|Youn Sun Nah in action|
So there I was Saturday night going through the Fall Arts Preview Section of the Washington City Paper not thinking I'd see much of interest coming over the next few months that I didn't already know about. Then I turned to an ad for the Howard Theater and read the listing "Youn Sun Nah - Ulf Wakenius Duo, Sept. 14".
Now most people wouldn't have paused at that but I did an instant double take. I knew the name. Youn Sun Nah is a Korean jazz vocalist well-known in Europe and her native country whose work I knew and had been listening to just a few days ago. I had no idea she was doing a US tour, let alone stopping in DC. Once I gathered my senses I realized that the 14th was the next day, so I instantly 86'ed any other plans I had and schlepped my way to the Howard Theatre Sunday afternoon.
I thought the show might be sparsely attended since this is a singer completely unknown in the US but my aging brain overlooked a couple of facts. One, Washington, DC is the capital of the United States and has a lot of buildings called "embassies" and something called a State Department where a lot of folks who are from other countries or know foreign cultures work. Two, this area has a sizable Korean population, much of it concentrated in Fairfax County where I live. Suffice it to say the theater was packed. In fact I now count myself lucky that I was able to walk up to the box office 45 minutes before the show started and buy a ticket.
The concert itself was great. Nah has a remarkable voice that ranges from a low growl to a roof-shaking soprano and her repertoire includes folk songs from all over the world, rock songs, singer-songwriter tunes from the likes of Randy Newman and Jackson C. Frank and a standard or two.
Her lone accompaniment was her long time musical partner, Swedish guitarist Ulf Wakenius who played an amplified acoustic guitar with sensitivity, speed and dexterity that matched the storms and calms of her singing.
On record Nah is impressive but live she's amazing. She whispered a version of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" 180 degrees different from the iconic Johnny Cash treatment but just as affecting and sang "My Favorite Things" as a lilting lullaby accompanying herself on thumb piano. At the other extreme when the music got loud, it boiled over. Nah went from a rapid-fire scat duet with the guitar to hair-raising banshee wails on Wakenius' flamenco-flavored "Momento Magico". The British folk song "A Sailor's Life" was a fierce blend of rocky guitar and Nah's powerful British-style plain singing which electronic enhancement turned into a chorus of voices at one point. "Ghost Riders In The Sky" (!) was a riot of glassy slide guitar with a touch of Ennio Morricone by Wakenius while Nah's singing went from a Joan Jett-like growl on the verses to an operatic soprano on the chorus. After all that she ended with a simple and touching rendition of a Korean folk song that was warmly appreciated by the mostly Korean audience
Youn Sun Nah is a remarkable talent, a fearless singer who can either coo softly or raise her voice to extremes of pitch and volume, yet still sound melodic and human within that range. She is a star in Korea and Europe with good reason. It would be nice if someday she got that kind of acclaim here among us non-Korean-Americans.
Here are a couple of videos of her work. First, "My Favorite Things"...
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