Ilustración: Arassay Hilario.
Ilustración: Arassay Hilario.

Like a wave. Hallyu is here

19 minutos / Nahela Hechavarría Pouymiró

10.08.2020 / Articles

Some time ago, I was passing in front of the park of H and 21 and I heard a commotion of music and shouts coming from the area of the gazebo. I stopped because I thought I recognized part of the song that sounded in Korean and a group of six or seven boys danced the choreography with enthusiasm and courage, while their "fans" jumped and clapped. They were a group of Havana kpopers, teenagers and their relatives, who had taken the park and everyone who passed by surprise. Shortly before, during an International Film Festival in Havana, the Chilean film Jesús made visible part of a fevered fandom also in Santiago de Chile, which already met in K-Con (vention) s in which groups of boys and girls presented the “coreos" of their favorite South Korean groups, even with public voting. Something similar also happened here a few months ago, more spontaneously, at the Casa de la Música on 31 and 2, with a good influx of public (as I think I remember the Havana Channel said).

All these isolated "signals" do not impact until the daughter of a friend, only 10 years old, declares herself Army of BTS when I ask her what she likes now and we get caught up in a disquisition about which video or choreography, or which boy of the seven "dazzles" him more. If we add to this that a few weeks ago the Clave Channel started broadcasting the K-Pop program on Tuesdays, then it already feels differently. The visibility of this musical production responds to the demand of a still punctual sector of the national public, which will undoubtedly grow, because others will come attracted or curious at least by the novelty. But how do you come to have a program of this type, when Cuba does not have direct diplomatic relations with that country (there is no official embassy of that nation, as there is of its northern neighbor for example). Well, because culture is opening the way first: cinema, visual arts with the occasional artist invited to the Havana Biennial, and music, have been arriving little by little. The Havana World Music festival itself included in its 2019 edition a jazz-fusion group that brought together traditional and contemporary music from that country. A year earlier, during Cubadisco 2018, the ska / reaggae group Kingston Rudieska had several presentations in Varadero and Havana, invited as part of the cultural exchange proposed by the Mincult-Onudi-Koica project for the development of the Cuban music industry. Nothing and nobody in the contemporary world can be totally disconnected, oblivious to what happens thousands of kilometers away. There are networks and television to catch us.

In 2013, I heard for the first time the phrase: "Hallyu is already here", shouted with emotion by a South Korean producer during the first night of the presentation of the films of that country included in the International Film Festival. The same night, where the magnificent Mother (2009), by the now renowned director Bong Joon Ho, penetrated me deeply, while at the end and during a round of questions with the delegation of actors and filmmakers, a lady clearly near the sixties she was asking about Lee Min Ho, a very young “K-drama” actor who surely she and her family had consumed as many out there for four or five years, and who obviously was not part of any of the selected films. The surprise of the Koreans was between embarrassment and happiness, how did the people here see the most recent series to the point of generating an interest in South Korean cinema? Because although the Cuban public during the festival is very varied, for Asian and Middle Eastern filmographies it has never been massive. However, something was changing.

Now, the phrase said with pride by the producer was a mystery that made me think about the phenomenon of alternative consumption, generated on the Island in the last 15 years, of various television products that come from the US, Europe and Latin America , but also from distant Asia and the Middle East. However, contemporary Korean cinema entered Cuba earlier. At the end of the ʼ90s and the beginning of the new millennium, films by well-known directors such as Kim Ki Duk and Park Chan Wook were accessed, long before this “wave” of today, but the series, together with television programs and reality shows, their consumption sotto voce, they are already something else. And many will wonder what I do talking about cinema and television series in a "musical" text, that’s because the entertainment industry (Music, Cinema, Television, Internet ...) in South Korea is very imbricated in the conformation of the "image ”From the nation to the outside, where nothing is free, everything is interconnected. Singers from many K-pop groups perform year after year in countless series and movies, compose songs for the OST (Original Soundtrack) of them, and promote them with fan meetings inside and outside the country.

