Sounds of Spain – Microguagua

Madrid, Spain

Spain is a huge country with a ton of things to talk about. I could probably wax poetic for hours about jamón, days about pintxos, and weeks about architecture. The fact that I can speak enough Spanish to ask basic questions and get directions makes it an easy place to travel, and something about the way the people (who are in a terrible, terrible economy) manage to remain generally jovial towards tourists really hit me where it counts. I hope things will improve for them soon.

Barcelona, Spain

That said, Catalonia might as well be a different country. A country that I might prefer to visit. It seems like their economy is a bit better than the rest of Spain, and their culture hangs so thick in the air you could cut it with a knife. It’s a great place to visit. The architecture of Gaudí certainly contributes to the general vibe of awesomeness.

One thing I appreciate about Spain compared to anywhere else I’ve been in the world is the quality of the street performers, and one group caught my attention way more than any other: Microguagua (MEE-kro-hwa-hwa). They”re kind of a ska/reggae band with a horn section and a dude with a double bass. They have more personality in their pinkies than most music groups have in their whole bodies, and they know how to work a crowd. Also: they are available on iTunes. My recommendation for a great Spanish night at home is thus:

  1. Put this album on.
  2. Pop open a bottle of cava, or make some sangria or tinto verano
  3. Make some simple tapas
  4. Relax.
  5. Repeat.

Now, Microguagua isn’t exactly what you might think of when you think of Spanish music, but it is for me because of the sentimental memories and such. I’m always on the look out for good music to help set the mood for a meal (especially if I’m going to the trouble of making tapas or whatever.) What music reminds you of Spain? Tell me in the comments below.


So long, Korea! – A song of lunch hours past

For well over a year now I’ve been wanting to make a musical mix-up of the lunch conversation I had every day with multiple teachers while I was a teacher here in Korea. The first year at work, I’d join the teachers and students in the cafeteria for lunch as prepared by the nice little ladies in pink vinyl aprons and waders.

I’ll be frank and honest here. Half of the time, the lunch was terrifying. Either Korean blood sausage (which wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t so gelatinous), overcooked octopus, or nothing but a pile of raw onions in sesame oil was served as a main. Often, my Irish coworker would bail on lunch and head across the street to get something from the convenience store. Foolishly, I’d try to save face by staying in the cafeteria and choking down whatever crap was shoveled onto my stainless steel divided tray. With my comrade absent from the battle scene, I’d sit with the Korean teachers, eat as quickly as possible, smile, bow, and get out of there as quick as I could.

You see, eating with the Korean teachers wasn’t so bad, except I could often hear the words for foreigner, American, Charlie and other identifiers that referred to me. The stares were obvious. I don’t know if they were waiting for me to vomit, gag, or tap dance, but it seemed that they expected it would be entertaining. Often, a teacher from a different subject area would try to make conversation to practice their English. I like helping people out, but it’s really difficult to make slow, clear conversation while you’re eating. It’s also really difficult to be interested in a conversation when you’ve had the same one a thousand times over. It’s what I call, the standard Korean dining conversation.

Korean: You use chopsticks very well.

Foreigner: Yes, I’ve been eating Chinese, Japanese, and Korean food for years.

Korean: Do you know kimchi?

Foreigner: Yes, we have a large community of Koreans at home, I’m very familiar with kimchi.

Korean: Oh, I think Korean food is too spicy for foreigners.

Foreigner: No, I eat far spicier food quite often.

Korean: Yes, it’s too spicy.

So it’s kind of a humorous thing. Someone wants to practice their English, but it’s always the same conversation. Different answers to questions don’t yield a different response. It’s really kinda awkward for everyone involved, but it makes for a good beat, non?


Gangnam Style (강남 스타일) – WTF?

I’ve totally got Gangnam Style. I bought it from a hawker in the street in Gangnam.

