Magnolian, an indie folk act from Mongolia, were amongst the musicians that traveled to Seoul to play at Zandari Festa 2016. Guitarist and vocalist Dulguun Bayasgalan recorded their adventures for us with an exclusive tour diary for Hello Asia!
Thursday September 29, 2016
I arrived with my part-time bandmate and full-time girlfriend, Enkhjin, the day before Zandari Festa started and explored the Hongdae area. I was told that it was the epicenter of youth culture in Seoul, which is true! Good-looking hipsters crowded the bustling streets on what was probably an average Thursday afternoon. Countless boutique shops and restaurants lined the narrow, walk able streets with their goods spilling out onto the sidewalks. It was like a buffet where everything looks delicious, but it’s impossible to try it all so all you can do is swallow your appetite and keep moving. We visited the location of the festival’s artist lounge, but it wasn’t the artist lounge yet; it was a regular cafe then and the staff knew little about the festival.
I needed my guitar set up before the show so we went to a place called Nagwon. It’s an enormous three-storey department store with a labyrinth of halls comprised of shops dedicated solely to musical instruments and equipment. I can only imagine that this is where gear-heads and guitar dudes go after they die. We meandered the halls for some time looking for a guitar doctor and we came upon a little corner shop with rows of acoustic guitars decorating the walls four meters high. It was worked by a little man with thinning hair and a broad cordial smile that showed big pearly teeth. He wore a white button-down shirt with short sleeves tucked into black slacks. The cuffs of his pants rested on a pair of purple slippers, and he moved around his little shop in incremental steps. Despite the unglamorous appearance of his shop and person, something about him inspired trust. Two days later he would lose it, but at that moment, we waited in the shop as he operated on my guitar, tightening the screws and polishing the buttons. It didn’t take long. I was relieved that my guitar was ready to perform. Now we just needed to make sure we were.
Friday September 30, 2016
The first thing on our schedule was meeting at the Zandari Festa artist lounge at 2 pm. The ordinary cafe from the day before was transformed into a busy hub with festival organizers and staff scrambling to have the artist packages ready in time. The first person we were greeted by was Doyeon from a website named Doindie. She was very amiable and instantly became a familiar face. She liked our music and got us a second gig at the Kangol store for the next day. For the rest of the festival we would approach her for anything we needed.
One of the perks of the artist lounge was the unlimited free beer, coffee, and water. It almost felt like stealing. It was too early to start drinking so we grabbed coffee and headed to a conference organized by Zandari. It took place in a room that resembled a classroom. The whole thing was in Korean so we didn’t stick around for long. Our time was better spent exploring the area some more. We checked out Evans Lounge and the Kangol flagship store where we were playing in the following days. All of the venues were located within 10 minutes of one another with the artists lounge at the center of it all. Hongdae was the perfect, and perhaps the only place, for Zandari. In fact, I believe “Jandari” was the old name for the area. The music, the culture, the crowd, and the energy gave birth to the festival. It was all there. All you had to do was stir a little and it was ready to come alive.
Zandari’s opening party was held at MUV Hall right underneath the artist lounge. It was a large rectangular space with high ceilings and uneven brick walls to contain the sound. The large stage stood at the far end and occupied a good quarter of the hall. It was ideal for a rock show. No frills. No tables and chairs. No unnecessary ornaments on the walls. Just a big room that was brimming with excitement. It was clear that the opening bands were handpicked for their ability to work a room. Colt Silvers from France had a killer drum solo in one of their numbers a la Local Natives that set the place ablaze (Note to self: write a song with a drum solo.). Meanwhile, the sidewalk outside was as charged as the show inside. People were meeting over beers and cigarettes and the bands wasted no time in courting the delegates to their show. Some bands were at the top of their game. Colonel Mustard and the Dijon 5 all wore yellow t-shirts and outnumbered all of the bands by at least a factor of 3. There seemed to be nearly 20 members in total and they permeated the crowd with the force of a football team. By the end of the night everyone knew who they were and that’s how they liked it. A girl from Billy Carter showed up with an armful of lighters that had their band’s name on them. I thought that was genius because everybody was smoking and it was a good way to enter the conversation. I felt pressure to up my own ad game. I was wearing a t-shirt with a picture of a USSR cosmonaut named Gagarin. That seemed to stick in people's minds, especially the Russian and Eastern European delegates, but that was purely by chance. But it was just Day 1. I knew there would be plenty of chances for us to meet the delegates.