The cultural export of these entertainment products helps to create a distinctive brand that promotes at an international level the perception of openness and (post) modernity of a society and a little-known culture (in the West) and that results in the increase of tourism and the foreign investment, as well as the positioning of their companies in the global market.   

So Hallyu is key to seducing the international public (soft power) and generating the great consumption of an infinity of products associated or not with entertainment, at the same time that it allows us to gain worldwide recognition of the specificity of South Korean culture and its history. However, if initially Hallyu started from television dramas, it was quickly superseded by the emergence of a musical product, K-pop, which implied the hybridity of various musical genres: R&B, hip hop, electronic dance music (EDM), with pop in its infinite derivations (pop-rock, techno pop, indie, bubblegum…). K-pop or Korean popular music - understand, from South Korea since North Korea does not produce or export with that intention - was the soundtrack of the expected change since the end of the 90s, the one that mobilized, together with the economy, the entry into the new millennium of South Korea and its influence first in the region of Southeast Asia and China and then make the leap to Europe and America.

Contemporary Korean popular culture and its international imprint, Hallyu, has thus become the spearhead. But was this cool wave just one? Going to the origin, many recognize that the sound change occurred in the early 90s when the work of Seo Taiji and the Boys was made known in the South Korean music scene that came from the inescapable presence of the ballad and the Trot, although indie rap and DJs had a certain audience, mostly teenagers. The mixture of sounds of techno, rock and hip hop that the Boys proposed made the string vibrate towards another way of understanding music, despite the group disintegrating in 1996. Midway through the decade, the talent agency was founded and the record label SM Entertainment, a true emporium in that country today, followed shortly after by other iconic companies such as JYP Entertainment and YG Entertainment whose founding CEO is precisely a former member of the Boys. The emergence of these important musical representation and training agencies (and others that would be added over time), paved the way for an explosion of boybands and girlbands, following the American model.

Those of us who were children and adolescents at that time will remember that in those years in the United States and then England, the bands of girls who danced and sang had a significant rise. Although The Jackson 5 were an indelible precedent (years ʼ60 and 70) ― setting the sound so that later New Edition and New Kids on the Block in the borderline of the ʼ80 / ʼ90, did their thing in North American territory―, at the height By 1999, the fever had taken over the world music scene under the influence of the Backstreet Boys, N´SYNC, Destiny Child (USA), Take That, Spice Girls and Westlife (UK), to name only the most talked about. Later in the new millennium I think that perhaps the return to instruments and the success of pop rock by the Jonas Brothers and later One Direction, was another influence to promote the international "real" boyband model, which allowed the lines to be made known vocal-instrumental and not vocal-dance so widely reproduced in South Korea until today. K-pop, like its Western inspirers, knew how to exploit the complicity of television networks through participation in programs of various profiles and later on social networks and online music platforms, reaching out to a larger audience, expanding its international presence.

The transition from the ʼ90s to the new millennium was in the South Korean music scene as a parade of idol groups (trainees who, after being selected and trained, integrated different alignments) such as HOT, Sesc Skies, Shinwa, Fin. KL ... The rivalry and the passion of his fandom managed to lay the foundations of this machinery. The K-pop industry cannot be separated from the constant (re) production and search for talent: companies of different caliber and singing and dancing schools swarm all over the country. Unlike the western case, in which agencies sometimes discover the talent of a boy and hire him to make one or more records, in South Korea, a young man auditions to enter a period of hyper-controlled training by the company that will be the one who decides how, when and with whom he will debut in music. It can take years, that is why very young children start around 13-15 years old and not all who enter succeed. It is estimated that more than 200 groups have been created and debuted. Although so many have disappeared within a few years, giving way to others, or that some idols (the least) can go from one group to another or venture into a solo career. And although most of the trainees are South Korean, there are also Korean-Americans or members of Chinese origin, which responds, in addition to possible talent, also to the strategic thinking of capturing the attention of a regional and more cosmopolitan audience. The identification and sound similarity with the music of the international mainstream are processes to which this industry appeals and appropriates for its proper development and insertion in the world market.

