Pink Floyd with a 12-string twist

November 12, 2013

Gayageum player Lee Luna pushes boundaries with first album

With her solid debut album, Lee Luna proves she is more than just a YouTube sensation. / Korea Times

With her solid debut album, Lee Luna proves she is more than just a YouTube sensation. (Korea Times)

By Kim Young-jin

Lee Luna’s “Luna,” Domo Records Available on iTunes,

Lee Luna’s “Luna,” from Domo Records
is available on iTunes.(

The danger with fusion, whether in music or food, is that the end product often gets overshadowed by novelty. New combinations are exciting but we crawl back to the original, craving authenticity. When it comes to traditional music, the impulse is often to faithfully replicate old standards using exotic instruments. (Think “Yesterday” or Pachelbel’s “Cannon” on Korean instruments). This emphasizes the original; and the results are usually best suited for elevators and waiting rooms.

Lee Luna, who plays the Korean instrument “gayageum,” or 12-string zither, avoids such pitfalls in her enjoyable first album, “Luna.” The young musician is known for her jaw-dropping covers of Jimi Hendrix songs such as “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return),” which has garnered nearly 2.5 million hits on YouTube. While some in this 12-song collection stand out more than others, Lee plays with precision throughout and perhaps more importantly, with passion.

As Lee has shown in her viral videos, the strings of the gayageum, which was developed in the 6th Century, emit an earthy, emotive sound. Because they are pliant, they can be deeply “bent,’’ which Lee says makes it perfect for playing the blues. Its structure allows for notes that aren’t included in traditional Western scale, creating a unique sound. The results can be mesmerizing, as on the album’s second track, Steve Vai’s “Tender Surrender.” Carried by the gayageum, the opening riff sounds familiar, but it’s given a new context that sounds both ancient and contemporary. As the pensive melody undulates seamlessly above the chord changes, it’s clear that Lee is gifted technically as well as with an innate instinct for the blues.

Lee stays bluesy on Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky,” replacing the vocals with improvisational work that manages to blend with the psychedelic background. The studio version of “Voodoo Chile” is as enjoyable as the viral YouTube video. Starting with the familiar opening riff, Lee’s gayageum is funky and she shows its versatility during a moody minor-key bridge that features ominous arpeggios. She puts her own spin on “All Along the Watchtower,” which features sultry vocals by Mela Lee.

She shows that the gayageum is suitable for atmospheric music on the contemplative “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (Ryuichi Sakamoto) and “Alone in Kyoto” (Air). On “Doppler Effect,” which she wrote, Lee keeps it mellow, the melody probing through a spare landscape of synthesized sounds.

The music does fall into trappings of fusion music in a few moments. The opening track, “Manic Depression,” features impressive soloing, but the accompanying guitar riff becomes repetitive. “Back to You” is simple and soothing, but doesn’t deliver any surprises. At times, the accompanying guitar, bass, synthesizer and percussion feel generic.

Music is at its best when it takes us to another place; when the musician, instrument and songwriter become secondary to the experience of music itself. The opening riff to “Little Wing,” the album’s final and best track, is stark and contemplative, and lovely enough that we forget that we’re listening to a Hendrix song. As it builds up to a majestic ending, we can feel Lee’s love for his music, creating a truly enjoyable effect. By providing these moments, Lee is doing a service for her instrument. Fans of interesting music and supporters of Korean traditional music should be happy that she is.