Bobby Kim: The Heart of a Performer and Soul of an Artist

Note: This article was written for The Korean Quarterly and relates the events of a concert attended by this author in September, 2010.

It’s a Sunday afternoon in Wonju City, about a 2-hour drive from Seoul, and the first of the two concerts that will close out Bobby Kim’s “Heart & Soul” tour is about to begin. The lights come up, and with the audience in eager anticipation; he takes to the stage, trim and urbane in a light-colored double-breasted jacket, open-necked shirt, with an elegant flair reminiscent of Sammy Davis Jr.

Kim opens the show with “Hotel California,” the signature hit from 1976 for country rock legends, the Eagles. And immediately you know, this is going to be a very personal journey into the musical world of Bobby Kim.

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Photo credit: Oscar Entertainment

After the concert, Kim graciously spared some time from his rest period before the final show to respond to a few questions about his career, sharing both past experiences, his professional philosophy, and future aspirations.

Once introductions were out of the way, our attention immediately turned to the extraordinary range of the concert’s set list. After opening with the Eagles’ number, Kim ventured into Motown territory; later he engaged the audience in a sing-along of McCartney’s “Let It Be,” one of the last songs recorded by the Beatles – selections revealing his culturally diverse background and tastes. He spoke of how artists such as Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, and others influenced him and shaped his musical vocabulary while growing up in California. Rock, soul, reggae, Kim professed a passion for a wide variety of musical genres. Throughout the concert he’d demonstrated this versatility, letting his warm and flexible voice soar through the R&B and soul-tinged songs from his latest album, “Heart & Soul,” and prior releases, such as the well-received  “Love Chapter: 1.” In a later set, Kim traded the elegantly tailored look and sound for well-worn jeans, tee, and jacket and hit back hard with the rap numbers. In both instances he was equally at home and had the audience at his command.

Another important contributor to his musical story is his father, Yong-geun Kim, a professional trumpeter, who moved the family to the States to pursue his own vision, and in doing so, exposed his son to both a wide musical world and different cultures. This eclectic sampling of genres from an early age has taken root in Bobby’s talented mind. One of the things he expressed great pleasure in was borrowing from this broad spectrum and incorporating it in new ways in his melodies. A perfect example of this can be found in one of the numbers performed during the concert, the lovely 소나무 (“Evergreen”), which borrows from the German Christmas melody, “O Tannenbaum,” and develops it into a poignant ballad.

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Photo credit: R Nystrom

Apparent during the concert and supported by his remarks, Bobby Kim is a generous artist, ready to share the stage with those who bring the same passion to the music. The concert featured Kim sharing the spotlight with Ghan-D and Juvie Train, performing a number of songs from their Buga Kingz releases that pulsed with energy. Their joy in performing together was visible and set the audience to dancing in their seats and in the aisles with equal abandon.

This is due, perhaps, to his appreciation for the struggle to be heard. Debuting in 1994, Kim’s entrée to the professional world was not an easy one. Often referred to as the “grandfather of rap” for his early work in that genre, he admitted that being on the leading edge did not translate into success. Highly respected by his peers, he collaborated with a number of artists in the Korean music industry. In a voice that was modest and low-key after the efforts of the concert, Kim recounted how his solo recordings came about: while writing and shopping songs produced for other artists, he was encouraged by those who listened to the demo tracks he’d cut to record the songs for himself. His work as a solo artist was favorably received and in 2004, his recording of the song, 고래의 꿈 (“The Whale’s Dream”), topped the charts.

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Bobby Kim singing “The Whale’s Dream” (R Nystrom)

Along the way Kim has made conscious choices as a performer and a professional. He doesn’t want to take the path of the idol singer, performing on endless array of variety shows. He’s worked diligently to craft his music and wants to earn the respect of his audience through his music. The path he’s chosen has been at times slow and he’s met with his share of frustrations and disappointments, but his voice reveals both pride in the way he’s achieved his goals and a measure of determination to continue his journey in a way that is emotionally and creatively rewarding. Upon hearing his story it was evident that Kim’s music must indeed come from both his heart and soul. The words to the opening track of “Heart & Soul” are part anthem, part mission statement for Kim: “Free, so free, I do.”

What does the future hold for Bobby Kim? He is currently working on a single that he is featured on with Korean rapper Double K and will be produced by a famous Japanese producer. Several months ago it was also announced that Kim will be releasing an album and holding his first concert in Japan, with a targeted dates in mid-November. What will this mean for the artist? With the growing interest in Korean music evident in Japan, the potential exists for a successful expansion into a new fan base of some of the largest consumers of music in the world. This represents a new challenge for Bobby Kim, and one that he has the talent and determination to take on.

When asked about plans to return to the States and an opportunity for fans here to enjoy his performances, Kim welcomed the possibility and expressed an interest in doing so. All that’s required is the right invitation to make that a reality. In the meantime, Bobby Kim’s fans will have to content themselves to enjoying his
growing body of work on CDs.

Bobby Kim Discography*

Solo Albums

  • Heart & Soul (2010)
  • Love Chapter: 1 (2009)
  • Follow Your Soul (2006)
  • Beats Within My Soul (2004)
  • Holy Bumz Presents (1998, reissued in 2005 as Ground Zero)

Buga Kingz

  • The Menu (2008)
  • The Renaissance (2005)
  • Bugalicious (2001)

* Bobby Kim is also featured on recordings of other artists such as Drunken Tiger and the Brown Eyed Girls, and is featured on the OSTs for a number of Korean drama series, most recently for “Dr. Champ.” A smartphone application for “Heart & Soul” is also available on iTunes. Bobby Kim is represented by Oscar Entertainment.

