Classic Blues Songs By John Lee Hooker, B.B. King & Muddy Waters Played on the Gayageum, a Traditional Korean Instrument

To say that most polit­i­cal dis­cus­sions on social media lack nuance seems tan­ta­mount to point­ing out that most pornog­ra­phy lacks romance. The thrusts, par­ries, and asides of the Face­book com­ment skir­mish and the Twit­ter­fight gen­er­al­ly con­sti­tute per­for­ma­tive acts rather than thought­ful inter­per­son­al engage­ment. It’s more the nature of the medi­um than the fault of the par­tic­i­pants; ever-churn­ing con­tro­ver­sy keeps the machines run­ning. One con­tro­ver­sial sub­ject now trend­ing on a net­work near you is the issue of Cul­tur­al Appropriation—broadly defined as the use of the sym­bols, lan­guage, dress, hair­styles, music, art, and oth­er sig­ni­fiers of one cul­ture by anoth­er.

A prob­lem aris­es when we leave the sub­ject broad­ly defined. Pow­er dynam­ics are key, but to con­demn all acts of cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion as theft leaves us in a bind. How do we gen­er­ate cul­ture with­out it? Not all acts of bor­row­ing are equal­ly respect­ful, but with­out them, we could not have had the musi­cal rev­o­lu­tions of rock and roll—with its appro­pri­a­tion of the blues—or of hip-hop, with its appro­pri­a­tion of dis­co, pop, Kung Fu movies, and every­thing else in a DJ’s record and video col­lec­tion. Neg­a­tive and pos­i­tive exam­ples can eas­i­ly get jum­bled togeth­er under these rubrics. To avoid get­ting tan­gled in ana­lyt­i­cal bram­bles, why don’t we turn instead to what I would con­sid­er a pos­i­tive exam­ple of cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion: the pieces you hear in the videos here, inter­pre­ta­tions of blues songs per­formed by musi­cian Luna Lee on a Gayageum, a tra­di­tion­al Kore­an zither-like instru­ment.

We’ve fea­tured Luna’s Gayageum cov­ers before—of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” and Ste­vie Ray Vaughan’s take on Hendrix’s “Lit­tle Wing.” Both Hen­drix songs demon­strate the degree to which the rock gui­tarist bor­rowed heav­i­ly from blues idioms. Tra­di­tion­al blues artists them­selves, of course, cre­at­ed and inno­vat­ed through bor­row­ing from each oth­er and from myr­i­ad tra­di­tion­al sources. Are Luna’s blues per­for­mances any dif­fer­ent? She clear­ly demon­strates a love and respect for the source mate­r­i­al, and she plays it with deft­ness and skill, tak­ing plea­sure in musi­cian­ship, not sales­man­ship. Her blues cov­ers don’t seem to have much com­mer­cial appeal, but they great­ly appeal to lis­ten­ers judg­ing by the num­ber of peo­ple her videos reach.

At the top of the post, you can hear her play John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom.” Below it, we have Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign,” and above, B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone.”  Low­er down, hear Mud­dy Waters “Rollin’ and Tum­blin’” (first record­ed by Ham­bone Willie New­born) and Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom.” Each inter­pre­ta­tion relies on mul­ti­track recording—Luna is either accom­pa­nied by a gener­ic back­ing track or accom­pa­nies her­self with a rhythm track that she plays over. Her cov­ers of Amer­i­can blues clas­sics on a tra­di­tion­al Kore­an instru­ment bring to the fore the inter­cul­tur­al acces­si­bil­i­ty of the songs and their adapt­abil­i­ty to an instru­men­tal con­text we might also con­sid­er “roots.” But as you can see from Luna’s Youtube chan­nel, she doesn’t only adapt “roots” music. She also cov­ers Radio­head, Frank Sina­tra, Led Zep­pelin, and AC/DC.

It’s like­ly my own bias for the blues—and for more tra­di­tion­al blues in particular—that makes me say so, but I think the cov­ers rep­re­sent­ed here are her most suc­cess­ful. (Whether Messrs Hook­er, King, King, Waters, and James would approve, I can­not say.) There’s some­thing about hear­ing the Gayageum in dia­logue with these songs that feels… well, if not exact­ly authen­tic at least less gim­micky than than a cov­er of One Repub­lic. But ulti­mate­ly, what­ev­er your pref­er­ence, if you can appre­ci­ate Luna’s instru­men­tal skill and devo­tion to her source mate­r­i­al, you’ll find some­thing to love on her page.

She’s not in it for the mon­ey, but like every strug­gling artist, Luna has dreams and bills to pay. To sup­port her work, vis­it her Patre­on page and help con­tribute to her goal of play­ing music full time and hir­ing addi­tion­al col­lab­o­ra­tors. In the pitch video below, Luna gives us some of her musi­cal back­ground and explains how she adapt­ed the tra­di­tion­al­ly acoustic Gayageum for more rock­ing con­tem­po­rary tunes.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Voodoo Chile’ Per­formed on a Gayageum, a Tra­di­tion­al Kore­an Instru­ment

With Medieval Instru­ments, Band Per­forms Clas­sic Songs by The Bea­t­les, Red Hot Chili Pep­pers, Metal­li­ca & Deep Pur­ple

Led Zep­pelin, Rolling Stones & The Bea­t­les Played on a 3‑String Elec­tric Moun­tain Dul­cimer

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • MarkS says:

    Ace! Apart from the minor point that the instru­ment in ques­tion is actu­al­ly orig­i­nal­ly Chi­nese, but I sup­pose that just rein­forces your point about good and bad spread of cul­ture! Going to show this to my wife who is learn­ing :)

  • George says:

    It looks like a guzheng but a gayageum is a dif­fer­ent instru­ment. Com­mon ori­gin OK but the gayageum is dis­tinct­ly Kore­an. No chau­vin­ism here; I’m Irish myself and have a guzheng in my house (the pen­ta­ton­ic tun­ing actu­al­ly works well for Irish trad too).

  • Marshalldoc says:

    Bet­ter than Hook­er’s orig­i­nal!!

    Love it.

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