There is already talk of a fourth wave / generation that goes from 2014 to the present, but at that first stage of the turn of the century, a second moment would follow with groups such as Epik High, TVQX, SNSD (Girls Generation), Wonder Girls, Super Junior, Big Bang, Shinee, 2 PM ... and also instrumental bands like FT. Island or solo figures like Rain who consolidated the characteristics of the K-pop phenomenon and penetrated the pan-Asian market in a sustained way, to then incipiently reach Europe or America, opening the way. The third generation, of groups that debuted between 2009-2013, has real bands like CN Blue, singers like IU and groups like 2NE1, T-ara, Infinite, Sistar, Block B, BAP, EXO, Nu'est, BTS, among others. This wave, rather a rising tidal wave, would consolidate K-pop internationally in the current fourth stage, where other groups such as GOT7, Ikon, Mamamoo, Red Velvet, Winner, Twice, NCT (and its various subunits), Black Pink would also emerge. , or bands like Day 6 and soloists like Chung Ha.

This last stage in which we are, in addition to the convergence of the four generations of boybands and girlbands (those that are still active), adds the individual work of figures who, even belonging to (or already outside of) their original groups develop a career also solo or in subunits: G-Dragon and Taeyang (Big Bang), Taemin (Shinee), Hyuna (ex Wonder Girl), CL (ex 2NE1), Suga (BTS), Zico (Block B) or Hwasa ( Mamamoo). At the same time, the “solo” hip hop scene that had been consolidating since the late 1990s with figures like Tiger JK / Drunken Tiger (Korean-American founder of two record labels dedicated to rap in South Korea), continues to grow. with other exponents since the mid-2000s: Double K, DOK2, Jay Park, Yoon Mi Rae, even young people like Ku Changmo.

As the formula for K-pop success, musically speaking, lies in the generally balanced fusion of vocal-line and rapper-line in lineups of four to 12 or more, collaborations between idols and solo rappers have also been. many. So solo artists look for similar alloys of pop song and rap, creating what I would call loosely a Korean “hip pop” with splashes of English here and there, sometimes on bridges or wherever it sounds best. . To this add that the visual "packaging" sells from an ideal of beauty (authentic or manufactured), a fashionista taste very embedded in the mix of Asian and international urban style, the conception of choreographies of different levels of complexity that put the preparation and training achieved after years as trainees, macro productions of events such as album and singles releases, and associated merchandising, MVs, awards or festivals galas, fan meetings and concerts, of course. A full-fledged, perfectionist and competitive show business.

The Japanese market is also very important for K-pop, with Japanese album releases or regular tours of almost all groups and soloists - for example, CN Blue's premiere was first in Japan before it was in South Korea. Thus, after debuting on national soil and taking over the charts of that country as now in the United States, the consequent presentation on Japanese television stations and stadiums speaks of a musical invasion received above all by the general public, to the detriment of a movement like J-pop or Japanese pop. Critical reactions in that country have been heard, as in China. The funny thing is that both historical empires (first China and then Japan) physically invaded and subjugated Korean culture centuries ago and until the 1940s, prohibiting them from developing their own music. K-pop thus becomes a sweet and seductive revenge. And on this side what ...

And on this side what ... 

Latin America had groups like the Puerto Ricans Menudo in the '80s, the Argentines Magneto and the Mexicans Mercurio (less known on the island) in the' 90s, hence the arrival of K-pop and its groups was very well received. The first “real” meeting took place in 2012 with the presentation of the Music Bank World Tour of the popular South Korean music festival and program of the same name on KBS. Festival that would return in different editions in Chile (2012 and 2018); and in Brazil and Mexico (2014). They were Ailee, B.A.P, Shinee, Infinite, EXO, Twice, CNBlue, Super Juniors and BTS, some of the groups and soloists that visited the region, and the last three later had individual tours of some of these nations and Peru.  