Saturday October 1, 2016
(From left to right: guitarist of The Lemons, Enkhtulga, co-founder of Primavera Sound, Alberto Guijarro, founder of Playtime Festival and Hi-Fi Media Group, Natsagdorj, and me)
The main goal for Zandari was for artists and delegates to meet, and they made sure you had the chance. The festival designated 2 hours every morning for networking. The delegates were obliged to be at the artist lounge during that time and you could meet whoever you wanted. It sounds easy enough, but it’s not without the awkwardness inherent in these networking events. It was like trying to pick up girls at a bar. How do you approach them? What do you say? What if their talking to someone already? Some people were doing targeted networking, but I met as many people as I could. The delegates were all different. With some you intuitively knew there was no connection so you moved on, but others you felt more in tune with. I brought a bunch of CDs and I handed those out. I didn’t know if they would listen to it, but I didn’t want to get too precious with the CDs. I knew I wasn’t going to be hammering out any deals or signing any contracts at the festival. That would come later if it did. The festival was about meeting people.
Around the time the networking hour was wrapping up our guitarist, Uudee, showed up. He took a different flight so we hadn’t seen him yet. We grabbed some free coffee and headed to the Kangol store where we were scheduled to perform. It was a small, neat-looking three-storey building with a terrace space at the entrance that served as the stage. We did a quick soundcheck and went to grab lunch. By the time we returned, the storefront was buzzing with excitement. Billy Carter were playing. They had the energy and charisma to draw a crowd in and turn an acoustic set into an impromptu party. Some sat on chairs, some on stairs, some stood, and the crowd spilled out onto the streets. They finished their set and it was our turn. Half of the crowd dispersed and was replaced by a few devoted people familiar with our songs. No more people on the stairs, but we played well and everyone felt good about it. Our set was over and the audience dissolved into the steady stream of pedestrians in the street. A Swedish lady came up to us and purchased a CD. She had listened to our music even before she arrived in Korea and liked it. That was a true vote of confidence.
When we were booked for the Kangol show, we were told that in lieu of getting paid, we could have any 5 items of our choice from their shop. We thought this was a great deal, but when it came time for us to choose, we learned that it was actually 10 items! It was like Christmas and we were like children. Kangol is famous for their headwear so I had to get a hat. Uudee and I got 3 items each and Enkhjin got 4. On top of the free clothes, we also picked up our free Kangol shoes that came with the artist package. Walking out the door with bags of free stuff, we felt like rock stars.
We dropped everything off at our guesthouse and headed to Nagwon again. Uudee needed to get his guitar set up. We took him to the old man, but he wanted to charge Uudee twice as much as he charged us. We talked him down and walked around the maze of guitar shops as we waited. We spotted another shop that was doing repairs. They also happened to have Uudee’s exact model. We didn’t think much of it and returned to the old man’s shop. He had set the guitar’s action too high and didn’t seem to know what he was doing. He fumbled around with his ancient tools and attempted vainly to adjust his repairs. We thought better of it. We paid him and left the shop disheartened. We decided to visit the other shop we had found and learned that they would do the set up for even less than I was charged. I felt betrayed by the old man. From the look of their station it was clear that they knew what they were doing. The repair was done and Uudee was satisfied with the set up. We handed the shop owner the money, but to our surprise, he didn’t accept it! He understood that we were ripped off and didn’t want to charge us another fee. We were moved by his small act of kindness. It lifted our spirits and rendered what would have been a bad experience into a good memory. The only thing we could think to do was give him a copy of our EP. That felt good and right. What he did for us was ultimately worth more than the bit of money he forwent. It’s the kind of thing that restores your faith in people and keeps you from turning cynical. The shop is called Guitar Shinwoo Musical Instrument (신우악기).
Sunday October 2, 2016
It was pouring torrents on the day of our performance, but it did little to discourage the crowds from flooding the streets with raincoats and umbrellas. We headed to the artist lounge to meet some more delegates, and also to fuel up on coffee, which was very good despite being free. Or perhaps it was good because it was free. Our show was in a few hours and we needed to rehearse. We were ready, but we needed the reassurance. We returned to our guesthouse and went through our songs as the pouring of the rain on the porch grew softer and then louder again. Our songs are quiet and fragile and good to listen to alone, and it felt good to play it to ourselves so we were ready to share it with others. A Korean band called Swiimers were well into their set by the time we arrived at Evans Lounge. They had a big dreamy shoegaze sound that filled every corner of the room. The singer had a red V guitar and an assortment of pedals that elevated their sound beyond ours by a tenfold. Their stage presence was demure and subdued and they didn’t try to pull anything funny. They were loud and well-equipped, but their songs all seemed to melt into one and you couldn’t tell them apart. Later, I listened to their songs online and discovered that they were actually well crafted. It was no surprise they were indistinguishable; none of the bands could do soundchecks for their showcases. But at the time, I could only focus on playing my own songs as best as I could so the soundcheck didn’t occur to me as an issue. The room could hold about 100 people, but there was only about 15 people there for the show. It was strange to see Swiimers put on such a loud show for such a quiet crowd. At any given time, 11 bands were playing simultaneously across all the venues so the small audience is no real surprise.
