By Amy V. & Iron Mike
Many have contacted us here at FANCY asking about the insane twenty-minute vocal track included on the CD-R mix that accompanied 100 copies of our premier issue (if you didn’t get one, check www.fancymag.com for downloadable MP3’s). Here’s the story. A few months back, a West Coast acquaintance asked if we had heard the rappin’ Korean bus driver. Well, we had not and a few weeks later the tape was in our P.O. Box. It sounded like a spastic auctioneer on methamphetamine chanting furiously over cheesy Casio keyboard riffs. The tape had two tracks. Each was a 25-minute non-stop party comprised of nonsensical scat yodels backed by a hypnotizing aerobicized beat. Our friend could only tell us that he got the tape in 1991 while in Japan visiting friends. His friends discovered it while on holiday in Korea. The tape was playing in a record store and they just had to have it.
This is where FANCY comes in. After hearing the first note, we began our quest from the sole clue that someone played the tape in a record store on the other side of the world. We pondered…. could this insanely alien, unrelenting endless series of yelps and howls be pop music? We enlisted persons fluent in both Korean and English and discovered that our suspicions were right. It is pop music. The singer, E Pak Sa, is a Korean entertainer who has recently risen to super stardom in Japan. Thanks to our friends who laboriously translated several articles for us, we are able to provide some info on this unique madcap. This is pop music at its most extreme and now we unleash onto you the wonderful world of E Pak Sa (aka Dr. E.).His given name is E Yong Sug (Yong Sug Lee). He was born October 5, 1954 in Gyung Gi Do, Masug (about 40 minutes North of Seoul). He learned Pansori from his musician parents while growing up. Pansori is a form of musical storytelling. It generally consists of a vocalist accompanied by drums. Derived from the Korean words pan, meaning performance venue, and sori, or song, Pansori originated in southwest Korea in the Seventeenth-Century. It is one of the most unique expressions of Korea’s rich performing arts tradition. Pansori embraces both elite and folk culture in its expressive singing, stylized speech, repertoire of narratives and mimetic gestures. Performances may last up to eight hours and Pansori singers undergo long and rigorous training to master the wide range of distinct vocal timbres and to memorize the complex repertories.
E Pak Sa’s parents passed away while he was in his teens. After his parents’ passing he moved to Seoul and worked over twenty different jobs until one day he saw people singing on the tour bus parked in a theme park. He thought that he wouldn’t mind doing that for a living and landed a gig singing on that same bus, and randomly became a tour bus guide. (In Korea, among the middle age & seniors it is common for groups to travel on organized bus tours. Because of the mountainous landscape, the travel hours are long; to pass the time riders sing and dance during the trip to entertain themselves.)
E Pak Sa brought a new twist to the art of Pansori, as he contemporized the ancient tradition by incorporating modern, often Western, pop hooks into his passionate vocalizations. His reputation started to build based on his unique way of entertaining. While singing, he would imitate the sound of all of the instruments used in the prelude and interlude, and even the sound of the whistle used to gather the tourists. His nickname, Dr. E, came from his broad knowledge of various styles of songs.
Throughout the years, many record companies offered to record and release his songs, but E constantly refused on grounds that he found it inappropriate and out of sync with his style. After almost 20 years of performing on the tour bus, in 1989, the owner of a renowned nightclub who was also a producer offered him a deal with total creative control. They headed straight to the studio where the recording was done in two hours.
His first album, Sinbaram Epaksa Vol. 1, (the elation / excitement of) in 1989, was an instant hit among the truck drivers and middle-aged working-class audience. Over 1,000,000 cassettes were sold and E Pak Sa became a hot new sensation for the Korean middleclass. His fame earned him a spot on a popular program at the time, Inganshidae (“human age”- a documentary program detailing different people’s unique lives – mostly struggle / success stories) on MBC (one of the major national broadcast channels). Following various guest spots on talk shows, he served for one whole year as co-host on an MBC daytime program, Nahohyangsohshic (“news from my hometown”). Fueled by the heat of his first album’s success, he released 19 more cassettes in the same year selling millions of copies. To this date he has released 25 albums. In the beginning of his career he performed mostly in clubs, but now he prefers banquets and birthday parties.
In Korea teenagers are the major consumers of pop music. These teens go for the syrupy shallow pop singer combined with a contrived image. The younger people overlooked E’s unusual wacky folk style along with the hypnotizing repetitive Casio beat.
After researching the most marketable place for his music, he and his team concluded that Japan offered the greatest possibilities. Up until that time no Korean artist had boomed in Japan and distributors were looking for something new. Around the Fall of 1995, a small indie Japanese label introduced E Pak Sa to Japan with a CD of his signature style vocals accompanied by the disco fury. Fortunately, the president of Sony Music Japan was a fan of Koreans’ middle-aged music and he was captivated by E’s original sound and pushed for an album to be produced in Japan, which eventually became a Korean-Japan project.
Sony’s promotion machine came up with PON-CHAK, a disco title for E’s music, and was marketed to the teens of Japan. In the Spring of 1996 E-Pak-Sa Encyclopedia of Pon-Chak Party 1 & 2 was released. Here E’s music changes, as he sings words and lyrics not just sounds and vocalizations. This is overall a more refined outing. There are also a few songs sung in English, e.g., our fav, Monkey Magic. Also included in this effort is a song titled Young Man, E’s rendition of the Village People’s YMCA. His brilliant interpretation only contains hints of the original disco anthem. Still formatted to be one-continuous-track, E uses his distinct vocals to signal to the listener the song’s end. Released later that same year was 2002 E-Pak-Sa’s Space Odyssey and E-Pak-Sa’s 5cm Higher and Rising!. Sales were initially slow, but steady. Sony’s package as “Korea’s Disco Emperor” who sings in a unique style telling of Korean culture enabled him to land a gig as spokes-model for a large cosmetic company in Japan. E’s appearance in the commercial as a foreigner singing in his native tongue was unprecedented. This exposure launched E into superstardom in Japan.
Sell-out concerts, myriad television appearances, riots at in-stores, and Japanese teens speaking Korean are all products of E Pak Sa’s impact in Japan. E had infiltrated the popular culture of Japan and paved the way for other Korean artist to do the same. 1997 saw the release of the CD Space Fantasy.
After a three-year hiatus, Space Fantasy 2000, a remix of the earlier release hit stores. During this time Sony Korea had caught on and were eager to reintroduce E Pak Sa to Korea’s teenagers and the world. Again the record company recreated his image and began to market him as one of the world’s leading artist. The remix sounds much like typical, techno J-Pop with samples of his recognizable vocals peppered throughout. Sometime in late 2000 or early 2001 Pon-Chak Revolution, a 2 CD package, Pak Sa Revolution, and Pak Sa Emotion were unleashed on the consumer market. Revolution contains extended techno dance remixes from the latter. Also from 2001 is 2Pak4 Winter Techno-Pon. This appears to be a Christmas release from the cover artwork. We easily found all of these CD’s in Little Seoul, a mid-town Manhattan neighborhood.
E Pak Sa continues to be a star in his homeland and other parts of Asia. Maybe someday his aesthetics will wash upon our shores. Until then please visit www.fancymag.com to enjoy some of his videos and television appearances.