Zandari Festa 2017 Review

Seoul-based showcase festival Zandari Festa consistently attracts both great Korean and international acts as well as other attendees, making it easy to catch up with old and new friends alike. As such, for the past couple of years has been one of the highlights of my annual Korea trips. So also this year.

Zandari Thursday, September 28

Zandari Festa 2017 kicked off with an opening party at the STUMP. The venue and audience were both much smaller than the year before, likely owing both to it being a regular Thursday and that many of the delegates were still busy getting the most out of the last day of Mu:Con Seoul.

After a brief opening address from the festival’s executive director Dalse Singapore’s CampFire took to the stage. I’d been listening to a few songs each from all international acts at this year’s Zandari Festa and was largely uninterested in all the hip-hop acts, yet CampFire soon showed that I was mistaken by offering a fun set that much exceeded my expectations.

Shortly thereafter followed in the endless zanhyang we are. The band started strong with “Greensleeves” and continued to offer atmospheric pieces until finishing with the gorgeous “Till The Night There”. The year before the band had played Zandari Festa under the name of leader Ahn Dayoung, but under this new moniker the band had a sound much stronger in the post-rock direction than I could remember. As beautiful as the music was, the music of in the endless zanhyang we are stood in stark contrast to the other bands playing the opening party, with the audience thinning considerably as the performance.

Up next was The Lemons–one of Mongolia’s biggest alternative rock bands. I’d had my eyes on them since coming across their Live in UB profile a few years back, where the members explained how skinny jeans became a trend in the country, and was super excited to finally get to see them live myself. After playing a couple of their soft rock greatest hits the tempo was turned up. I loved it all and for the next few days found myself being surprisingly excited every time I spotted any of the members around Hongdae.

Closing the after party was Singaporean pop-punk band Iman’s League. In spite of all that The Lemons have done for skinny jeans in Mongolia, they had nothing on the guitarist of Iman’s League who was rocking out in absolutely skintight jeans. Iman’s League played all of my favorite songs from the new album as well as a fun medley of songs from previous albums. The audience was jumping and overall very engaged in the performance, not least when Jeff from …Whatever That Means came to rescue when the guitar couldn’t be heard anymore.
All in all it was an enjoyable enough evening, though more so because of the bands than the party itself.

Having flown in from Sweden earlier that same day I headed home shortly after Iman’s League left the stage to make sure I’d get a chance to rest well before the festival really started.

Zandari Friday, September 29

This year’s Zandari Festa had a time table full of 1h slots at 30 minute intervals, ideally making it easier to catch more bands as the allocated set time should be around 40 minutes. This necessarily also means more overlaps in the schedule for bands one would like to see, but at least the first day of the festival didn’t offer too many critical conflicts as far as I was concerned.

The Zandari Friday started with French band Matmatah as the sole band playing the 18:30 slot, but as Matmatah was scheduled to also play the French evening the next day I made sure to instead head to Rolling Hall in good time.

19:00

National Pigeon Unity has been a Zandari favorite for me both years prior so I wanted to be sure to catch the full set also this year. In spite of being the first band out the set started late, but once “Molotov Cocktail” and “Sevenless” were over all was forgiven. In spite of an audience of around 40 members, of which at least a third was foreigners, NPU proceeded with an introduction in Korean letting the performance speak for itself to the delegates present. The duo’s loud rock sounded great thanks to the venue’s good sound system and the energy exuded from the stage was high, with Kim Dong-Hun at one point playing the guitar while standing on the drums. The only real negative was that there was no “Like a Light” this year.

19:30

I really enjoyed 3rd Line Butterfly’s latest album so I thought it’d be fun to check them out next. As second band to play at Muv Hall that day, the set started a full 30 minutes late. It put the focus on Divided By Zero, just as I had hoped, opening with “Ex-Life”. The highlight while I stuck around, however was “헤어지는 날 바로 오늘” which elicited a big applause after Nahm Sang Ah explicitly said “끝” (~the end) as the song ended.

20:00

Before long it was time to move towards Club FF, where all-female Swedish band Browsing Collection entertained. There the audience consisted almost exclusively of foreigners, but all seemed to have a good time. I arrived during a headbanging jam after which the band unsuccessfully tried to encourage the audience to get closer to the stage. I’d expected Browsing Collection to bring grrrl punk or girl rock of the kind I would listen to 10-15 years back, but live the material was much grungier. Between songs the band members talked to the audience a lot, talking about their experiences in Korea and explained that they went broke coming over, but had stuff for sale. As the energetic set came to an end the members all fell into a pile.

