Jeonju Rock Scene: The Rise of Kimchibilly
Rockabilly took root in South Korea at the turn of this century, but came into fruition during the last part of the previous decade. Whereas in the West, punk descended from rockabilly, however in Korea, rockabilly developed out of the punk scene.
The turn around might be explained by what the saxophone player for Korean rockabilly, now dubbed Kimchibilly, band Oh! Brothers (and, yes, there are actually brothers in the group) Lee Seong-bae explained to Groove. "Rockabilly made it out to the rest of the world during the 1950's. Well, Korea was in a war at the time having no access to the rest of the world musically," he said.
What is rockabilly? The origin dates back to the early 50’s and was based within the southern region of the United States. The word "rockabilly" is a portmanteau of rock (from rock & roll) and hillbilly, the latter a reference to country music or "Hillbilly music" (traditionally, a hillbilly is a very poor Southern person living in that region's mountains). Originally, the label was intended as an insult to the performers of said music. While there isn't a set rockabilly sound, just as jazz has numerous styles and motifs, it is basically made from a simple three-cord change.
If one location is to be credited as the birthplace of Kimchibilly, it was the renowned punk music venue Drug located in the Hongdae, Seoul, area (the club has since changed owners and location, though still in Hongdae, and it is now known as DGBD).
The pioneers of the Korean rockabilly revival movement the Rock Tigers (formed in 2001) received their big break when the famous resident band Crying Nut’s members had to fulfill their required military service. The Tigers filled the vacant spot. Originally, the Rock Tigers were mainly a punk group. However, as the group's guitarist/songwriter Tiger told Groove, "We had traveled over to Japan and while there became exposed to the rockabilly sound. We already had elements of it in our music. We just decided to become more fully rockabilly in sound and look."
Later on, Crying Nut keyboardist Master Jokquick (Kim In-soo) would, at times, play with the Tigers.
Not all of the Kimchibilly bands received their first major rockabilly influence via Japan. Take the Sunday's Losers for example. According to this Busan-based group's founder/lead vocalist Kim Tae-hoon, "I first encountered the music (rockabilly) listening to the radio and albums. I was so taken by the feeling and power of the music; I translated lyrics and soon after changed my punk band into a rockabilly one." Sunday's Loser differs from most other fellow Kimchibilly performers, as their lyrics are full of sarcastic commentary concerning the political-social situation in Korea (a stance not unknown in some rockabilly songs).
The term Kimchibilly originated from Canadian fans of the Rock Tigers in 2008, according the band’s vocalist/song writer Velvet Geena. That same year the Rock Tigers released their EP "Taste the Kimchibilly" (the term's first public print exposure) and, more importantly, "Kimchibilly Night" was launched at DGBD.
The Kimchibilly Night was a Rock Tigers' initiative, as Tiger stated, "We were attending this rock festival and felt it would be a good idea to create one of our own ... we really felt comfortable at that festival and that inspired us." The event became a permanent fixture on the Korean alternative music scene. As of July, there had been 21 such events.
A typical Kimchibilly Night doesn't always just present Korean rockabilly bands. It also hosts Japanese groups of the same ilk, such as Conny, a Japanese music icon female singer, who is considered the "Queen of Japanese Rockabilly." She has performed worldwide with such luminaries as Brian Seltzer and Wanda Jackson. Conny, in turn, supports Kimchibilly acts in Japan.
One notable Kimchibilly act in particular blossomed from its Kimchibilly Night appearance. The Moonshiners, whose 50's red suits and American Western bow ties fantastically bring to life the hey-day of rockabilly. "It doesn't surprise me that Korean rockabilly grew out of the punk scene here. It's about the same attitude, energy and freedom releasing music. Except in 'Kimchibilly', there's something excitingly different," said Moonshiners' front man/guitarist Cha Sueng-woo, formerly of another Club Drug punk band alumni No Brain, told Groove.
"What attracts us to this kind of music is the feeling it gives one, the energy, excitement, fun ... Kimchibilly is the music that comes from inside us," said Velvet Geena.
The best description lies in the Rock Tigers' lyrics from their song "Kimchibilly" (and other Korean rockabilly folk concurred), “We're takin you down that nasty dirty lane.../You got the rhythm so feel the beat/ Let's make it hot, dance all night.../ You always know that this is Kimchibilly.”
Kimchibilly has risen and its distinct flavor is spreading through Asia and America. In Jackson, Tennessee, there is the International Rockabilly Hall Of Fame. They have no entrees from Asia. Perhaps, after you taste some fine Kimchibilly music, you'll nominate a Korean rockabilly band. They are accepting nominations at firstname.lastname@example.org.