Festival Frolics, pt 1

Korea’s increasingly crowded festival season kicked off this weekend with the granddaddy of them all, Pentaport.

With Jisan taking place next week — and with the prospect of two festivals in two consecutive weekends not as appealing as it would have been a few years ago — I hadn’t originally planned on going to Pentaport this year. But when I found out that LCD Soundsystem were on the bill on Saturday, my resolve gradually weakened until all it took was a gentle prod from a friend to convince me to go. In the end, a nebulous group of between three and six of us were there, with a bunch of other people I knew in attendance as well.

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A distant shot of Guckkasten, a decent Korean indie band.
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The kids
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Fine dining, festival style
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The mighty Koxx

This was the fourth Pentaport I’ve been to, and the first since the rift between the event’s former joint promoters. As music fans here will probably know, Yellow9 split off from Yescom last year and promptly scheduled a new event, the Jisan Valley Rock Festival, for the same weekend as Pentaport. Because Yellow9 seemingly enjoy closer connections with Fuji Rock — the Japanese festival that runs on the same weekend and that Pentaport used to share bands and singers with — they were able to lure the more famous acts to Jisan last year, leaving Pentaport with a weaker lineup. With Jisan again occupying the Fuji weekend, Pentaport this year decided to run on the weekend before and in a new venue, a big field in Incheon called Dreampark.

Though I had some fantastic (if rather hazy) memories of the old Pentaport site in Songdo, I have to say the new place is an improvement. Open, grassy and reasonably scenic, it is definitely more pleasant overall and hadn’t, despite heavy rainfall on the Friday morning, been churned up into a mud bath. The forecast thunderstorms failed to materialise too, and we were blessed with marvellous sunny weather.

On the downside, not having access to Fuji’s roster of artists is clearly hurting Pentaport. Though LCD Soundsystem are one of my favourite bands and currently at the top of their game, there were no acts strong enough to compel me to visit on the Friday or Sunday. Ian Brown, who was headlining on Sunday, would have had a certain nostalgia value, but I’d be hard pushed to think of two less inspiring bands than Friday and Saturday’s big names, Stereophonics and Hoobastank. Sadly, this was also reflected in crowds that were a good bit smaller than in Pentaport’s glory days a few years ago.

As always happens at rock festivals here, though, we did also come across one or two great Korean bands we’d never heard of. Of those, the unfortunately named The Koxx (above) – think a Korean version of Franz Ferdinand with added synths – were the best. Then, of course, there was LCD Soundsystem.

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The brilliant James Murphy in a heartfelt moment.
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'Ave it!
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The band

Though not to everyone’s taste — one of my friends found them a little disappointing — I thought they were fantastic live. Better still, they ticked pretty much every box for my favourite tracks: All My Friends, Losing My Edge, Tribulations and the uproarious Yeah. Fuelled by beer, tequila and Jager Bombs (bleurch), we let rip with plenty of whooping and preposterous dance moves, as did the amassed crowds, which swelled noticeably when LCD Soundsystem came on. As is invariably the case at big gigs here, the atmosphere was tremendous and extremely good natured. One of my friends, himself of Korean descent, said he’d had no idea that Korean music fans could tear it up like that, nor that such a fan base even existed for this kind of music. With TV here saturated with squeaky, ditzy, cosmetically altered K-pop stars, it’s easy to think that concerts in Korea are the sole preserve of excitable teens chanting their idols’ names and waving oversized blue light sticks (see here for the full horror). But as with much else here, the good stuff really does exist if you’re prepared to search it out.

As for Pentaport itself, though it’s been a little sad to see its difficulties, I think the decoupling from Yellow9 might not eventually be as disastrous as it would have been even a few years ago. Though it used to be big news even when the likes of Toto came to town, the live music scene in Korea has improved so much in the past few years that it’s now possible to run a whole series of festivals with some genuinely big names. Korea, it seems, is becoming more of a stop-off in its own right and not just an afterthought for performers going to Japan, which is obviously good news for Pentaport and others. For the time being, however, Jisan is undoubtedly the king of a fast-growing heap. And more on that when I eventually recover from the three days I’m spending there next weekend…

UPDATE: Well that’ll teach me to try and guess crowd numbers. According to online sources, 50,000 people showed up over the weekend with 27,000 on Saturday alone. The reason it looked quieter, apparently, is that the site is so much bigger than the old place. I’m delighted to hear it, but I wouldn’t have guessed anywhere near that number…

The Long Overdue World Cup Post

Whether a sign of age-induced mellowing or of resignation that England will always be toss at major tournaments, I resolved this weekend — not six days after seeing Low’s team lay waste to England’s World Cup hopes — to support Germany against Argentina. Though I am half-German myself, I’ve always had a somewhat ambivalent attitude to the national football team, not least because of their tendency to beat England (the country of my birth) whenever it really mattered.

Along with a few friends, I went to see the game at a place called Kunsthalle, which, as the name screams, has German roots of its own.

