NEW ULM - Believe it or not, there is such a thing as Korean bluegrass; and the man described as its "father" just visited New Ulm.
Yong-Kee Seok, a businessman from Seoul, South Korea, and a hobby bluegrass player, jammed with Minnesota bluegrass musicians Monday and Tuesday.
On Tuesday morning, Yong-Kee played American bluegrass classics with local musician Dick Kimmel, retired Minnesota State University professor Len Kalakian, who now lives in Wadena and is his host, and Laura Karels, who plays bluegrass with the local band "Little Prairie Pickers."
Staff photo by Kremena Spengler
Korean bluegrass player Yong-Kee Seok jams with local musician Dick Kimmel, retired Minnesota State University professor Len Kalakian, far left, and Laura Karels, far right, who plays bluegrass with the local band “Little Prairie Pickers,” Tuesday morning in New Ulm.
Earlier in the visit, on Monday, Yong-Kee also played with Jerilyn Kjellberg, who partners in music with Kimmel and Kimmel's son Ian.
"I think we played music for more than 10 hours in the last 24," said Kimmel.
Besides American songs, at one point, Yong-Kee broke into a bluegrass version of what is perhaps the best known Korean song, "Arirang."
He sang lyrics in English and Korean.
Kalakian, a hobby bluegrass musician himself, met Yong-Kee while living in Korea as part of his own university career.
They met through a Japanese bluegrass player, the man described as the "father" of Japanese bluegrass.
Bluegrass has a presence in Korea but is even bigger in Japan, with many festivals and clubs, the musicians said.
Yong-Kee's interest in bluegrass grew out of yodeling, of all things. He learned about it in the 1970s from his yodeling teacher. During his New Ulm visit, Yong-Kee proficiently modeled both yodeling and bluegrass.
Music is Yong-Kee's hobby: for a living, he heads a company called NYS, Ltd., the Korean agent of Yamaha Motors.
He travels frequently to Japan, the United States, Europe and other parts of the world.
When in Japan, he visits a famous bluegrass club, to listen and also play.
His trips to the United States involve business; visits one of his sons, an aerospace engineering student at the University of Michigan; and, whenever possible, playing bluegrass.
Yong-Kee's business success has been instrumental in his building of the Bluegrass House, the headquarters of Korean bluegrass in Seoul.
The "house," which Kalakian described as more of a "mansion," hosts the monthly rehearsals of Yong-Kee's five-member band, jam sessions, as well as performances about four times a year.
Yong-Kee plays several instruments and also teaches guitar.
His family doesn't play bluegrass, but enjoys music, he said.
His wife - who is one of his former guitar students - sometimes critiques Yong-Kee's band.
The worldwide bluegrass community keeps connected through an umbrella group, the International Bluegrass Music Association, said Kimmel, who chaired that group for two decades.
Players are known to one another worldwide, and can simply get together and play, as evidenced by Yong-Kee's New Ulm visit and how he well fit in with the diverse group.
Bluegrass is a universal language that's probably done more for world peace than the U.N., Kalakian said, only half joking.