Music News & Reviews

Listen to traditional Korean music

South Sound residents can indulge in a musical treat this month that was kindled in the recital halls of South Korea.

Musician Bora Ju will play the gayageum (pronounced kaya-goom), a traditional Korean instrument, in concerts in Tacoma and Olympia. The Seoul woman has performed on the zither-like instrument around the world, including on stages in South Korea, India, Romania and Brazil.

The gayageum looks similar to a Japanese koto or Chinese guzheng. It’s played by plucking strings stretched across a long, flat board.

“Almost every Asian country has a zither instrument. Indonesia has a similar instrument as well,” Ju said. At the same time, she said, the gayageum sounds completely different from its cousins.

The instrument dates to the sixth century, and can play microtones not found in Western music scales.


Ju has been playing the instrument for 16 of her 28 years. She’s sharing her knowledge of gayageum with the University of Washington in Seattle, where she’s an artist in residence.

Her residency started in late August and is slated to end in mid-December, though she’s planning to stay an additional month. The South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism is sponsoring Ju’s visit, and Northwest Heritage Resources and the UW Ethnomusicology Department are hosting the musician.

Ju has studied with some of Korean’s most celebrated traditional musicians, according to Traditions Café & World Folk Art in Olympia, where she will perform Dec. 12.

“Ms. Ju is considered as one of the most quintessentially trained traditional gayageum performers specializing in the performance lineage of Master Sung Geum-Nyeon,” the Traditions Web site says. She “has appeared to critical acclaim as a soloist with many of Korea’s prestigious orchestras.”


During the residency, she’s giving gayageum lessons to university students.

“Almost all of them are majoring in music, and they catch on so fast,” she said in a telephone interview. “I think almost all of them had not seen or heard gayageum before. Now they are doing very good. They are playing Korean folk songs.”

Is it tough to learn the gayageum?

“It’s not that easy,” Ju said, “but it’s not too difficult.”

Ju brought two of her kayageums to Seattle. One is a 12-string for Korean folk music and the other is a 25-string that can play contemporary music based on the Western “diatonic” music scale.

In Korea, more kids study piano or violin, but interest in traditional Korean music, including the gayaguem, is growing.

“When I ask kids what do you want to be, some say ‘I want to be a wonderful gayageum player,’” she said.

At her upcoming concerts, Ju will perform traditional Korean and contemporary numbers on the gayageum and sing.

Seattle musican Nuri Jeong will perform on the six-string zither geomungo as well. Peter Joon Park, an ethnomusicology doctoral student, will accompany Ju and Jeong on the janggo, a traditional Korean drum.

Ju hopes local audiences, including people of Korean descent, will discover the beauty of the gayageum.

It saddens her to know that some Korean American youth feel confused about their identity – whether they’re more Korean or more American.

“Whatever their nationality, their origin is Korean. I want them to have confidence in their heritage. Korea has very beautiful sounds,” Ju said. “I want children, youth, and even adults, to be proud of Korean culture.”

Debby Abe: 253-597-8694