I had wanted to return to Muv Hall for a quick look at Idiotape’s 20:30 set, but considering the delays already an hour earlier it felt safer to just stay at FF to make sure not to miss the next band.

21:00

Somehow I’d never seen …Whatever That Means before this year’s Zandari Festa, otherwise always coming too late or having to leave too early to check them out live. The band brought fast and melodic punk definitely deserving a bigger crowd than this festival managed to bring. I thoroughly enjoyed it all and very much appreciated the cover of Suck Stuff’s old “This Wasteland”.

The highlight, however, of not just …Whatever That Means’ set but the entire evening was bellydancer Eshe dancing along to “More Than Ordinary”–a song written by Jeff to his fellow band member Trash on their honeymoon. Afterwards Jeff explained that it takes a lot of practice to play while there is bellydancing going on, something they’d have to learn the hard way back when Eshe was still living in Korea and arranged regular indie band and bellydance fusion events.

21:30

As much as I wanted to stick around to catch the end at FF, I had to make my way to Sangsang Madang to finally see Silica Gel. The soundcheck was still ongoing when I arrived, but at least they played almost the full “Sister” before finally starting at 21:48. In spite of the relatively large venue it was almost full, the audience being engaged all along, swaying along to the dreamy, synth-heavy psychedelic music, and at a few points even got the floor moving.

After offering the funky “모두 그래 (Everybody Does)” as the final song the audience shouted for an encore. It was close to half past ten so the band checked with the sound guy and got a no, but once half the audience had already left an ok was granted from elsewhere and Silica Gel proceeded to play the cozy “기억 (Memory)” perfectly wrapping up the first day of official Zandari Festa showcases. Unfortunately there was no sign of “비경 (Visus)”, my favorite song from last year, and the VJ members couldn’t put their talents on display, but at least I got to see the band live once before five of the members head into a long military service.

British Night: Sound City Korea

After Silica Gel it was well about time for a dinner, which lead to me missing the first couple of acts during the British night at Muv Hall. Neither of the British artists I’d hoped to see were scheduled to play, though punk duo The Twistettes did make a surprise appearance towards the end. Thanks to the good party spirit it was anyway an enjoyable enough event and a good chance to catch up with other festival attendees.

Party Stage

Once the British Night was over the party continued over at Freebird, where Eastern Standard Sounds was hosting the official party stage. Local roots-reggae band NST & The Soul Sauce turned out to be a lot of fun, but most impressive was afro-funk band Vaudou Game with an extremely captivating performance. This was a great addition to the Zandari Festa schedule and I do hope it’ll return next year.

Zandari Saturday, September 30

With a long night before, it proved impossible to get up in time for the conference portion of Zandari Festa but at least I could get out almost in time for the first showcases.

17:00

I got to Club FF 10 minutes late, but it seemed grunge band Unchained had just gotten started. Another Zandari favorite of mine, this year the audience–much like the venue–was smaller than previous years, but the band was still bringing it. Solid.

17:30

Although I’ve been curious about Victim Mentality since first coming across the name, I had yet to take the chance to actually see this glam metal band in action. This was the time and the band did not disappoint. Setting the tone with “왜 나한테만 지랄이야 (Don’t Spit on Me)” the band members provided a hugely entertaining show, wearing the same tiger and leopard print tights while playing fine heavy metal tunes.

Unfortunately I couldn’t stay around Sangsang Madang for too as I wanted to also drop by Evan’s Lounge to check out Decadent. I’d been trying to get into them for a year, but consistently failed. Seeing them live I finally got it. The smooth jazzy R&B track “A” showcased Jin Dong-Wook’s strong beautiful vocals, his hand gestures making the performance even more endearing. As the guitar became more pronounced the song turned even more interesting. Although already running late I stuck around for another song before heading to Rolling Hall.

18:00

Malaysia’s The Venopian Solitude was one of the international bands I’d been looking forward to the most after listening in a bit. After opening with an electronic number, the band followed up with a powerful, percussion heavy, folk fusion type thing, and then there was a cute indie pop tune. The Venopian Solitude continued to bring a varying sound, impressing more with every new song. A shame the number of audience members could be counted on my fingers.

As amazing as I found The Venopian Solitude I had to move on to also catch a bit of Say Sue Me. The smallest venue of the festival, Club Steel Face was very crowded and hot when I got there. I managed to catch the last three songs, including the new single. The band’s surf pop really got the crowd going, but personally I found the vocals to be mixed a bit too quietly.

