bands at SXSW in 2014, playing epic music that mixed rock instruments with traditional Korean instruments. The South Korean band came to Chicago for the first time ever last week, playing May 18 at the Empty Bottle, and the concert showed once again that this is a superb ensemble playing music with dramatic power. There’s an orchestral strength to the music that’s reminiscent of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but Jambinai really makes a sound unlike anything else I’ve heard.
It’s mesmerizing to watch Jambinai member Eunyong Sim playing the geomungo, a traditional Korean stringed instrument of the zither family. She uses a variety of techniques to coax deep and rattling sounds out of that large and impressive-looking instrument, sometimes plucking or caressing the strings and sometimes tapping them with a short bamboo stick called a suldae. The geomungo functions at times like a bass, but it also has something of a percussive element to its sound.
Another member of the group, Bomi Kim, plays the haegeum, a bowed string instrument. It’s more like the Chinese urhu than a European violin, with two silk strings suspended in front of rod. Because those strings never actually touch a surface like the neck of a violin, the notes slide up and down. And Kim makes those notes really soar.
Giving the band more of a rock or even heavy metal edge was guitarist-vocalist Ilwoo Lee, who also occasionally played a small horn. He plays piri, a double-reed instrument, on Jambinai’s second and most recent album, Hermitage, which is excellent. The group leans more toward heavy metal on the new record, with a bit more vocals, compared with the predominantly instrumental debut album, 2012’s Differance.
Near the end of Jambinai’s set, Lee remarked that he hadn’t been sure what to expect when his band played in Chicago. How much of an audience would show up? After all, he said, “We are a strange band from a strange country.” Jambinai deserves a larger following, but the listeners who did turn out for Jambinai’s Chicago debut were richly rewarded.