Written by E. J. Jones
Photographs courtesy of Park Tae-sang
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world… You…
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one
— John Lennon, “Imagine”
Can music change the world? Tucked away in Daein Night Market a few blocks from NC Wave in downtown Gwangju is a special nook called Open Space Dreamers. This place was founded by Gwangju local, Park Tae-sang, in 2015 after he became inspired during a solo journey through Mongolia. Tae-sang is perhaps one of the biggest dreamers I’ve met. One of his dreams, which he is now accomplishing through the weekly running of his market space, is to break down cultural barriers through music and cross-cultural interaction. On a given Saturday night between the hours of seven and ten, you can find a mix of native Koreans and foreigners at Dreamers, performing and enjoying music together as they sit in camping chairs and plastic stools around tables of the market’s local cuisine and drinks. Some visitors only go to the Dreamers space occasionally, while others have found a home there. These regulars, made up of musicians, artists, and volunteers, have come to be known as “The Dreamers,” so called for their creative spirits and ambitions of inspiring the world to be a better place.
At some point last year, Tae-sang began talking of a return trip to Mongolia, but this time he wanted to bring his Dreamer friends with him to share their music with the nomadic people, while also having the opportunity to experience and understand the poverty and environmental issues that are rife within the country. To be honest, I don’t think anyone – not even Tae-sang – was really sure that this dream could actually become a reality. Yet, despite doubts, the details of the trip eventually came together, and in late September, the Dreamers assembled and headed for Mongolia for their first music tour. I was lucky enough to be invited to join them as the violinist.
Our team consisted of twelve members: one part foreigner and one part Korean. We arrived in Ulaanbaatar to the rude awakening that winter had arrived in Mongolia early. Immediately, we layered up and made our way through the biting wind to our first performance venue, a community center in Zuunmod, where Tae-sang had arranged for us to play a children’s concert.
After everyone had completed their sound checks at the venue, we were driven to the home of a family that would be hosting us during our time in Zuunmod. It was dark when we arrived, and cold. Half of the group unloaded their things into the yurt they were to stay in (if you don’t know what a yurt is, it is a circular tent made of felt or skins used as housing by Mongol nomads) while a few of the girls and I were invited into the house to sleep where it was warmer.
Inside the house, we were greeted warmly by the family who lived there: a beautiful young woman with short, pink hair and big brown eyes, who looked to me like she came straight out of an anime film; her father and mother; two middle-aged boys; a young girl; and a toddler (who had the most irresistible tuft of baby hair on his head I had ever seen). Byamba was the name of the lady with the pink hair. She made us feel welcome and offered us our first taste of Mongolian cuisine: a plate with sliced bread and horse meat. Although I am not much of an adventurous eater, I was starving, and so I stuffed a slab of the dark, thinly sliced meat into my mouth along with a bite of bread and tried not to think about what it was. To my surprise the meat tasted delicious and was reminiscent of beef.
The next day, unfortunately, only about 40 of the expected 200 children showed up at the community center to hear us play, but by the time the concert ended, nobody really cared about that. I have rarely performed for a more appreciative audience. The show kicked off with a small ensemble of Mongolian girls playing traditional music, followed by our teams. The special repertoire we had prepared for the trip included traditional Irish music, a selection of Disney songs, both traditional and non-traditional Korean pieces, originals, and also some classics. I think everyone felt the power and beauty of music at that concert, and I hope that through it, the children could sense our hearts for them. The performance turned out to be a promising start to our trip, and it was only the beginning.
The following morning, we woke up to Narnia outside our window: Mongolia had been suddenly transformed into a magical wonderland of snow. I only wished I had brought my fur-lined winter boots as I was definitely feeling ill-prepared, stepping into the harsh elements in my ankle-high leather lace-ups, as were several other members of the team. However, that morning we were headed for the desert, and so we had the hope that it might be warmer there as we hopped into the artillery-like desert vans we’d rented for the next five days.
At first, the van ride was not that interesting. But then, something wonderful happened: as the snow began to disappear, our driver suddenly turned off-road, and we began bumping across the sand. Now, this was more like it! With a simple turn of the wheel, it felt like we were on an excursion through the final frontier, rather than a boring van ride on a road through the desert. As we got further and further away from the populated areas, we began to encounter an array of the Gobi’s inhabitants: giant Mongolian hawks, goats, rabbits, yaks, deer, and yes – even herds of the rare two-humped camel!