19:00

When Zandari Festa published the timetable I immediately identified what I thought would be my biggest scheduling conflict: Noeazy and Modsdive both playing the Saturday 19:00 slot.

For logistical reasons I decided to start with a bit of metalcore and headed to Club Crack. I’d showed up a few minutes early to make sure not to miss anything, and for a while it seemed like Noeazy would actually start on time. I wasn’t so lucky as the soundcheck went eight minutes over time with the consequence that I could only stay for two full songs, missing out on my favorites. Like every year previously Noeazy did awesome without getting any of the moshing they deserved.

Seeing the line-up for Zandari Festa no name got me more excited than Modsdive. I’d completely missed that my favorite Korean post-rock band was back together and was really looking forward to hearing their new songs. Arriving late at Club FF meant that I missed most of the new material, walking in during the middle of the ordered chaos that turned out to be “Stardust”. On the other hand it meant that I got to hear my old favorites, which was a nice surprise. The sound was excruciatingly loud throughout, but after a dash to buy earplugs the volume seemed more tolerable.

19:30

Modsdive finished just before eight, but fortunately Guten Birds had also gotten a late start so I could catch the last four songs. Enhancing the band’s captivating rock blend, Hiram Piskitel joined the trio on stage with his cello towards the end. For the most part it sounded fantastic, and the finish with “Rolling In The Air” became even more special as I saw eeeho singing along from the audience. Had it not been for the drums being out of sync until the intense part of my current Guten Birds favorite “Sailing Out” this would’ve easily been one of my favorite showcases this Zandari Festa.

20:30

Next I wanted to quickly catch a glimpse of Rock N Roll Radio. Although Guten Birds hadn’t finished until half past eight, soundcheck was still ongoing when I arrived at Sangsang Madang. The band finally started 15 minutes late, but as I really didn’t want to be late to the next venue I left after the first song. It sounded good though, so hopefully I’ll get a chance to see more of Rock N Roll Radio another time.

21:00

Long before I turned my focus towards Korean indie music I tried to listen to a little bit of everything from all over the world. I remembered Javiera Mena as a strong female artist with acoustic guitar and was surprised to learn that she’s continued to build herself a name as Colombia’s electropop queen. Rightfully so, as her synth pop tunes are incredibly infectious, frequent earworms of mine after I first listened in.

Her showcase at Rolling Hall started 18 minutes late in front of an embarrassingly small audience–around five people in attendance, not counting staff. And when the time came to finally use the keyboard that so much time had been spent on it anyway didn’t sound good. That aside, Javiera Mena’s stage show was a joy to watch.

She had brought two dancers that made it all the more difficult to turn my eyes away from the stage, though Javiera Mena’s allegedly iconic white sunglasses during their initial appearance were somewhat questionable. More people dropped in as the showcase proceeded bringing the total number of audience members up to a couple of handfuls, but a slow-paced song in the middle of all the dance tracks kind of ruined the mood and more audience members left.

The highlight was when the time came for “Espada, which had been granted a great, long intro. My favorite song became even better with the dancers acting out a fight choreography, and even more so when lightsabers were added to the mix.

21:30

To wrap up the evening I headed to Freebird where DABDA occupied the stage. I’d been listening excessively to EP 저마다 섬 (Island of Each) on the flight over and was very happy to hear the songs from it will all their complex patterns and enthralling melodies played so well also live. The vocals couldn’t be heard clearly from the beginning, but that improved somewhat half-way through the set. It was all very, very good and made me even more confident in my assessment that DABDA is one of the most interesting bands in Korea right now.

Feeling a bit under the weather I opted to cut the evening short and thus missed out on the French Night as well as the DJ oriented after party that followed. Having already seen Vaudou Game the night before and still vividly remembering The Dizzy Brains’ performance from last year I was any satisfied with all the great music Zandari Festa had brought me so far.

Zandari Sunday, October 1

With an early end to Saturday it was much easier to get out on time during Sunday. Fortunately so, as the schedule started already at two in the afternoon.

Danzzan Date

DanZZan Date is a collaboration between Korean label LEEway Music & Media and Singaporean social enterprise SOOS OIO through which nine musicians from both countries came together, writing songs about food and love. For the Zandari special stage with the same name three artists from Korea and three from Singapore took turns performing three songs each on the Evan’s Lounge stage.

Female duo Dawn of the day opened the date with a cover of Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me” before proceeding with a couple of songs typical for the Korean coffee shop type of music that today often serves as the first introduction to Korean indie music. Considering the venue the performance would’ve been more interesting with the grand piano put to use in place of the keyboard, but the audience responded well regardless. As sweet as they were on stage, they seemed even sweeter when watching the other performers, singing along to several of the songs.

