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Spanish choir that sings Korean songs in Korean

‘Both Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras are from Spain, so I thought this country must be special.’
Mar 14,2009
Grupo Vocal Millennium, a Spanish chorus led by Korean conductor Lim, performs Korean songs in Korean wearing traditional Korean clothes. Provided by Lim Jae-sik
Lim Jae-sik.
It is not so common to hear foreign professional vocalists singing Korean songs in Korean wearing traditional Korean garb.

Grupo Vocal Millennium, a Spanish chorus led by Lim Jae-sik, 46, is busily arranging a schedule to hold its fifth concert tour in Korea sometimes this year.

The chorus, which is composed of 25 professional Spanish vocal singers affiliated with Spain’s public broadcaster, Radio Television Espanola, was founded by conductor Lim in 1999.

The chorus is well-known for dressing in hanbok, traditional Korean clothing, and performing Korean folk songs. The chorus held its first concert in Seoul back in August 2006.

Lim had wanted to establish a choir overseas for non-Koreans to sing Korean songs in Korean.

“It is the only choir composed of foreigners in the world that could sing Korean songs in Korean,” said Lim, who said the choir was formed on the cusp of the new millennium, hence the name.

Lim even dresses in durumagi, a full-length traditional Korean jacket, when he conducts the choir during performances.

“I can never forget the time the choir dressed in hanbok at Gyeongbok Palace and sang a folk song called the ‘Gyeongbokgungtaryeong (Gyeongbok Palace ballad)’ while looking at Geunjeongjeon,” he said.

Geunjeongjeon refers to the palace’s Throne Hall, where kings granted audiences to officials.

Lim graduated from Seoul Arts High School in Jongno, central Seoul. He moved to Madrid after he quit studying at Hanyang University’s music school in 1983.

He attended the royal school of music in Madrid and went on to become a chorus member of a Spanish public broadcaster. He is currently a full-time conductor in Spain.

“I didn’t want to fly to Italy like everyone else does. I wanted something different,” he said. “Both Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras are from Spain, so I thought this country must be special,” he added.

Lim went through tough times during his stay in Spain. He thought he wouldn’t have any problem communicating because he spoke English, but he realized English was not widely used. To make matters worse, it wasn’t easy for foreigners to earn money. So he set up a stall at a flea market for earrings and women’s underwear.

The biggest obstacle, though, was prejudice against Korea.

“Some locals wanted nothing to do with Korean songs, but they didn’t really know anything about them,” said Lim.

He decided to set up his choir after one of the choir members told him he wanted to learn a Korean song. As he and the choir worked on the song he realized the importance of establishing harmony between Korean and Spanish culture.

“I keep receiving calls from Spanish broadcasters or audiences who have watched our concerts, asking if they can purchase the CD. It costs a lot to send them but I am happy to introduce Korea,” Lim said.

The choirmaster hopes to arrange more concerts in Korea but he needs financial support to make this happen.

“I feel like I am the richest man in the world and have nothing to feel envious about when I conduct the choir on stage,” Lim said.

By Chun Su-jin JoongAng Ilbo [smartpower@joongang.co.kr]