Zandari Festa 2016, the fifth edition of Korea’s largest music showcase festival, took place in 12 Hongdae venues from September 30 to October 3. Having just moved back to the Republic of Korea a week prior, Zandari Festa was one of the first events I attended as a newly returned resident of the country. Spanning four days and including 163 bands from 19 countries, the festival was an awesome chance to see great bands from Korea and abroad.
While still overcoming jet lag, I spent the four days of Zandari catching as many bands as I could while still trying to be in the moment. Of those moments, these were the top five of the festival for me.
#5 – Audience drumming during Max Reynolds
An exciting part of any festival, especially one featuring a myriad of indie artists, is the chance to stumble onto music you have never heard in places you have never been. One such artist that emerged during the festival was Max Reynolds, an American guitarist from Texas and current Seoul resident with deepening ties to the local indie scene. For the Zandari set in Hongdae basement venue Gogos 2, Max was joined by drummer Chris Denny of Post Panic and the two musicians hammered out a solid 40 minutes of rock on the two instruments.
The performance was raw. The tracks were energetic. I felt like I was in a house show again. Most in the small crowd seemed to know each other and the atmosphere was very punk, the way such music is meant to be experienced. At the close of the set, Max would wind up smashing his guitar on the stage before throwing it onto the venue’s floor. That such a display of rock attitude was witnessed by an intimate few only heightened its impact. It reminded me of a secret, underground gathering where even the simple act of connection felt fraught with risk.
Amid this atmosphere, however, the moment that most stuck in my mind was a few songs earlier when the duo most actively encouraged audience participation. Before launching into Gogol Bordello’s “When Universes Collide”, Chris handed out single drumsticks to nearly anyone in the audience who would take one. The song, which starts appropriately with the lyric “Why didn’t you come when I beat my drum / And scream off my head out into the night”, was a highlight of the set due both to its drive melody and the connection between artist and audience. While four or five members of the crowd were busy pounding out the beat on monitor speakers, tables, and barstools, Chris wandered the stage drumming on nearly any surface that presented itself before returning to his kit to continue providing the rhythmic backing to Max’s enthusiastic vocals.
#4 – International dance off by Colonel Mustard and the Dijon 5
Sporting mustard yellow outfits and shiny disco ball headgear, Colonel Mustard and the Dijon 5 proved themselves one of the more eye-catching acts at the festival this year. Geniuses at working the crowd, the group played a diverse set of danceable grooves at Muv Hall while encouraging all sorts of hijinks in the way of audience participation. Call and response, crowd surfing, and synchronized dance moves were all explored with one of the larger crowds I witnessed at the festival. During their traffic safety themed song “Cross the Road”, the group got the entire crowd to squeeze into one side of the venue until the chorus that repeated the phrase “cross the road” permitted everyone to dance over to the other side.
The most fun came during their song “Dance Off”, which found the band clearing a large section of the floor in order to incite a dance off battle. When the crowd was initially hesitant to take part, members of the band jumped off the stage to showcase their wacky dance moves to get things started. Zandari founder and CEO Dalse (공윤영) was one of the first to join in, and after the lead of a brave few soon the entire place was going crazy and dancing together. Colonel Mustard and the Dijon 5 showed that when an international audience in Korea chants together for “peace, love, and mustard,” anything seems possible.
#3 – Last show of the festival with A’Z Bus
As any festival draws to a close, the last band you see sticks in your mind as your own personal closer to your private experience. When all members of the audience are experiencing something similar from their own experience, it tends to create a lasting impression. With festival time running out, I decided to spend the last set with A’Z Bus in Hongdae’s Club Freebird. Churning out raucous tunes on guitar, bass, and drums, the alternative rock band got the audience – myself included – jumping and dancing to the very end.
