Monday, August 23, 2010

50 Most Influential K-Pop Artists: 48. Dongmulwon

[Series Index]

48.  Dongmulwon [동물원, "Zoo"]

Years of Activity:  1987-2003


Regular Members
Yoo Joon-Yeol [유준열] - Vocal, guitar
Park Ki-Yeong [박기영] - Vocal, keyboard
Bae Yeong-Gil [배영길] - Vocal, guitar

Temporary Members
Kim Chang-Gi [김창기] - Vocal, guitar
Park Kyeong-Chan [박경찬] - Vocal, guitar, keyboard
Lee Seong-Woo [이성우] - Vocal, guitar
Choi Hyeong-Gyu [최형규] - Drum
Kim Gwang-Seok [김광석] - Vocal


Regular Albums
Dongmulwon [동물원] (1987)
Dongmulwon Second Collection of Songs [동물원 두번째 노래 모음] (1988)
Dongmulwon Third Collection of Songs [동물원 세번째 노래 모음] (1990)
Dongmulwon Fourth Collection of Songs [동물원 네번째 노래 모음] (1991)
Dongmulwon 5-1 [동물원 5-1] (1993)
Dongmulwon 5-2 [동물원 5-2] (1993)
Dongmulwon 6 [동물원 6] (1994)
Dongmulwon Seventh [동물원 일곱번째] (1997)
Dongmulwon Eighth Story [동물원 여덟번째 이야기] (2001)
Dongmulwon Ninth Footprint [동물원 아홉번째 발자국] (2003)

Special Albums
Dongmulwon in Concert [동물원 in Concert] (Live, 1994)
Dongmulwon Revisited [다시 가본 동물원] (Compilation, 1996)
Dongmulwon Best [동물원 베스트] (1999)

In 15 Words or Less:  The amateur representative of Korean folk rock.

Representative Song:  Hyehwa-Dong, from Dongmulwon Second Collection of Songs.


오늘은 잊고 지내던 친구에게서 전화가 왔네
Today, a phone call came from a friend I had forgotten
내일이면 멀리 떠나간다고
Tomorrow he is going very far away
어릴적 함께 뛰놀던 골목길에서 만나자 하네
Says let us meet at the alleyway where we ran and played as children
내일이면 멀리 떠나간다고
Tomorrow he is going very far away

덜컹거리는 전철을 타고 찾아가는 그 길
The way over, taking the rumbling subway
우린 얼마나 많은 것을 잊고 살아가는지
How many things have we forgotten as we live
어릴 적 넓게만 보이던 좁은 골목길에
The narrow alleyway that seemed so wide when we were young
다정한 옛친구 나를 반겨 달려오는데
My good old friend runs to greet me

어릴적 함께 꿈꾸던 부푼 세상을 만나자 하네
Says let us meet the beautiful world we dreamed together as children
내일이면 아주 멀리 떠나간다고
Tomorrow he is going very far away
언젠가 돌아오는 날 활짝웃으며 만나자 하네
Says someday when he comes back let us meet with big smiles
내일이면 아무 멀리 간다고
Tomorrow he is going very far away

덜컹거리는 전철을 타고 찾아가는 그 길
The way over, taking the rumbling subway
우린 얼마나 많은 것을 잊고 살아가는지
How many things have we forgotten as we live
어릴 적 넓게만 보이던 좁은 골목길에
The narrow alleyway that seemed so wide when we were young
다정한 옛친구 나를 반겨 달려오는데
My good old friend runs to greet me

랄라 랄라라 랄라랄라라 라랄라랄라라
Lala Lalala Lalalalala Lalalalala
우린 얼마나 많은 것을 잊고 살아가는지
How many things have we forgotten as we live

Translation Note:  Hyehwa-dong is a district in the center of Seoul, with many colleges, theaters and coffee shops.

Maybe they should have been ranked higher because...  Actually, this is about as high as this band could possibly go.

Maybe they should have been ranked lower because...  See the discussion below.

Why is this band important?
The Korean can already hear the objections of those who are conversant at K-pop. Clazziquai at 49, but Dongmulwon at 48? Dongmulwon never once had a number one song on the charts. It never had a huge media presence, nor did it ever attract a screaming horde of girls. It was not even very musically talented, as it was a band made up of a rotating group of amateurs. Their songs do not require a huge range of voice, nor do they require a particular skilled hand at the guitar. Perhaps at that point the objectors might recall that this list is subject to the Korean’s arbitrary and capricious whim, and stop reading altogether.

