NY Subway musicians find fame in Korea

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    Art and Seoul

    Subway musicians find fame in Korea

    By Ginger Adams Otis
    Ginger Adams Otis is a freelance writer.

    December 16, 2003

    Subway musician Mark Nicosia spends his days sleeping and his nights banging on a custom- made drum set two flights below street level on the L platform in Union Square station. Like thousands of other subterranean performers, he makes his living dodging police officers, fighting to be heard above rattling trains and angling for a moment of attention from legions of harried commuters.

    This month, all that will change. Nicosia, 28, and three other subway performers will take off for Seoul, South Korea, on an all-expenses-paid trip that will thrust them into the limelight in a way that would never happen here. And it came about because one night Nicosia was in the right place at the right time, and the right person heard him play.

    "I was at my usual spot earlier this summer," Nicosia says, "and this woman walks up to me and says, 'Would you like to come with me to Korea to play in the subway there?' I was like, 'Yeah, right. I'll meet you at JFK.'"

    Despite his skepticism, Nicosia and the woman kept in touch. Then one day, he got almost unbelievable news. "She calls and says, 'I got your ticket. Pack your bags,'" Nicosia recalls. "'You're going to Korea in September.'"

    Nicosia got busy packing his African djembé drum, eight cymbals, snare, tambourine and homemade leg shaker (made of tiny 25- cent toy containers filled with rice and paper clipped to an ankle strap).

    The woman was HK Chung, a Korean-born illustrator and graphic designer who moved to Manhattan at 16 but maintained close ties with Seoul, her native city. She also put down deep roots in New York, and in particular grew to love its gritty, vibrant underground music scene. For some 25 years riding the subways, Chung wondered why music was largely absent from Seoul's mass transit system. "I started to think about how to bring this passion to Seoul," the stylish and diminutive 40-something Chung says. "My country is so misunderstood, emotionally speaking. Everyone thinks we're reserved and restrained. But Koreans are hot-tempered and flamboyant. We love good food, good drinks, dancing and singing. We're the southern Italians of Asia."

    Backed by a group of Korean friends and co-workers, Chung developed Team Under New York, an artists' collective that promotes urban cultural exchange between the two cities. In September, she took her life savings, $40,000, and transported Nicosia and four others from the bowels of New York City to Seoul's sleek, modern subway system. The response was even more enthusiastic than she had hoped.

    "I played so hard at my first performance in Seoul that I tore up my hands on my cymbals," says Nicosia, who has a unique style that involves smacking cymbals with his fingertips on the upswing while maintaining the rhythm of the drum below. "The Koreans just went crazy. The police came down to see what was going on, because nobody could get through the subway stop." Due to safety regulations, New York City police try to keep musicians away from some high-traffic areas. This includes train platforms, spots where performers get a more captive audience, and as a result, more donations.

    Soon after, they were featured on Korean talk shows and news shows, and their faces were all over the papers, Nicosia says. And the buzz only increased as the days passed. On the day of their second performance, Chung and the musicians arrived at GangNam station to find several hundred people sitting quietly on the floor, some with their own mats, waiting for the music to start. By the time the trip ended two weeks later, the five musicians were the toast of the town, featured in just about every newspaper, magazine and TV show of note.

    Now, Chung (again using her money) has arranged a second tour, starting tomorrow, that will bring Nicosia and three other diverse subway acts to Seoul for an encore performance. In exchange for airfare, five-star accommodations and meals (this time provided by a Seoul hotel), a per diem and payment for each gig, the musicians will perform 30-minute sets each day in a different subway stop, usually one of the city's three biggest: GangNam Yuk, Kang Yuk or Uljee Ro Yuk. Before each musician takes the stage, a five-minute film of the New York subway system will project onto a wall behind them, ending when the train pulls into that performer's preferred station.

    Jeff Brodnax, 38, a soulful singer-songwriter who usually haunts the 14th Street station of the F train, will perform, as will the four-person funk band Pamela Betti and the Blue Bloods, who can be seen at Times Square. Wrapping it up is Irving Louis Lattin, 52, who doesn't believe he would become a pop idol to hundreds of screaming Korean women. "I can't imagine a woman crying over me unless I did something wrong," the blues man says. "Forget the success: I just want to show up and see that they got my name right."

    If all goes well, Chung plans a third trip for the spring, this time bringing New York graffiti artists, who she hopes will spray-paint subway stations while musicians perform. It's all about giving underappreciated artists new venues, Chung says, and giving a new form of city expression to Seoul.

    Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc. |

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