Swiimers finished their set and it was our turn to take the stage. We travelled light and Uudee didn’t bring his delay pedal so we asked Swiimers who kindly let us use theirs. Uudee also forgot his tuner which we borrowed from them. The singer asked us if we lost our equipment, but embarrassingly, we hadn’t. We just didn’t bring it. I like to keep our set stripped down, as opposed to overdressed, but perhaps this time we were a little too naked. Our show commenced to a slow start. We needed to get into gear and the sound engineer also needed to figure out what we were about. From the second song onwards, I felt more comfortable and you could hear it. Playing our track “The Beach Song” always feels good, and the people in the room were feeling it as well, even if they didn’t want to show it. We played 8 songs, which sounds like a lot, but time rushes by when you’re on stage. Before we knew it we were on our last song. We closed the show with a song called “Someday”, which Enkhjin sings by herself. I always like to end the set with this song because it’s fast and catches people off guard. I like to think it leaves people on a high note.
A delegate from Mongolia named Natsagdorj had come to Zandari with the guitarist of a popular Mongolian band called The Lemons. They attended our showcase and did a Facebook live broadcast of the show. It was a good way to share the experience and get it on tape. It’s helpful to watch recordings of your performance so that you can know what your weaknesses are, like a boxer watching his fights (Note to self: work on stage banter.). We brought tiny bottles of Mongolian vodka for people who bought CDs at the show. A Mongolian college student, a Korean man, and a local music critic bought CDs so vodkas for them! After weeks of preparation, our show was behind us and we could relax and enjoy the rest of the festival!
That night, there was a special French Night showcase, and a band called Colors in the Street took to the stage. They were a pop-punk band that electrified the entire room and got everybody moving. I was in awe of their ability to command the audience and get everyone involved in the show. I had never heard their songs before, but I felt I knew them. Maybe it was the feeling that their songs inspired that felt familiar. Before we knew it, it was midnight and we were tired as hell. The festival went on but we went home and slept like kids after a long day at the fair.
Monday October 3, 2016
It was the last day of the festival and we went to the artist lounge for the last delegates meeting. By the third day everyone was familiar with the scene and seemed relaxed. We went hunting for record shops afterwards. We found one called Metavox that was brimming with records that they literally had no place to put them except on the floor. The keeper of the shop resembled a worn out librarian sooner than a music expert. We bought a record and went to another one called Radio Days. It was a cozy and clean vinyl cafe that had opened not a month prior. They didn’t have a big selection compared to Metavox, but the owner was exceedingly kind and hospitable. I wanted to buy a new Miles Davis record, but he searched for a good used one. The quality would be relatively the same but the price was cheaper. He didn’t have it, but I bought the record nevertheless. He also gave us free juice and we gave have him a copy of our EP. That felt right.
There was a conference scheduled that day about opportunities for Asian bands in Europe. The panel consisted of international delegates so we knew it would be in English. I took the opportunity to talk to Andy Jones from Focus Wales. He gave me practical advice about festivals, and I felt comfortable talking to him. He looked you straight in the eyes and listened to you. It was a meeting that made the conference worth it. A sense of celebration filled the air that night at the after party. People who were strangers three days before now looked familiar. The free beer was nearing the last can and Colonel Mustard and the Dijon 5 sang the last songs of the festival.
Tuesday October 4, 2016
The streets of Hongdae had become familiar to us over the days, but it was time to leave what we had come to know. In the morning we were in Seoul, but just a few hours later we would be back in Ulaanbaatar having dinner with our friends. Ulaanbaatar is as it always has been, but we have grown. People will ask about our trip, and I will tell them a 10-second version of what I’ve written in here. But even this diary is only a glimpse into my unforgettable experience at Zandari Festa.
The fifth edition of Zandari Festa – Korea’s largest music showcase festival – took place from September 30, 2016 – October 3, 2016 in Seoul’s Hongdae area. The event featured performances from more than 160 bands from 19 different countries.