But the Korean’s ranking is not completely off the reservation. The Korean believes his placement of Dongmulwon at 48 is justified, because of the significance of folk rock as a genre in K-pop history, and Dongmulwon’s significance within that genre cannot be discounted.

Let us ask the basic question one more time: What is K-pop? The Korean defined this term earlier as popular music of Korea, recorded for commercial purposes. While this definition does a decent job at defining what “pop music” is, it has a glaring deficiency – what does “music of Korea” mean? Does this mean that the music has to be sung in Korean language? Does this mean that the singer of the music have to of Korean ethnicity?

Implicitly, the Korean so far has been employing a broad definition of “music of Korea” – music of artists who were/are primarily active in Korea, such that their music operates within Korean popular culture. But perhaps a different definition can be used – a definition that refers to Korea as not merely as a geographical location, but as a cultural and spiritual sphere. Under this definition, “music of Korea” would simply mean: music that reflects “Koreanness,” the emotional core that characterizes Korea.

To be sure, the two definitions are not mutually exclusive. Generally, music that survives in Korean popular culture does so because it contains some measure of “Koreanness” that appeals to its fans, i.e. Koreans. But in discussing influence – which, again, is what this chart is intended to measure, not popularity, talent or fame – the Korean thinks it is fair to give a higher mark to artists who did a better job at reflecting “Koreanness”. This is so because the popular music that survives in the minds of the public (i.e. becomes influential) is the one that reflects the essential zeitgeist of the times.

In fact, this is exactly the reason why pretty girl/pretty boy artists across the world receive no respect for the aesthetic quality of the music they perform. Pretty people exist across the space and time. So do banal and saccharine love songs. They simply do not reflect any essential quality of their life and time. Accordingly, Bob Dylan’s music survived the times and remains influential, but Britney Spears’ did not.

Korean folk rock is the most significant K-pop genre because it is the genre that did the best job at reflecting the life and times of Koreans. For all of Clazziquai’s considerable talent, there is not much about techno/electronica that reflects the emotional core that is particular to Koreans. Same with heavy metal, and even less so with ballad or generic dance music. (A more serious case might be made for trot or rap, which will be discussed later in the series.) This is so because folk rock is a message-driven music. The music itself in folk rock is never complicated – many of the times it only involves a single guitar. The main focus of folk rock is always about the message carried in the lyrics, contained the simple and flexible vessel of its melody.

Dongmulwon is important because it is one of the finest representations of what folk rock in Korea is all about. The band was made up of rank amateurs, friends from high school and college. It was no more than a hobby, and except for a few members who left the band to become professional musicians (among which the most notable was Kim Gwang-Seok, who later became a legend,) everyone had a day job. None of their songs involved sophisticated tunes or particularly outstanding singing. But they nonetheless managed to put out nine albums over 15 years, exactly because they did such an outstanding job reflecting exactly how Koreans were feeling at the time of their music.

In fact, Dongmulwon’s most representative songs are all about certain recognizable places. Other than Hyehwa-dong that was translated above, their most popular songs were On the Street [거리에서] and At the Subway Station in front of the City Hall [시청 지하철역에서]. Because the places are familiar to their listeners (although not necessarily for non-Koreans or Koreans of later generations,) the emotions that are evoked by those places are also familiar.

Since late 1980s through 1990s, Korea was a fast-changing place that left every Korean feel rushed and hurried. As the dictatorship was ending, Koreans were freer but not too free; as the country industrialized, Koreans were not poor but not too wealthy. Hyehwa-dong is a beautiful representation of the zeitgeist of such times – vague sense of loss and fatigue caused by changes, but small joys that spring up regardless. The friend is leaving, but they will see each other one more time. The alleyway now seems small, but it carries fond memories.

Dongmulwon was never the most prominent figure in K-pop history. But the band is important because decades later, people will turn to their songs to reminisce how things were in Korea at the time. More popular or more talented musicians might fade into history, but Koreans will keep singing Dongmulwon's songs.

Interesting Trivia:
- The band is named "Zoo" because the members thought that they were being caged, both by the stiffness of the society and ideology-driven college culture at the time. But the first suggestion for the band name was "Ballad for Ewha Students" [이대생을 위한 발라드], based on the jocular calculation that simply selling albums to Ewha Woman's University students would let them sell at least 1,000 copies.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. I've never actually heard of Dongmulwon because my history with K-pop begins in 1994. That's still pretty early for someone who was raised in the U.S.