A friend back in the U.S. asked me to write a little something about Gangnam Style, you know, the great music video by Psy that has broken out of the Kpop orbit of cute girls or emasculated men and ridiculous choreography. Okay, maybe not quite all the way out of ridiculous choreography. Well, the video has obviously taken over the entire internet subsequently pissing off a whole lot of cute kittens, and Gretchen wants answers! So let’s talk a little bit about Gangnam Style and get our wtf on.

Prerequisite: To fully understand just what the hell I’m talking about, you’re going to need to watch this. It’s worth it and will probably make you laugh.

I’m guessing your first question is probably: Charlie, what the hell is a Gangnam? Is that the Korean word for condom? Open Condom Style kinda makes sense.

Well, while your idea that he’s saying “open condom style” has some merit based on your familiarity with pop music in other countries, he’s not. He’s talking about Gangnam. Gangnam (as reported by every freaking major news outlet in the U.S. that has talked about this music video) is a pretty ritzy area of Seoul. It’s where the COEX mall and convention center is located, and where a lot of people from other countries shop when they’re in Korea. You’ll notice that at the end of nearly every sentence in the first few  all of the verses is “yeoja.” That means “girl.” We can assume he’s talking about women. What you might not know is that he’s also making fun of the rich residents of Gangnam. Notice how he walks down the super ritzy streets and trash blows up in his face. That’s a real thing. Even in the best neighborhoods here trash blows around like tumbleweeds.

I think you’ll also notice the ridiculous outfits, like that dude in the yellow suit in the parking lot. That kind of style isn’t the least bit uncommon here in Korea. Men’s fashion in Korea is a much more, how do you say, dynamic and colorful fashion than we’re used to in the U.S. I think Psy is making fun of this in the video pretty well. If I understand right, he actually went to college in the U.S (Boston University and Berklee College of Music) so he’s spent a pretty good chunk of his life outside of Korea. I think he might find the focus on looks a bit less important than most people here. One of my students recently wrote a paper about Kpop and said something to the effect of “Psy is very successful overseas even though he is fat and not attractive.” I find this video to be refreshing, because it’s just generally fun to watch and not made out of whitening cream (yes, they whiten their faces) and model-thin girls dancing with no enthusiasm.

A crush of middle school girls waits for a kpop boy band to arrive

Some Kpop boy band (I think they’re called “Boyfriend”) arriving to sign autographs as about half a million middle school girls scream like banshees.

Anyhow, you may be surprised to find that the Koreans seem to be mixed on Psy. He got caught smoking weed in Korea, and a lot of the Koreans I talk to on a daily basis see that as a bit of a disgrace. Of course  I seem to think that makes him a bit more legit as an umm…pop star. I find the apparent rejection of the standard of beauty and keeping-up-with-the-Joneses that goes on in Korea somewhat amusing, too.

So, Psy may not enjoy the ravenous Korean girl fan base that some of the other male Kpop stars do, but I don’t really see that that’s much of a problem. This weekend we stumbled upon a Korean boy-band pulling up to Daegu’s big downtown crossroads for a fan autograph signing event. It sounded like one of my classrooms on steroids with middle-school-age girls screaming in the highest pitch possible at a decibel level that probably exceeds that of a jet engine. Too bad Good for him.

Samulnori Troupe in Downtown Daegu

The original Gangnam Style – Samulnori

So anyway, Gangnam Style. Yeah. This is my complete and total understanding of it, and I’m making about half of this up based on clues I’ve tied together from about 27 different sources. I’m going to keep right along with the bullshit I’m spewing. Gangnam Style originated after a king during the Shilla dynasty rode a horse for 10 days from Gyeongju to Gangnam. After he arrived he walked sort of funny, and to keep the population from knowing that he had achy hips he had his samulnori troupe follow him and acted as if he was dancing. After people saw the dance it caught on, and the craze started in the early bathhouses and makgeolli houses of the era. It was largely forgotten until Psy’s music video was released in 2012 in a secret bid for world media domination.

There ya go. Them’s not the facts at all, but it made a good story.