K-Music, London’s annual celebration of Korea’s dance, theatre, music and contemporary warpings of traditional arts, opened this week and runs for a month – with the launch gig fittingly delivered by a style-blending star, the astonishing Seoul-born singer Youn Sun Nah. The show was a startling fusion of her homeland’s traditions, remoulded Latin scat, chanson, petrifying abstract noise, and personal angles on western icons such as Tom Waits and Randy Newman. Its power spectacularly contrasted with this inimitable performer’s shy demeanour and the simple duo format of her regular partnership with Swedish guitarist Ulf Wakenius.
Youn Sun Nah opened with the Nine Inch Nails classic Hurt, her pealing voice sometimes nuanced by delicate vibrato, sometimes taking on a silvery tingle like a metal-stringed instrument. Her own Lament (from 2013’s Lento) joined ballad sonorities and dramatic diva power over Wakenius’s punchy strumming, while on two Latin-improv scat duets, in unison with a flying guitar line, she resembled Flora Purim in hyperdrive. On My Favourite Things, she simmered slowly and unaccompanied, amiably slipping “fish and chips” into the traditional list. On A Sailor’s Life, she harmonised electronically with herself in flawlessly inflected English-folk mode, and caressed the reticent, silvery melody of a traditional song she called a Korean blues. She delivered Tom Waits’ Jockey Full of Bourbon through cupped hands in a staggering low rasp, and brought the crowd to its feet with her casually reverential Randy Newman encore, Same Girl.
A discreet, diminutive vocal giant, Youn Sun Nah keeps insisting on an agenda that’s always her own.
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