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'K-Pop is very different to western music' but it's gaining a following in Ireland

Just look at how much these fans love the singer, Dabit.

AT A QUARTER past six on Thursday 29 October, about 35 people in their late-teens and early 20s hurriedly fill the Terence Larkin lecture hall in DCU.

Carrying banners, and avidly snapping away on their cameras, they giddily queue in front of a small table, which displays an array of CDs and Korean cultural magazines, the faces of K-pop idols decorating the covers.

The entry fee consists of two choices. Standard tickets are €5. The VIP option is €15. Most pay for the latter as it guarantees a signed copy of the album on sale, an accompanying poster, alongside the chance to meet Dabit, the 25-year-old Korean-American singer, scheduled to perform inside.

PastedImage-36351 Source: Joie Lee

Known as a K-Pop “fanmeet”, this type of gig has become immensely popular on the Korean music circuit, allowing audiences interact with artists on terms more intimate than that of a gargantuan idol concert. Though considerably smaller in scale than a regular meet, for those in attendance, size is scarcely indicative of excitement levels.

While a handful have been to K-pop concerts before, such cases usually meant travelling to the UK at the least, and more often than not, places as far reaching as the United States, or Korea itself.

Tonight however, signifies the first instance of a K-Pop musician performing on Irish shores and it follows months of work by Japako, the company behind the magazines on sale, in conjunction with the DCU K-Pop and Culture society.

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As Dabit enters, there is a frenzied applause.

He seems almost overwhelmed at this reception. Grabbing the microphone, he offers a short introduction, before jokingly remarking on his Irish debut being in a lecture hall.

The crowd holds onto his every word, scarcely concerned about the location. Listening intently as he goes through a four-song set list, mixed in with Korean language lessons, and instructions on dance routines.

Very few people ever thought an event of this kind would become a reality in Ireland, considering how gradual it has been for the musical facet of the Korean Wave to drip into the country.

PastedImage-72539 Source: Facebook

Speaking with Dabit a day earlier, he himself noted this fact.

I never thought I’d be here. When the opportunity came up, it genuinely surprised me, and I didn’t really know what to expect. I’d never been to Europe before, only America, Korea, and last year, Tunisia for my first overseas performance.

This show, the second date on his European tour, which includes two further dates scheduled for Cork over November, he credits largely to Japako, who spent the last year raising his profile amongst Irish readers.

“We both started on similar levels, and I feel like we met in the centre,” he says. “I’m very happy to be part of the K-Wave that’s going on, and because of that, I feel I’m the perfect artist to bring over, since the Irish crowd is not ideal for larger artists to invest in.

I mean, I came thinking nobody would know me, but then I discovered I actually had Irish fans. They started messaging me via SNS, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. It was very uplifting. You see, K-Pop is very different from western music, and the way it’s marketed, but, it’s refreshing to know there is a definite crowd who look for this type of music.

Source: Sinead O'Carroll/YouTube

Irish interest in Korea, while relatively niche today, has been gaining momentum over the past three years. Through the efforts of Japako, various college societies and the Korean Embassy, both traditional and more popular elements of the nation’s culture have managed to travel, bringing South Korea’s ambitious project of becoming an internationally embraced lifestyle brand to fruition.

History lesson

Referred to as the Korean Wave, or Hallyu, the South’s goal arose from a peculiar set of circumstances, dating back as far as the Korean War’s 1953 armistice. After the signing of a Mutual Defence Treaty with the United States, Korea faced long-term economic hardship stemming from this pact’s restrictive terms regarding the development of any military-based technology.

However, with the conception of the internet, Korea found an alternative route to prosperity.

Directing its focus towards soft powers, such as culture, economics and information technology, the state began to emerge from the lengthy burdens of war in the early 1990s though this growth collapsed with the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.

Global village

The Asian Contagion by December forced the government to request an IMF loan of $57 billion, on a day now known as the National Day of Humility. Yet, after the shock incurred collectively, a new plan was set in motion.

In 1998, President Kim Dae-jung hired TH Lee, a public relations agent from Edelman, to shake up the nation’s image as a whole, announcing that South Korea was ready to become part of the “global village”.

The entertainment industry, in a major gamble, became a vital factor in the nation’s recovery, and by 2001, Korea was paying off its IMF debts, with billions to spare. Hallyu earned acclaim as the first economic phenomenon of the 21st Century, thriving on an international frontier, by focussing less on breaking the west, in favour the Middle and Far East.

Yet, with the wave’s acceleration, it inevitably went westward. First with the staging of major concerts in the United States, soon thereafter, Europe opened its floodgates. In 2011, one of the Big Three record labels, SM Entertainment, took a plethora of their acts to Paris.

Sparking media frenzy, with fans coming out of the woodwork in eight different cities protesting for the addition of multiple dates, the continent caught the bug, and with each successive year, K-Pop concerts were doubling, and then quadrupling.

How did it reach Ireland?

However, while Europe let the Hallyu phenomenon take hold, Ireland remained a non-starter, with the culture being more a minor craze amongst a thousand, or so “netizens”, connected via a Facebook page, K-Pop Ireland.

Spread across the country, these users communicated online, exchanging merchandise, starting petitions for Irish performances, and occasionally arranging gatherings in cities such as Dublin, and Belfast.

As the community grew though, a store shot up in the capital, and Korean restaurants took note, and began sponsoring the meetings. Then, the trend hit campuses.

Each of the major colleges formed their own Korean society, the most significant of which at present, is in Trinity College, and whose cultural exposes the Korean Embassy have loaned significant support.

Sangyeob Han, chair of the TCD Korean Society, said, “The Embassy has been very proactive and helpful in terms of financial resources and tangible assets.

Our society had been facing difficulties in receiving funds from our university despite recruiting more members last year.

Yet, in between such activities, the Embassy has also managed to produce high profile events of their own, leaning towards more traditional areas, such as in June of 2015, the Damyeon fashion show at Dublin’s Mansion House.

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Premiering the work of Lee Hye-Soon, Korea’s leading designer, the idea was to present an integral part of the nation’s heritage, the hanbok dress, but have these outfits worn by Irish models.

Inviting collaboration on a wide scale, the wave they have spearheaded here has succeeded in captivating people of many nationalities quite intensely, and hence, groups such as Japako work independently, but with equal vigour to disseminate a culture they fervently believe in.

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Hailing from Germany, its two founders, Virginia Clinberghe and Sandie G relocated to Cork three years ago with the objective of reaching a fresh audience.

The pair assessed Irish markets for “any niche”.

We wanted to find any opening in which to do something new. There was nobody doing this before. So we wanted to build that Irish K-Pop community and appeal to it. We’re still kinda in that process. The current issue is that Irish fans want the big names, like G-Dragon, or Super Junior, but that’s a bit…

“Impossible,” Sandie chimes in, with a slight laugh.

“We try pointing them towards artists like Dabit, in order to open their minds to the lesser known, but equally talented artists.

That is what we are trying to do. We want to promote real artists, and try going for talent over fame.

Concluding, they pointed to one downside, though it is one, they intend to reverse.

“Right now, European promoters, when you talk about Ireland, always say, ‘Oh, Ireland is a bit too exotic a place’. They don’t understand the market, or they don’t see one here. So, we hope that we can change that in the future, and really, Dabit is the first big step along that line.”

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About the author:

Michael Lanigan

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