Ensemble Mik Nawooj marries classical music with classic hip-hop — and enjoys the ruffled feathers
Kim's hardly alone in his embrace of cross-cultural pollination. To celebrate their 21st anniversary, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts commissioned the orchestra to arrange a total of six pieces for a November show called Clas/Sick Hip Hop II: 93 Til' (a nod to local hip-hop legends Souls of Mischief, and the significance of the year 1993 in hip-hop). YBCA Director of Performance Marc Bamuthi Joseph affirms: "It is part of my gig to authentically recognize hip-hop as a great canonical American form."
Joseph picked Kim as an arranger for his project in part because of his fresh perspective, coming from Korea and the conservatory — "there's a playfulness that's possible," not being weighed down by certain historical precedents, he says. Though Joseph recognizes the s substantial history of both hip-hop and classical music in the Bay Area, he says he wasn't entirely surprised that it took an outsider to fuse the two.
"When I came here, I realized it was very different in the sense that pop music was deeply associated with subcultures," explains Kim. "Koreans don't have that. Europeans don't even have that either, in terms pop music. I thought that was weird, so I continued to listen to whatever I wanted to." What marks EMN as unique is the marriage of classical techniques to this omnivorous disregard for cultural authority (a definitively hip-hop attitude).
Indeed, JooWan Kim has a bit of a rebellious streak. "I decided to add drums and MCs to make people pissed off, and certainly I did," Kim says of his first performance with the Ensemble. As he walks over to a grand piano to play selections of Wu-Tang's "Shame on a Nigga," there is a striking contrast between Kim's clear delight in ruffling feathers and his calm, controlled demeanor, maintained through two to three hours of meditation each morning — a practice Kim began after studying with Taoist master Hyonoong Sunim at the Zen Center in Berkeley.
Kim believes meditating has transformed both him and his music. "It's the most valuable thing I've ever done," he says. "I don't feel angry or depressed that often anymore. I'm at a point where I can let things pass."
He reflects on the artistic potential that has opened up as he finishes his tea. "A lot of times people have it backward in terms of understanding art or music — that you're learning all these techniques and then you'll somehow write this great music," he says. "It's actually the other way around. All these qualities that you have, anger or depression or love: they come out in the music. That's why people who didn't learn anything about music can write great music, because they somehow overcame themselves."
Thu/17, 10pm, $15
510 Embarcadero West, Oak.