Eventually, we came to our first major sightseeing stop of the trip: a famous canyon called Tsagaan Suvarga. Our vans pulled up to the canyon with just enough time to explore before sunset. Now, I’ve been to the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and that was an experience, but to me, this canyon was more beautiful and exotic. It’s truly difficult to even try to describe the place other than to say it was unlike anything I had ever seen before. The other Dreamers and I, charged with adrenaline as we lay eyes on this new and beautiful place, began to run about as though we were kids again, sliding down ravines, walking out to the edges of cliffs, and running up and down sand dunes. After all of it, we were exhausted, but we couldn’t pack up without first playing music in a place so deserving. I grabbed my violin from the van, freed it from its case, and walked out to one of the ledges of the canyon. As you can imagine, simply by doing this, I drew the curiosity of many of the tourists who were there. I started with “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas, which seemed fitting to the surroundings. Before long, I was joined by other members of the team, and we were performing an impromptu concert for those who happened to be standing nearby with appreciative smiles and nods. We played until the sun slowly slipped behind the horizon, and the Gobi night air was filled with our song.
That night, I finally got to sleep in a yurt. It was surprisingly cozy, and I have to say, it is one aspect of the trip I look back on and miss. The inside of the circular “house” was lined with beds and had a wood stove in the center for heating. Here, we cooked our dinners and breakfasts using the supplies we’d brought. There were no showers for the five days we were in the desert and this was as close to “roughing it” as I have ever come. We did our best to keep up hygiene using water tissue, dry shampoo, and body sprays. After dinner was cleaned up, most nights those of us who weren’t too tired sat around singing and playing music under the desert stars.
On one of our days driving through the desert, our group took a pit stop in what was seemingly the middle of nowhere. There, in the ditch beside the road, we decided to record a few songs amongst the trash that littered the sands, hoping to use the footage later to help raise awareness of pollution problems, even out in the desert. When our two drivers – who had previously been cold to us – saw what we were doing, they exited the vans and came walking toward us with our Dreamers banner stretched between them. Even though they did not speak our language, they understood what we were doing and were evidently moved to be a part of it. From that moment until the end of the trip, the drivers accepted us as their friends, and we had many laughs together through our interactions. This is a moment, Tae-sang says, that he can never erase from his mind.
For me, the most memorable night of our trip was on our second day in the desert. At the end of the day, we pulled up to a camp of yurts, where we were met by an enthusiastic group of Mongolian youth who were traveling together. Our now-enthusiastic drivers suggested that we play a concert for our young audience, and the opportunity to play music is, of course, something we rarely refuse. So, out came the instruments once again, and we were met with an unexpected level of cheers and excitement. As we played, the youth and yurt camp owners formed a circle around us. Together we sang and we danced on the platform our music was creating; in an instant, strangers became family. In that circle, social class or cultural differences or even language barriers become obsolete.
Days later as our group left the Gobi and returned, covered in sand, to our headquarters in Zuunmod, we found that word had spread about our music, and we were asked to perform a special concert at a nearby military base. At first, we were reluctant to agree to this as we did not want to support the communistic military of Mongolia, but when we learned that many of the soldiers were only in that position out of poverty and necessity, and that many of them had never had the chance to see live music in all their lives, we had to reconsider.
The same afternoon, the sizeable hall within the grim, cinder-block military base was filled with young soldiers who sat, rigidly at first, in their seats as they waited for our show to begin – but it didn’t take long for the music to change all that. Soon, the soldiers were clapping along, and dormant smiles awoke on their faces. By the end of the concert, we once again had several of our audience members on stage with us, and others were standing and singing along in the crowd. For a brief moment in time, men became boys again as they eagerly performed one of their own Mongolian pop songs for us, and we could see that the opportunity to not only hear live music but perform themselves for an audience was truly a special experience for them. I couldn’t help but wonder if any of them had ever dreamed of becoming musicians. Though this concert was an unplanned part of our itinerary, it may have turned out to be one of our most meaningful performances of the whole trip.
All in all, I think the Dreamers left Mongolia feeling that we had fulfilled the mission we had set out to accomplish, and hopefully we were able to touch others with the message of our music while we were there. I cannot speak for what the Mongolian people felt in their hearts, only for what I saw in their smiles and in their eyes.
Eden has been living in Korea since 2014 and enjoys reading, writing, snowboarding, and enchanting the locals with her violin when she can manage to find a spare minute away from her editing responsibilities at the Gwangju News. Eden became Managing Editor in September 2017.