Already in Cuba, some will remember that in the '90s groups such as Chikolas, SBS or Cubanitos 2002 emerged - although the frontmen of the Charanga Habanera could almost be considered an unusual boyband - and years later, the energy of Los Angeles sprouted with a product that, in addition to being musical-danceable, focused on the visual and the care of the image (hairstyles and fashion), as well as the choreography and the beat, seeking (and finding) the younger audience.

As I commented a little above, by 2014 it was visible that Hallyu had arrived in Cuba, in Havana at least. In that same year, a South Korean television team came to the island to make a documentary report on this "rarity": they visited the José Martí Cultural Society where Korean courses were taught, and presentations were made by the students themselves singing songs. fashionable or reciting poems. The report included a tour of their homes, where they narrated how almost all of them had developed an interest in the language from the regular consumption of television series and the music associated with them (the OSTs), mainly those series with a theme or musical cut presenting the intricate machinery of agencies, fandom, the media, social pressure and control and competitiveness, in which the leading roles always included idols from the bands of the moment. I, who entered K-pop through indie pop-rock (CNBlue and FT Island), surfed back the second wave (smooth, no free fall) hand in hand with Big Bang and the subsequent mini albums of its solo members , peppered with the work of 2NE1, Epik High or EXO and soon after I dive with Block B, Jay Park (in many collaborations), BAP, BTS ... and in the last year, Ikon, Mamamoo, Red Velvet, Nu´est, Winner or Black Pink. I already know that in my taste the beat hip hopero or the R & B / neo soul with dance sounds weigh more, before the bubblegum pop, but I could not help but wonder, to that Cuban fandom, which I thought dispersed, but which is already grouped in clubs like Shinee's or identifying as VIP, ARMY or BLINK… what do you like about K-pop, what do you consume?

Some will believe that language is a barrier, but we know that music knows no borders, and it would be the same if we listened to South African kizomba or German rock. No matter how they got to K-pop, the truth is that the Clave channel program is a reality, and since it aired 80% of the messages to the channel have to do with K-pop. The requests of the favorite groups and soloists go from the second generation to the most current. The followers thought the 30 minutes was little and asked to extend its duration, which was achieved because now it is one hour, and some even offer to donate material (a girl said she had about 2000 videos, and I believe it). Others, most of them, criticize that groups with the overwhelming number of exponents that there are are not repeated (PSY's Gagnman Style, is not the only K-pop as many think); who want the weight to be balanced between the first groups and those of today so that the antecedents are known. The age group that comments on the web ranges from adolescents, to mothers who are grateful for their children to get away from the "harmful" reggaeton, to which I also ask them to teach them other music outside of K-pop to achieve in them, with the time, a diverse, multicultural, appreciative ear. I also hope that, despite each having their favorite bias and band, they manage to be tolerant to the preference of others, they do not fight over who or what video has the most views on YouTube ... I wish that passion did not blind them and lead to the Morbid levels that it has reached in South Korea and beyond, where the lives of idols are seen as the property of fandom, and it has gone to extremes with sasaengs and cyberbullying: the stalkers and the haters / antifans of one or the other grouping number in the thousands, even with sickly, threatening websites. It is true that there are many more "normal" fans, those who from their living room or their mobile phones connect to live music, streaming concerts (in the COVID era) to hear them, dance and watch them interact; or more and more people are translating, almost simultaneously, when the companies themselves do not, how much of their program, presentation or song is released on the web. Regarding K-pop consumption in Havana, I could not speak of particular neighborhoods, but of a still informal but interconnected community. Its territory is the network, digital consumption and the alternative sharing of materials, off the grill, among friends or acquaintances, like almost all musical production here.

Seen with the cultural and physical distance that living in Cuba implies, it is worth thinking that the tide will rise, but not so much, and each one of the Hallyu waves will break calmly on the shores of this Island, which is all music and passion for it. dance, wherever it comes from.

Nahela Hechavarría Pouymiró

Curator curated by cinema, music and dance, in that (dis)order.

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