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Searching for Punk Rock in Korea with Tim Tangherlini

Searching for Punk Rock in Korea with Tim Tangherlini

Meg Sullivan's faculty profile on Tangherlini, a UCLA folklorist, originally appeared in <i>UCLA Today.</i>

By Meg Sullivan

“They got all of punk rock history at once — the Sex Pistols, the Ramones and Nirvana. It was like being in London or New York in 1978 and Seattle in the mid-80s, all at the same time.”

As student protests engulfed South Korea during the Democratic uprisings of 1987, a question nagged at Timothy Tangherlini, then a graduate student conducting research on Korean shamans in Seoul.

“I kept wondering, ‘Why isn’t there any punk rock here?’ ” recalled the UCLA folklorist who is also a veteran of four punk or alternative rock bands. “Korea was such a fertile ground for music expressing social outrage, but all I could find was either this plaintive traditional drumming or insipid pop.”

So imagine Tangherlini’s surprise when he learned 11 years later of an emerging punk scene at a grungy underground nightclub in Seoul.

“I was delighted to discover that Korean youth were developing their own form of punk,” said Tangherlini, an associate professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures and chair of the Scandinavian Section.

With a former band mate, Tangherlini set out to chronicle the lives and aspirations of such now famous (in Korea) bands as Crying Nut and 18Cruk. The result is “Our Nation: A Korean Punk Rock Community,” a short film that has been screening across the country at independent film festivals.

Tangherlini was particularly fascinated by the speed with which a single culture was digesting a whole musical tradition — albeit a contemporary one. Thanks to the liberalization of restrictions on rock music, nightclubs and foreign travel, the Internet and such music file-sharing services as Napster, South Korean youth in the 1990s enjoyed unfettered access for the first time to foreign rock, he explained.

“They got all of punk rock history at once — the Sex Pistols, the Ramones and Nirvana,” Tangherlini said. “It was like being in London or New York in 1978 and Seattle in the mid-80s, all at the same time.”

Tangherlini started studying folklore on a bet as a Harvard undergraduate. The lark soon evolved into a passion for the Worcester, Mass., native who grew up speaking Danish. An adventurous scholar, he first delved into Old Norse and then into Norse myth and legends, and finally into legends of other cultures, including Korea’s.

In addition to Korean shamans, he’s also studied American paramedics and Scandinavian and Danish myth, legend and lore. The drummer for the defunct Silverlake punk band the Bunny Rabbits, he is also an authority on Hans Christian Andersen.

Tangherlini also is assembling the most comprehensive collection ever produced of Danish folktales in translation, as well as collaborating on an electronic database of Danish folklore.

“It sounds like I’m all over the place, but there’s this thread that runs through my work,” said the author of Talking Trauma: Paramedics and Their Stories (University of Mississippi Press) and two other books. “I am interested in how people use storytelling to organize their world.”

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Web Links:

Information on ordering a copy of Our Nation: A Korean Punk Rock Community from Filmakers Library.

A review by Hyangjin Lee (Univ. of Sheffield) of the film in Acta Koreana.

At WEIV, a Korean discussion board thread on the film.

Prof. Tangherlini's Asia Institute webpage, his East Asian Languages and Cultures webpage.

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This story was originally published in UCLA Today, Oct. 8, 2002

Asia Institute