In a pause between songs, one of the audience members could clearly be heard trying to figure out the pronunciation of the band’s name. With a sideways glance, guitarist and vocalist Wooju (우주) clarified the matter with a clear pronunciation of “oz bus”. Two songs later, the audience was chanting “A’Z Bus! A’Z Bus! A’Z Bus!” with enthusiasm. That turnaround from a display of complete ignorance of the artist to enthusiastic participation bordering on fandom captured the spirit of indie music’s power and reminded me why I got hooked on going to shows in the first place.
#2 – Artists jamming between performances
Festivals are always a little tough because the multiple stages and competing schedules can tire you out or limit your ability to see acts you are interested in. However, the plus sides are moments that can only happen when a large amount of people interested in a diverse range of music come to occupy the same space.
One such moment occurred when I stumbled upon members of the synthpop band Paranoid City from Manila, Philippines. Having just finished their set at Veloso, they were jamming on instruments in the artists’ lounge upon which anyone was invited to play. Others joined in for a moment on other instruments or simply listened as one person would suggest a popular song (say, U2’s “With or Without You”) before launching into their best impression of the original artist.
Upon witnessing this impromptu jam session, I wished that I had been able to catch Paranoid City’s set. It was clear the participants were enjoying themselves and that they were all great lovers of music. There was no intimidation or rockstar posturing, just pure enjoyment in connecting on a musical level. Most of all, it highlighted the chance for artists from different countries to come together in a spirit of mutual respect, which is exactly the point of Zandari.
#1 – Belly dance performance during howaho’s set
howaho’s set was the first of the festival for me, but would ultimately contain the major highlight of the festival for me. howaho is an ambient folk duo from Korea comprising female vocalists Eeeho (이호) and Mohho (모호), with the latter’s sparse guitar arrangements filling out the sound. Structured as a book divided into chapters, their Zandari set was a carefully considered performance that included atmospheric visual components in the form of projections playing on a screen behind the two performers.
Spoken word poems preceded most of the songs, which blended beautifully with the concept and the songs themselves. The most breathtaking moment came during the song “Floating Flower” (춤). As the song began, Eeeho and Mohho took positions at either end of the stage, leaving a wide gap between them. This created a sense of anticipation for what would fill that space. The suspense was answered when a belly dancer, her body moving perfectly on beat and in time with both instrument and voice, slowly approached between the two performers.
The dancer brought an almost unbearable intensity to the music which continued for several long minutes until she vanished to the rear of the stage, the melody fading out as she withdrew from sight. It was only after the thunderous applause that I felt I was able to properly breathe again. The song, with “dance” its actual Korean title, was a track from their first album released in October 2015. Eeeho mentioned the addition of a dancer had been a long time coming. “When we first made this song,” she said, “from the very first we thought there should be a dance.”
So the duo enlisted the help of friend and tribal fusion belly dancer Demian Han (한가옥) to bring the dance to reality. Demian mentioned she had actually been inspired to dance to the song even before being asked to perform. “When I first listened to this music, I fell in love with [it]”, she said. The three are old friends and it was clear that they were happy with the outcome of the performance. “We wanted to do this for a long time, all of us working together,” noted Mohho, who also sings and plays guitar in the band Guten Birds.
Demian explained that the natural feeling of the music allowed her to choreograph the dance more quickly than is usually the case. “Normally it takes a long time,” she said, “ but this time it was like a spark.” She said it took about a week to develop the dance and she practiced for about two weeks before the Zandari performance.
There was a bittersweet aspect in the temporary nature of the performance. “The only downside is that it finished very quickly,” Demian noted. Still, the idea that the moment is by its very nature fleeting proved a proper fit for the show’s concept as a book with only a single reading. “The movement of my body matched the rhythm of the song. I love this movement so much.” Demian added. “It was perfect for the chapter of that book.”
To me, an event can be considered successful when it leaves multiple lasting memories. It was hard to choose the top five moments of Zandari 2016 because there were so many good ones. Of course, when acts one wants to see overlap there is always a nagging curiosity at what one might have missed at the other stages. Solace in the face of these dilemmas comes when I remind myself that Zandari – and with it the chance to discover new moments – will be back next year.