As ripped from the Kunsthalle website.

As clear a sign as any of how much more interesting Seoul has become in recent years, Kunsthalle is a branch of a “subcultural collective” that started in Berlin in 2000. Made up of a series of shipping containers, it has a warehouse-like interior with a bar, restaurant and a series of exhibition spaces. When we arrived on Saturday at about 9pm, what we saw was not a bunch of weissbier-swilling fussball fans, but one of the centre’s regular flea markets, in which small teams of Korean and foreign hipsters offered retro clothes, T-shirts, face-painting and the like, against a backdrop of very loud dance music.

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By 10.30 or so, though, the beatnik Koreans were being increasingly displaced by a very diverse bunch of Germans, ranging from young student types to middle-aged professionals and even, it seemed, a few German gyopos.

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Predictably enough with German fans, there was a lively but convivial atmosphere, with chants focused on backing their own team rather than insulting the opposition. And by scoring so early, the German team certainly did their bit in prompting a real carnival atmosphere in Kunsthalle. Even by my own standards, my photographs for this didn’t come out well, but for a taste of the post-goal mayhem:

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My mate who was there said that it was the best post-match party he’d seen at this World Cup, and I have to say I’m inclined to agree. Though it couldn’t, of course, compete in scale with the absolute insanity during the 2002 World Cup here in Korea, I think there were certain echoes with those halcyon days. Whereas this year, with what was widely reckoned to be their most talented squad ever, Team Korea had acquired a bit of the “Korea Expects” type mentality that so afflicts England, among many others, the Germans arrived in South Africa with an unfancied team, blissfully unburdened (by their lofty standards) with expectations of winning the World Cup.

Of course, Korea were building from a much lower base in 2002, but there is something in the spirit, speed and togetherness of this German team that brings to mind Team Korea back then. And that, I think, is part of what made watching this German team, and cheering along with the German fans, such a pleasure.

I called three of the four quarter finals correctly (excepting Uruguay) and I actually have a feeling that Germany’s glorious run will grind to a halt in the semis — provided, of course, that Spain turns it up a notch. But, more than any time since the 1990 World Cup final — when Germany came heart-wrenchingly close to overturning a two-goal deficit against a Maradona-led Argentina — I’d be happy to be proved wrong.

Title Tattle

Of the many challenges that present themselves to the furrner working in a big Korean company, one of the most confounding is surely the system of titles. From the very lowest (usually 사원, or sawon, which translates as “employee”) up through 팀장 (timjang or “team leader”) and ascending to the giddy heights of 회장 (hoejang, “president” or “chairman”), the Korean employee is defined by his or her title. In many workplaces, staff senior to you no longer have a name, they have only a rank — in three years working together at the inflight magazine, I never once addressed our editor-in-chief even by his family name. He was, simply, Mr Editor-in-Chief (편집장님, pyeonjibjangnim), and no amount of informal chats, bawdy jokes or late-night drinking sessions could alter that hierarchical bond. (An embarrassing upshot of this was that with many senior staff, I was as ignorant of their real names three years into our working relationship as I was on the day we met.)

Of course, Korea is, as we outsiders are always quick to point out, a very hierarchical place. Because verb usage, titles and even words change depending on who you are talking to (on their birthdays, older people or higher ups are wished a happy 생신 [saengsin], while everyone else merely has a happy 생일 [saengil]), titles really matter. As with many other things, I’d often assumed the preoccupation with rank to be a quaintly Korean trait, and something that had fallen by the wayside in the ever-more informal, ever-more egalitarian UK (and the West more generally). But with my job change at the beginning of this year, I was reminded that the fixation with titles — albeit in very different cultural and linguistic contexts — extends across the corporate world and is actually on the increase. This phenomenon, as I learned in an amusing Economist piece last week, is called “title inflation”:

When it comes to job titles, we live in an age of rampant inflation. Everybody you come across seems to be a chief or president of some variety. Title inflation is producing its own vocabulary: “uptitling” and “title-fluffing”. It is also producing technological aids. One website provides a simple formula: just take your job title, mix in a few grand words, such as “global”, “interface” and “customer”, and hey presto.

I was (and am) no big fan of the rigid hierarchies and stratified language of the Korean office. But it sometimes seems to me that, especially at the workplace, a relationship built on a pecking order is more natural and comforting than we ostensibly egalitarian Westerners would like to admit. The usual tendency is to characterise Korea’s hierarchical set-ups as inherently exploitative; but that, from my almost six-year perspective of working in Korean offices, seems way too simplistic. Though much has changed in Korea itself, I think there is something innately reassuring about knowing that in the years to come, you will be afforded a degree of respect by dint of your length of service and (however mildly) increased rank. Perhaps, with this “title inflation,” Westerners are trying to recapture that sense of self-worth that “horizontal”  workplaces have done so much to erode.

Or have I just been in Korea too long?