Songs in B Minor: Busan Beats With an Eclectic, Electric Music Scene


Mention Busan and music in the same breath, and chances are, 2PM’s Wooyoung, CN Blue’s Jung Yong Hwa and Lee Jong Hyun, After School’s Lizzy, Supreme Team’s Simon D, or any resident K-Pop artist who calls the southern city hometown come to mind. Those more in tune with other music genres will remember Busan as the city of origin of such indie acts as Every Single Day and Rainy Sun.

What many people miss is that the coastal metropolis is more than the native land of such K-Pop stars and indie favorites.  Busan has a thriving music scene, diverse and populated with and powered by talents both local and expatriates.

The wide spectrum and deep bench of music in Busan is largely fostered by local bars where these groups find venues to play their particular brand of music for their audiences.  Kim Dong Ha, considered the “Godfather of Busan’s Music Scene” founded At The Crossroads, the first foreigner bar in Busan centered around appreciation of music—listening and making.  That was 15 years ago, in the 1990s, when the bar culture was starting to blossom in Busan, radiating from the Pusan National University (PNU) and other university areas.  The emerging music scene was Western-influenced, most notably the Seattle Sound of the 90s. 

Kim Dong Ha has since then grown the number of his establishments to include Soul Trane, Ol’55 and The Vinyl Underground.  With it comes the expansion of music genres, from punk to jazz, to ska, metal, electronic and hip-hop. 

The Vinyl Underground is reputed to play host to electronic music acts and features acts well-known around Korea since 2002 visit from Mr. Fudge, Sundance Kid, DJ G and Electron.  Even then, The Vinyl Underground is also home to other genres like punk.      

For slowed-down, more intimate sound trip, The Crossroads and Ol’55 are the go-to spots.  Moo Monk—the Kyungsung University one (since there is another Moo Monk, in the PNU area, which is more famous for hard rock) is home to jazz, acoustic and the occasional blues groups.

Apart from the venues, Busan generates, develops and enriches its music pool with events such as its annual Battle of the Bands held for four weekends in the last two months of the year. 

“Each band plays a 30-minute set which includes at least four original songs,” said Russell McConnell, lead singer and saxophonist of One Drop East, who is co-founder of AlLiveKorea, formerly Busan Live!, founders and organizers of the Busan Battle of the Bands.  “Fans vote for their favorite act that night (heat).  The winner of each heat competes in the Grand Finale.”    

McConnell’s One Drop East (ODE) emerged the victor in the Battle’s inaugural year, 2009. ODE is an eight-member band playing a mix of reggae, funk and soul.  Apart from McConnell, the octet includes Vasana Haines, Gordon Bazsali, Jeffery Beattie, Angela Crebbin, Ben May, Sean Devlin and Benjamin Adriance.  All expatriates working and living in Korea, ODE members are, like their music, a mix of races: Kiwis, Yankees, Aussie and Canuck.

ODE credits the “Godfather” Kim Dong Ha for getting together.  Most of the members met at the Crossroads, and got fused to evolve from the former rock-and-roll Mojo and soul-and-funk B-Funk.

Check out a ODE performance:

“What Changed”

Succeeding One Drop East as Battle grand winner is Nacho Pupa, a six-piece Korean band, playing a fusion of Irish folk music and punk rock. 

Check out Nacho Pupa:

“You guys rocked.  It wasn’t about the best foreign band or the best Korean band,” Nacho Pupa singer and guitarist Oh Byeong Uk was quoted as saying at the end of the festival.  “We all should be proud of this night because everyone played great music.”

It is also credit to this cooperative spirit that the Busan music scene is as eclectic and energetic as it is.  Nacho Pupa’s co-finalist, South Bay, was reported to have joined the winners onstage for some songs during the encore performance.

South Bay, though recently disbanded, was a punk and ska staple of spots like the Monk.

Check out a South Bay performance:


Defector Frequency, the runners-up of the 2010 Battle, is known for catchy electro-pop.  A different fare from the hard rock and punk-heavy competition of the year, Defector Frequency’s brand of synth-driven danceable rhythms provided variety.

In August, while elsewhere up north K-Pop will hold a tourism-motivated gathering of superstars, the port city will host the 12th Busan International Rock Festival.  The event, under the auspices of the Organizing Committee for Busan Culture and Tourism Festival intends to discover new musical contents, revitalize the music industry and celebrate indie bands.  K-Rock legends Baekdoosan, YB and EZ Hyoung are some of the Festival participants in recent years.

While the scene is verdant and the talent rich, there is the looming inevitability of losing Busan’s musicians to Seoul. 

“Many of Korea’s indie bands now wowing fans in Seoul perfected their chops in Busan,” Roy Kim, singer-songwriter of Lady Goodman laments.  Aside from the aforementioned Every Single Day and Rainy Sun, he names ska-punk outfit Ann and hardcore metal group Pia as exports to the indie music industry in the capital.  He compares this progression to the natural migration of musicians and entertainers to Los Angeles (Hollywood) and New York in the world stage. 

Still, with Kim Dong Ha’s establishments, events like Battle of the Bands and the Busan International Rock Festival, and a culture of genuine love for music, Busan’s music scene remains robust and diverse.

The next time someone mentions Busan and music in the same sentence, think beyond the birthplace of name-your-K-Pop-bias. Busan’s music scene, as much as its sandy beaches and seafood, is its pride and joy.

Photo credit: Busan Haps