UNBREAKABLE – KIM HYUN JOONG: music and tradition

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Authors: Adriana Carmen Mercado León y Andrea Ramírez 

MUSIC IN KOREA is a section of singer Kim Hyun Joong’s Youtube channel that has three seasons so far. In each of them you can see various landscapes and tourist places in South Korea, combined with all the music released throughout his career. For these videos, the singer, along with his team and the Gemini Band, made arrangements for the songs so that they fit harmoniously with each of the places.  The three seasons were successful, as both Henecia and people who had never heard of him before, fell deeply in love with the songs and of course with Korea as well. That is the reason why during this blog we will analyze the song “Unbreakable“, one of the most iconic songs of Kim Hyun Joong’s career, which belongs to the second season of the program, where the combination of musical arrangements, the use of traditional instruments and the relationship with the stage in the MV, among others, stand out for their beauty. Let’s start talking a little about this song from more than a decade!

Photograph - Composition LR and screenshot from YouTube. Taken from: La República

Unbreakable is the leading song of the mini album ‘ROUND 3’ featuring Jay Park, and it was released on July 22, 2013. This song meant Kim Hyun Joong’s comeback at that time, he gained so much strength that he was at the top of his career. The song talks about how he is invincible, unbreakable, that everything is going to be okay, that he is not dead, and that he is ready to come back. This song has had different arrangements throughout his career, sometimes with a rock touch and other times with a more ballad style. And this time the version he presents in MUSIC IN KOREA has both, plus the addition of traditional South Korean musical instruments, creating a perfect harmony.

Unbreakable’s screenshot. Taken from Youtube

The acoustic version of Unbreakable, presented at MUSIC IN KOREA, takes place at Sunwoogak Café, which is located in Ui-Dong, Gangbuk-Gu, in Seoul, South Korea. It is a Joseon Dynasty-era building and is Seoul’s private Hanok. It was built by the founder of Hyundai, Chung Ju-Young, and was used as a high-class restaurant during the third Gong era. Nowadays, it is a very visited café by both locals and foreigners, besides being famous for being a filming set for various dramas such as Ordinary Person and Mr. Sunshine. This setting fits perfectly with the theme, the mix of traditional Korean instruments, guitar, and bass gives the song a rock side.

Photograph of Sunwoogak Café

On the other hand, part of the setting that goes with the video of Unbreakable and that gives great meaning and weight to the song is “The Lion Dance”, which is a traditional dance of South Korea that is considered an intangible national cultural heritage. This traditional dance consists of a large costume that represents the lion, where one person controls the front along with the head and another person is in charge of the back, and together they perform movements that mimic the animal. The dance aims to attract good luck and fortune and ward off evil spirits.

Unbreakable’s screenshot - Lion dance Taken from Youtube

It is noteworthy to talk about some of the traditional instruments that appear in this version of the song, four instruments are accompanying  this interpretation, these are the Janggu, the Buk, the Jing, and the Kkwaenggwari. Each of these instruments has particularities not only concerning its sound and history but also its form; moreover, the performers accompanying the song enjoy the performance very much as can be seen in the music video. Below, we will mention a little about each one of them.

Unbreakable’s screenshot- Janggu. Taken from Youtube

The Janggu is a traditional drum of Korean origin, similar in shape to an hourglass. It is known to have been used in various circumstances, such as war events, shamanic rituals, art festivals, and by farmers to ward off evil spirits. This instrument can be played with the hands or with drumsticks, it has two animal skin patches that have different sounds, two wooden boxes, and tensors to provide balance to the instrument. According to an article from the Institute of Culture of Barcelona, these instruments “produce sounds of different pitches and timbres: the high-pitched sounds coming from the drum played with the right hand, and the low-pitched sounds coming from the drum played with the left hand. In any case, and according to tradition, when both are played at the same time, they represent the harmony between man and woman”¹.

Unbreakable’s screenshot- Buk. Taken from Youtube

Buk is a spherical drum that is also used horizontally. This is an instrument made from animal hide and is known to be used in Korean folk music and also in court music called Jeongak. This traditional Korean instrument has a barrel shape and a wooden frame covered with leather. This instrument is also played with drumsticks and is part of the Samulnori instruments.

Unbreakable’s screenshot- Kkwaenggwari. Taken from Youtube

The Kkwaenggwari is a type of small gong originally from Korea. This is a percussion instrument used in Korean folk music and genres such as Salmunori, Pungmul, and Nongak country music. It is made of bronze and is played with a kind of wooden drumstick, the sound it produces is very sharp. On the other hand, according to an article by Grinnell College Instrument Collection, “the kkwaenggwari was also used in ancient times with the instruments that accompanied the dance in the Rite to the Royal Ancestors; in this context, it was called sogum and is symbolically associated in the Confucian thought of the time with autumn, the color white, and the west direction”(Howard 1995, p. 60).

Unbreakable’s screenshot- Musical instruments. Taken from Youtube

We can also listen to the Jing, which is another type of gong but larger than the Kkwaenggwari. This is also used in traditional Korean music such as in the Salmunori and Daechwita, a genre of military music consisting of wind instruments and percussion. It usually has a size of 35 to 40 cm in diameter but can be larger, regarding; the material of manufacture is usually brass. On the other hand, as can be seen in the photograph, it is played with a mallet covered with cloth, to soften the texture of the sound produced.

As if that were not enough, in this interpretation of Unbreakable, not only traditional sounds were present through the instruments already described, but also instruments such as the piano and the guitar, among others, were played by the Gemini Band, which without exception accompanied Kim Hyun Joong this beautiful interpretation. It is common to hear that today’s music does not intermingle with tradition, and clearly, this is an example of the opposite.

In this way, we can see the great job that Kim Hyun Joong and his team did to show his audience what Korean culture is all about, mixing traditional with modern music and interpretation. Also, as mentioned at the beginning, the song talks about being unbreakable and continuing to stand up no matter what, and both the instruments and the traditional dance bring more strength and meaning to the song.

Readers: Mar Montiel y Nathalia Millán

Reviewed by: Luisa Quintero


Barcelona cultura. (2023). Toquemos los janggu, las percusiones de Corea. https://www.barcelona.cat/barcelonacultura/es/toquemos-janngu-percusiones-corea-instrumento-musical-actividad-familiar-taller-participativo-aprender-sonoridades-ritmos-sesion-experimentacion-museu-dela-musica-barcelona 

DBpedia. (sn). BUK. https://dbpedia.org/page/Buk_(drum) 

La República. (2021). Kim Hyun Joong hizo remake de “Unbreakable” a ocho años de su lanzamiento https://larepublica.pe/cultura-asiatica/2021/07/02/kim-hyun-joong-hizo-remake-de-unbreakable-a-8-anos-de-su-lanzamiento 

Recess Time. (sn). ¿Conoces el Janggu? Aprende todo sobre el aquí. Hora del Recreo. https://horadelrecreo.com/c-instrumentos-musicales/janggu/

SUNWOONGAK.. (2023). Sunwoongak Cafe.  https://swg-visual.wixsite.com/sunwoongak

UOH Horang. (2023).  봉산탈춤, Danza de máscaras de Bongsan. https://www.uofhorang.com/history/mask-dance-of-bongsan 

Vetter. R.,Austin. T. (SN). Kkwaenggwari. Grinnell College Instrument Collection.  https://omeka-s.grinnell.edu/s/MusicalInstruments/item/2403 

Wikipedia. (2019).Kkwaenggwari  https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kkwaenggwari

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