The other Korean artists in place were R&B duo G Urban and singer-songwriter Gonne Choi. The former reality singing show participants sang over a backing track for their set whereas Gonne Choi’s performance was somewhat more engaging thanks to her acoustic guitar and strong vocals.

The Singaporean artists all made greater impressions and were also more talkative than their Korean counterparts, taking the time to share the background story for each song. Pop oriented singer-songwriter Becka let the audience know that it was her first ever show overseas, exuding enthusiasm as she played the keyboards and sang. Busking trio HubbaBubbas were simply super fun, all in matching costumes and relying on beatboxing for percussion.

Singer-songwriter Jean Tan played an acoustic guitar herself and was supported on electric guitar by HubbaBubbas’ Ryan. Focusing on her more recent repertoire throughout, she finished with my personal Danzzan Date favorite, “Waiting for Love”. Once this was done it was time for a special collaboration stage during which Jean Tan and Gonne Choi together sang another new Jean Tan song together.

17:00

I had originally planned on spending my Sunday differently, but after having been introduced to SiMoN a couple of days prior I was curious to also see him live. The showcase took place at Club Steel Face in front of a modest audience of eight people, including the owner of the venue. Starting out as what seemed like a typical singer-songwriter with electric guitar, SiMoN then switched to a more intense, blues-y, complex guitar play–including some finger play–while also singing with a deeper voice.

My real target for the 17:00 slot was Rolling Hall and Thai rock band Mattnimare. Although arriving late, the band was still playing the first song which just so happened to be my favorite, “รอยต่อ (Coming of Age)” . While I’d argue that Mattnimare’s sound is made for arenas, the vocalist expressed surprise that the audience was so big–at the time around 30-40 people. After the energetic start followed several calmer songs during which the Rolling Hall lockers could occasionally be heard rattling, courtesy of the kick drum.

When the intense final section of “ความสุข (Coming of Happiness)” was coming to an end, both guitarists left the stage letting the bassist turn it into something of a bass jam session, which the lead guitarist joined once the two returned to the stage ahead of “คืนวันที่ 22 ของทุกเดือน”.

Before the final song Mattnimare claimed to usually be a calm band, but that the last song would be different. Enter “กลัวเกินก้าว (Fear)”. The song may seem calm in itself, but Mattnimare went all in proving to be a powerful rock band. The members played so hard, in fact, they ended up sounding out of tune, and the bassist kind of lost it seemingly being all over the place. A perfect ending that left me wanting more.

18:00

As Mattnimare had played past six I arrived 15 minutes late to 57, but it appeared by then the rock duo had only just finished the first song. The mood was good and with around 20 people in the audience Club Steel Face was a good fit size-wise. Come “Pray for the Dead” it became clear that the mic by the drum kit could not be heard well, but that aside it was so very, very, nice and firmly placed itself as my current 57 favorite.

18:30

Unfortunately I had to walk out on 57 early to make sure to not miss too much of Hellivision at the STUMP. Over the years I’ve come to consider Hellivision gigs an exceptional treat where one gets to be completely immersed in their psychedelic world. When I arrived at 18:38 the band was already playing at full speed, the drums rattling from the sound of the bass.

Already during the second song Lee Taehun lost a string on his guitar. After restringing, the psychedelic drums and bass supported his lively guitar play. It wasn’t until seven that the band finally introduced itself, in Korean, after which they moved on to an even groovier and heavier song with a feeling of doom. By 19:10 the band seemed surprised at the time, asked “뭐 할까?” (what should we do?) and promptly proceeded to play one more song facing each other instead of the audience. When it was over, drummer Jung Jiwan asked if that was the end after which bassist Oh Gunwoong proclaimed that they would play the final song next.

19:30

Huckleberry Finn took over at the STUMP after Hellivision, opening with “밤이 걸어간다”. In most cases I’d expect an indie rock band that’s been around for two full decades to no longer be relevant, but Huckleberry Finn is an exception for sure. This was my first time seeing them as a proper band, as opposed to the small acoustic shows they used to put on at Bar Sha, and it was just awesome. Even so the Zandari Festa schedule had me leave already during the third song.

I wanted to be at Club FF for the 20:00 slot, but to be sure not to waste any time I dropped by Gogos2 on the way to catch a glimpse of ECE. My timing could have been better as I arrived just before there was a long monologue and guitar tuning. The tune that followed was good, but mostly instrumental and missed the stage antics from Kim Dong Yong that had made ECE so memorable when I saw them a few years back.

