One of the most exciting things you can experience at any concert is being one of the first to hear a new song or piece of music. So imagine what it would be like to be one of the first to hear a whole new genre of music. That's what JooWan Kim and his Ensemble Mik Nawooj are predicting when they unveil the latest installment of Kim's "Chamber Hip-Hop Opera," The Great Integration, starting Saturday, August 21 at the Red Poppy Art House in San Francisco. Kim and his ensemble (read the name backwards) have been building this project as a sort of musical collective for a number of years, and the results so far have attracted the notice of folks like jazz great Ahmad Jamal, who said, "In this day and age, for an artist to succeed, the talent has to be either exceptional or very different. JooWan Kim is both; exceptional and very different."
JooWan Kim was born in Korea and studied at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He's certainly got his classical chops: he recently received a lifetime endorsement from Steinway Pianos. He calls himself a "Taoist/Zen practitioner and a connoisseur of fine tea." Kim founded Ensemble Mik Nawooj in 2005 specifically to give a jolt to both the classical and vernacular elements of Western Music, which he felt were losing their integrity. The Great Integration is not just an epic saga, but a metaphor not only for these troubled times, but for what he hopes will be a new style of music to ease these times, melding classical, film music, jazz, hip-hop and pop into a unique blend that "lies in the common place where all music lives and breathes, expanding and transmuting its sound."
So, what does it sound like? It's impossible to put a label on it, because it sounds like nothing you've ever heard in this form. The Ensemble is a rotating collective with Kim's piano at its center, and featuring vocalist Christopher Nicholas, MC Kirby Dominant, drummer Valentino Pellizzer plus a couple of violins, a cello, bass, flute, clarinet and trombone. And on top of his skill at translating his saga into the rhythms of hip-hop, Kim can also write a great tune; there are lots of melodies to take home with you at the end of the concert. Now, you may have heard things like this before; lots of artists have tried it, and ever since George Martin put a string quartet under Paul McCartney in "Eleanor Rigby," it's been a quick and easy way to add some elegance to a song or even a part of one. But to my mind, nobody has ever attempted anything like this on such a large scale, or with such sophistication. Check out these clips of a recent performance. It won't be long before you realize, as I did, that there's something very special going on here.
Photo: Ken Lew
The story of The Great Integration was inspired in part by the Mayan prophecies of the End of Days in 2012 (Roland Emmerich movies aside), and revolves around the Black Swordsman of Dominance, "chosen as the one to trigger the Great Integration of the world before the arrival of the Great Celestial King. When all five lords of the material realm are conquered, the old world we know will merge into one, and the Celestial King will descend from Ninth Heaven to wipe out all the impurities of the world, thus creating a new world from a new paradigm." Heady stuff, to be sure, but not unprecedented. In 1914 composer/mystic Alexander Scriabin began work on a piece called Mysterium, the performance of which was intended to bring about the end of this world and the birth of a new one. Fortunately, he never finished it.
Even though many of them have been commercially successful, "crossover" projects have gotten a bad reputation in the music world because of the number of cynically-produced and poorly-performed attempts featuring classical artists performing pop music or pop artists trying to write in classical styles. But it's composers like Elvis Costello and JooWan Kim that are the true crossover artists, merging existing styles into something new and exciting that hasn't been done before. The CD of The Great Integration was voted the #1 R&B/Hip-Hop album of February 2010 by Pirate Cat Radio; not bad for a disc with "chamber" and "opera" in the title -- but that is, after all, the point.
JooWan Kim and Ensemble Mik Nawooj perform the latest installment of The Great Integration Saturday, August 21, 9pm at the Red Poppy Art House in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit redpoppyarthouse.org.