To make up for the Chuseok rains, the sun god smiled on Seoul

Once the storm passed, the rest of my stay in Seoul was blessed with gorgeous sunny weather. I took advantage of it to stroll along the Han river, like many other Seoulites (me being a temporary one). Bicyclists whizzed up and down the path in droves. I also sprang for a short river tour too.

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Along the way I couldn’t help but try and spot a favorite police sergeant and a female embassy staffer who just happened to be the president’s daughter*, or some heated exchange between some individuals in their car, parked under a bridge along the river**, but to no avail. Just a nice day, nothing exciting.

 

* You know I’m talking about our protagonists from “Lovers in Prague,” right?
** You know I’m talking about countless scenes from any number of K-dramas and movies, right? Oh hell, I couldn’t even spot a place where a car might be able to drive near the river, let alone park there! So disappointing…

Korean culture day with thousands of my closest friends

Well, maybe not friends, per se, but the last day of the Chuseok holiday I spent at the Korean Folk Village in Yong-in in the company of many, many other people. News choppers from SBS and MBC both buzzed the crowds shooting scenes of the traffic jams in the parking lots and ticket stands. (Did you see me waving?)

 

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Performers from the Farmers’ music and dance show

 

Strolling through the homes and demonstration fields you have a chance to examine the many styles of homes to be found throughout the country. The level of authenticity is such that portions of the village are used in filming historical dramas and movies.

 

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The best part for many are the different performances staged throughout the day, ranging from traditional music and dance to horseback riding, to demonstrations of traditional crafts, done with a high level of enthusiasm and professionalism.

 

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The highlight for me was the acrobatic performance on a tightrope, such as the one seen in the movie, “The King’s Man” (aka “The King and the Clown”), starring Lee Junki, Kam Woo Sung, and Jung Jin Young.

 

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The single performer managed to keep his balance, narrate his actions, and barely break a sweat! It was highly entertaining, even without understanding most of what he was saying. His balance and showmanship spoke for him!

Black tiles and whitecapped streets

Yesterday was one of those weird weather days in Seoul but that doesn’t deter the dedicated traveler. Thousands and thousands of Koreans took to the roads, buses, and trains to make their way back to their hometowns to celebrate Chuseok with their families, coping with long delays and flooded streets.

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With the seasonal exodus, many parts of Seoul were a lot less crowded, leaving the way free and clear for the intrepid. The day began with occasional drizzles so a walking tour of Bukcheon (North Village), a historic part of Seoul where the traditional style of homes known as hanok still survive and are being lovingly maintained and restored.

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I’d registered for a guided walking tour of the area through the Korea Tourist Organization and expected to join a few other like-minded explorers. To my surprise, I was the sole participant and was grateful to learn that neither this nor the weather discouraged my guide and the tour was on! Kim Sang-jin sshi and I began with a tour of Unhyeongung (Unhyeong Palace) and proceeded from there through the back streets, up and down the steep hills of Bukcheon.

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We finished our tour and spent a pleasant hour over coffee taking refuge from the increasing rain, talking about our mutual love of travel and exploration. We parted and so did the skies, with rain coming down in heavier and heavier waves. Tired and drenched, I opted for a taxi back to the hotel, rather than make the longer walk in my squishy shoes. A wise decision!

 

If you have the chance to visit Seoul, make a point to wander Bukcheon and maybe, just maybe, stay in a hanok. A number of guesthouses are available, ranging in price from very reasonable to high end and they offer a chance to experience a very different way of life.

Taking the "11 Bus" around Seoul

While Seoul has a fabulous metro and bus system, it never fails that I end up walking miles while I’m here because the station to this place or that is just a little shorter (I think) than my ultimate destination. Yesterday was one of those days where I took bus number “11*” much of the day – wandering first around Cheongyecheon, then through the immense Gyeongbukgung, then the cable car and hike up to the North Tower observatory on Namsan.

Cheong Gye Cheon on a sunny day

Along the way I saw families and friends delighting in the warm sunny Saturday weather and many tourists. And once again I am left to wonder why it is that Taiwanese tourists (judging by their accents) want to have me pose with them in their photos. Somewhere I figure in the souvenir photos of the Blue House (the official residence of the Korean president) of several charming young women. I repay the favor by taking their photos, and those of interesting people I see, like these two skater boys – actually a Korean “mobile” police team, on rollerblades, stationed in front of the Blue House.

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The 11 bus was lagging after strolling through the immense palace grounds of Gyeongbukgung…

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So I flagged down a taxi to take me to the elevator that leads up to the cable car and joined the throngs up the mountain. Squished into the car was not like the experience of many a drama character (who inevitably have it to themselves, or darn close!), but it’s an impressive view and much easier than letting the 11 bus take me up the long hike that many more athletic types take as a form of exercise. Maybe if I lived here… At the top I enjoyed the view and imagined the view of the watchers who manned the signal beacons years ago. On a clear day you can see for miles around.

On a more sentimental slant, I enjoyed looking over the many “locks of love” left by young lovers over the years.

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The 11 bus was close to breakdown after the trek back down the mountain so she hopped a taxi back to the hotel and took a brief rest and enjoyed some television (“We Got Married” live and unsubbed!) before taking yet another stroll – this time to the Gangnam CGV to take in a movie, “Cyrano’s Dating Agency” or 시라노 연애조 작단. Even without captions the comedy sparkled and gave the 11 bus energy enough to stroll back to the hotel, to shower and collapse gratefully into bed!

*11 bus. Think about it. Two legs = 11