20:00

Sunday was by far my busiest Zandari evening, so I was relieved to find Billy Carter’s showcase already ongoing when I reached FF ten minutes after the slot began. There was a good size audience in place, roughly 40-70 people, that all seemed into the blues rock trio. Entertaining as always, I couldn’t stay for long, however, as it was imperative that I returned to Evan’s Lounge before the next slot began.

20:30

I was happy to find Wings of the ISANG setting up with 10 minutes still to go. 20 minutes later the band started the post-rock oriented showcase with “의식의흐름 (Stream of Consciousness)”. From beginning till end it was magical, with both more movement on stage and more talk from Moon Jung Min between the songs than I remember seeing before.

In addition to a few favorites from the full-length album that Wings of the ISANG released last year the band also played a couple of new songs. Though I’m often skeptical towards guitar solos “인간실격 (No Longer Human)” turned out to be an amazing song with double pedal drumming towards the end. “향 (Incense)” was introduced as a song “for people that have gone far away from us”, and while I found the guitar to be a bit too much at first it too turned out to be really good.
Wings of the ISANG closed with “검은바다 (Dark Sea)” during which Moon Jung Min ventured down from the stage to play from the floor.

21:00

Wings of the ISANG didn’t finish until 21:30 after which I rushed to Club Crack on the opposite side of the block to see PAKK. I got there just in time for “재(再, Re-)”–my favorite from the new album with it’s psychedelic post-rock fusion–and loved it so much. But to my great disappointment it was also the last track. Among the showcases I saw during Zandari Festa 2017 it seems PAKK was the only band to both start and finish on time.

With the PAKK showcase over, there was suddenly room on the schedule for rock’n’roll à la Galaxy Express, who played the same slot at Rolling Hall just a few minutes away. The venue was full of people and steaming as people were jumping around. No doubt the biggest and most active audience I observed during the Sunday showcases. The crowd got even wilder when Galaxy Express performed “호롱불 (Horongbul)”. After the last song finished at 22:07 the audience called for an encore, but I left as I was determined to get some proper food before the after party.

After Party

The right way to celebrate Zandari Festa is to attend the after party. Muv Hall and the street outside were both packed with musicians, delegates, and special ticket holders having a great time.

Hungarian party band Bohemian Betyars really set the tone with their “speed-folk freak-punk”. Also memorable was Kingston Rudieska’s collaboration with doo woop trio The Barberettes, performing both “甜蜜蜜” and “Be My Baby

For some reason the after party finished an hour earlier than scheduled, but as I had to get up early the next morning I decided enough was enough and went home satisfied, having experienced another great Zandari Festa.

Festival Feedback

It’s been fun to see Zandari Festa grow and improve just during the three years I’ve attended, and I appreciate that the organizers are trying out new things.

Arranging the festival right after Mu:Con Seoul instead of the weekend prior seems to have been a success, with more high-profile delegates than usual in attendance.

Though sceptical at first, after experiencing it firsthand I really appreciate the new scheduling scheme with overlapping time slots, which allowed for a more fluid Zandari experience without too much waiting around. Considering the 40 minute set times the 30 minute difference between showcase slots at different venues seems like just the right measure.

My main issue, however, is also timing related: the showcases need to start on time! Apparently the same was also noted during the conference. I previously thought it was up to the venues to enforce the timetable, but this year it dawned on me that sometimes the artists are making that impossible. It’s not just about playing longer than the allocated time, but to be there in time for the soundcheck, too. I saw one artist show up to the venue a mere 3 minutes before the showcase was supposed to start. An idea for next year would be to have official Zandari announcements about delays, or simply tweet out when the showcases actually start and end to make it easier for attendees to adjust their plans on the fly.

While I was missing a few bands this year that I’ve seen play both of the previous Zandari Festas I’ve attended, I must say the international acts in particular were expertly selected. What could’ve improved the experience even more would’ve been to actually be able to see more of those artists. I realize that with so many concurrent showcases it’s impossible to create a timetable where attendees wouldn’t have scheduling conflicts, but that could be eased somewhat by planning it out so that the same venue hosts the same or similar styles of music throughout the day. There’s really no excuse to have Wings of the ISANG, PAKK, and Eyre Llew all play at the same time when they all play some kind of ambient rock that should appeal to roughly the same audience. (Fortunately I did get to see Eyre Llew anyway a couple of days later and they were simply amazing.)

Zandari Festa 2017 was the best Zandari Festa I’ve attended so far. Let’s see what happens next year, as festival founder Dalse promised that next year is going to be even better.

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