A year after Sewol, concert pulls together LA Korean musicians

April 13, 2015
Composer Hwang Kwangsun will direct a concert to commemorate the first anniversary of the Sewol sinking April 16. (Tae Hong/Korea Times)

Composer Hwang Kwangsun will direct a concert to commemorate the first anniversary of the Sewol sinking April 16. (Tae Hong/Korea Times)

By Tae Hong

The tragedy that shook South Korea came on a spring day last year.

One of the millions to its witness was Hwang Kwangsun, a Korean national who had moved stateside to study music about 10 years ago. He watched from a television live stream inside his Los Angeles home as rescue teams made repeated dives into a sunken ferry boat near Jindo island.

They’d begun by saying the passengers of the Sewol would be OK, but now they were saying hundreds of young students might be dead. It went on for days, for weeks. The death toll grew by the hour, but the number missing never quite made it to zero.

Remember 0416

Remember 0416

Gripped by sadness, and by anger and frustration, he was restless. He couldn’t focus on work inside his home studio and struggled to understand why it was happening. There had to be a way to help somehow, but what could he do?

A year later, Hwang and a local group of professional Korean musicians have gathered to put together a commemorative concert, “Remember 0416,” in an effort to offer condolence to victims’ families and the Korean American community.

After all, April 16 remains a dark memory for South Korea and its people.

The horrified nation saw 304 of 476 passengers die from the tragedy. A majority of them were just kids, high school juniors on their way to a field trip. The incident and its political aftermath threw the country into months-long mourning that did not cease at its borders — the Los Angeles Korean American community, too, met the news with sorrow.

The free Koreatown event, helmed by Hwang as music director, will feature a group of 15 1.5- and second-generation Korean musicians lending their talents pro-bono inside Abundant Life Korean Church at 7:30 p.m. on April 16.

“The only thing we can really purely do as artists is to comfort people through our music,” Hwang said. The 37-year-old works in film music-making and has a Ph.D in composition from UCLA.

Classical performances, including two of Hwang’s original compositions — one of them written specifically for the event — will be played by ensembles and solo artists, he said. Hwang will also conduct a rendition of Kim Hyo-geun’s “A Thousand Winds,” a widely used tribute song for Sewol victims.

Passengers of the boat were headed toward Jeju island; the teenagers among them were students at Ansan City’s Danwon High School. Later investigation found that a sharp turn caused the overloaded ship’s improperly secured cargo to shift. Deaths were furthered, investigators said, by improper action from the ferry captain and crew and by untimely rescue efforts.

The disaster was South Korea’s biggest maritime loss since 1970, when the sinking of Namyoung, another passenger boat, took 323 lives.

News of the Sewol hit the Los Angeles Korean community — the largest Korean population outside South Korea — harder than any in the United States.

Local Korean organizations set up a memorial service that spanned nine days, while supermarkets organized donation booths to help victims’ families. Community members built a dedicated memorial in the heart of Koreatown at the wall of the Korean Consulate General, home to a wall of yellow ribbons, flowers and Post-its containing the messages of more than 10,000 passerby. Days after the sinking, musicians set up a public orchestra at Wilshire-Vermont Square in a gesture of hope for survivors.

The city was also no exception when it came to the controversy that erupted in Korea during and following rescue efforts, with government-criticizing protesters and conservatives butting heads.

“The goal of our concert is to do away with any of the religious or political factors related to the tragedy and just give what comfort we can to those who were hurt by what happened,” Hwang said.

Grace Eunhye Kim, organizer of the event and head of Nanoom Neighbors, an organization created in light of the concert and for future projects like it, is a soprano who will perform.

Much like Hwang, she spent the first few days after the sinking watching the news, feeling hopeless and powerless.

“Then I was reminded of the musicians of the Titanic who continued to play on the deck even as the ship was going down,” she said. “I realized there was something I could do, which is to provide comfort and healing to those who are emotionally wounded.”

Planning for the concert has been underway since June last year. She and Hwang gathered a group of like-minded Korean musicians.

Among them are Kim Joo-young, a local piano accompanist from Korea, and Mario Chae, a baritone and current doctorate student at Claremont Graduate University.

The concert is a reminder of the losses suffered through Sewol, Chae said.

“The concert is about our sadness and condolence, but it’s also about not forgetting what happened just one year ago,” he said.

Kim Joo-young joined the effort two months ago after being approached to play the piano.

Although she did not suffer directly from the Sewol tragedy, it affected her as a South Korean citizen, she said. It’s an anniversary, she said, that should be commemorated as beautifully as possible.

“I hope this concert becomes an opportunity for the Korean American community to come together as one,” she said.

Abundant Life Korean Church is located at 3020 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90010.


  1. Lucy

    April 13, 2015 at 8:24 PM


  2. TC

    April 13, 2015 at 10:10 PM

    The tragedy is still completely that — a tragedy. So many died so needlessly.