Home Music Various Artists: Funky Coup: Korean Soul, Funk & Rare Groove Nuggets 1973-1980, Vol. 1

Various Artists: Funky Coup: Korean Soul, Funk & Rare Groove Nuggets 1973-1980, Vol. 1

With a title that suggests the politics of dancing, Funky Coup is more than a cheeky pun. Inspired by the landmark garage band comp Nuggets, the (appropriately enough) Seoul-based label Beatball Records put together 90 minutes of vintage grooves to remind listeners that BTS wasn’t the first Korean pop group to be influenced by African American music. But, although the lack of translations makes it difficult to parse out the details, the timeframe from 1973-1980 places this music right after then-President Park Chung-hee suspended the National Assembly and declared martial law. Can pop conquer dictators? Maybe!

A brief instrumental intro that launches the set suggests a moody nation in turmoil, and one wonders how the country’s politics were reflected in its pop music, and how Western subgenres were perceived by dancefloors under oppression. That intro leads right into Beauty Girls’ “Milyang Arirang,” from 1973; the cover art features a headshot of two young women with a distinct ‘70s look, but despite the glam makeup and playful, Twister-like blocking, there’s a sadness in their eyes, and it’s audible in their vocals.

Aside from some fuzzy guitar fills, the opener isn’t particularly funky, but the set gets into that gear with Kim Ha-jung’s “Promise,” from 1974. Her album cover seems to promise a syrupy love ballad, which plays out to some extent, but it opens with sample-ready beats that would perfectly suit a Blaxploitation soundtrack. Kim’s rich, plaintive vocals pull off a Korean soul, and the bass line and horn chart make this a simmering blend of melodramatic pop and funk – think of it as the ballad from a Korean version of Superfly.

If some of these Western influences are more approximate than others, a handful of tracks pay direct homage to American funk. Jungmin & Cheonggaeguri’s “Frog’s Dream” is a cover of Herbie Mann’s “Memphis Underground,” and while the rhythm isn’t quite as down and swampy as the original, the brassy horns deliver more funk than Mann’s flute. At eight minutes, this is the Coup’s best showcase for Korean session players, and while other tracks may miss a few beats here and there, this dream is solid all the way through, and the heavy guitar solo clearly has Mann sideman Sonny Sharrock in his mind, if not in his frets. A glassy organ solo sends this into an unexpectedly eerie direction, which shifts back thanks to a fat bass solo.

Inevitably, James Brown gets involved in this coup, as on the 1975 track “Can’t Be Helped,” a variation on “Mother Popcorn” featuring haunting vocals by Yoon Bok-hee. But the best way to give props to their predecessors is to come up with some original funk, and Normal Records Sessions’ instrumental “Open the Door” takes off with some space-age timbres before settling into a swampy groove marred only by a cheesy synth line. Female singer Kim Hye-jung is backed up on “It’s Raining Night” by a band that evokes mid-‘70s Meters. The most evocative original here is “Walking the Streets of Myeong-Dong Alone” by Ryu Bok-sung & His Bongo Orchestra. The clarinet solo isn’t up to scratch, but for nearly six minutes the inauspiciously-named Bongo Orchestra maintains a strangely kitschy groove. Choi Heon closes the set with “Goodbye to You,” which borrows an intro from Earth, Wind & Fire.

But the best way to give props to their predecessors is to come up with some original funk, and Normal Records Sessions’ instrumental “Open the Door” takes off with some space-age timbres before settling into a swampy groove marred only by a cheesy synth line. Female singer Kim Hye-jung is backed up on “It’s Raining Night” by a band that evokes mid-‘70s Meters. The most evocative original here is “Walking alone in Myoungdong” by Ryu Bok-sung & His Bongo Orchestra. The clarinet solo isn’t up to scratch, but for nearly six minutes the inauspiciously-named Bongo Orchestra maintains a strangely kitschy groove. Choi Heon closes the set with “Goodbye to You,” which borrows an intro from Earth, Wind & Fire. Funky Coup holds up a curious mirror to American music: funk has indeed taken over the world, but filtered through other cultures, even the most Westernized subgenres develop their own regional flavor.

Summary
Can pop conquer dictators? Maybe!
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Seoul Music

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