    I really appreciate you making these write-ups on bands and acts that I don't even know. When listening to them it's like I'm discovering something new. My Korean colleagues and freinds however think I am crazy for listening to such old music.

    "Why would you want to listen to that? It's so old!"

    I don't think in America people would ever say anything similar if, for example I popped in the cranberries, or ace of base. Of course I don't think it's a cultural thing at all, but I've been told by more than one person that my taste in music is weird because my Korean music library contains a lot of music from 1994-1999, most of which is peopled by one hit wonders and others who have fallen into obscurity.

  2. @The Seoul Searcher, no, you're not weird at all. I'm in my 20s and although I listen to current kpop as well, I tend to gravitate toward Korean music from the 80s and early 90s. There's something nostalgic about music from that time, and even in simple ballad songs, there's something essentially "korean" to it that I feel is gradually getting lost.

    @AAK, first I'd like to applaud you for introducing others to perhaps lesser known Korean artists and showing that there's more to kpop than bubblegum pop. However, I do question your choice of Dongmulwon, especially since this is a survey of those most influential. If we were to discuss the iconic figures of Korean folk rock, names like Song Chang Shik, Kim Se Hwan, Yoon Hyung Joo, Kim Min Gi, and Yang Hee Eun come to mind, many of whom failed to make your top 50 list and were instead included in your "Just Missed the Cut" list. To say that Dongmulwon could beat out any of these figures is a stretch. Even among the more recent folk artists from the 80s and 90s, I see no reason why you should pick Dongmulwon over others in this genre, such as 노래를 찾는 사람들, 어떤날, 김현식, and 시인과 촌장, especially if your reason for picking Dongmulwon was because they produced music that represented Korea of that time that will be listened to for many years to come. It can be said the same for these artists as well.

  3. Very solid list, but here is the Korean's rejoinder:

    - the Korean valued longevity (which in turn prolongs influence,) which pushed Dongmulwon over Kim Se-Hwan, Yoon Hyeong-Ju, 어떤날 and 시인과 촌장.

    - Kim Min-Gi is definitely ranked. Yang Hee-Eun's strength mostly comes from singing Kim Min-Gi's songs, so no. Nochatsa is also ranked.

    - Song Chang-Sik was close, but the Korean thinks Dongmulwon did a better job at representing Korea than Song.

    - Kim Hyeon-sik was absolutely the toughest omission, and that was mostly based on his short lifespan. But that choice is something that the Korean second-guesses every time, because Yoo Jae-Ha is ranked.

  4. I'm still interested in where you will place acts which are still active.

    I mean, you didn't place the Wonder Girls in the top 50, but I think if you had made the list in 2008 that they would have undoubtedly made the cut.

    Who's to say that they won't have a Korean revival after their dismal showing in the U.S. is over?

    Or did JYP catch lightning in a bottle with the "Tell Me" craze, and they're pretty much done for?

    Who knows.

    As for Big Bang and 2NE1, I don't know if they make the cut, but who's to say that they won't fall off into obscurity in a little while?

  5. @TSS, I highly doubt that either Big Bang or 2NE1 would meet the Korean's criteria for being influential artists. Those two groups are currently popular and although they may be arguably more talented than some other idol groups out there, there's nothing in their resume to show that they have done anything more for the kpop music scene than any other popular idol groups out there.

    However, for better or for worse, the idol culture has been dominating the kpop scene for the last couple of years, and it is up for debate what will be the lasting legacy of this culture to the Korean music scene at large. What has been the dominant characteristic of this idol culture so far is that the average lifespan of these groups is very short (approx 5 years), and the groups are readily replaceable. Personally, if I were to come up with my own top 50 list, the only idol groups that I may possibly include are H.O.T. for starting this crazy fandom culture (although it can be argued the same that Lee Soo Man was responsible for it), and DBSK for expanding the kpop fandom culture to other parts of Asia. It would be interesting to see whether the Korean would agree with me. My original guess still stands that the #1 will be Jo Yong Pil and #2 Seo Taiji.

  6. The Korean does not want to spoil things, but some boy/girl bands are ranked... albeit with held nose and clenched teeth.

  7. @skimmilk

    I said before that I'd probably put Seo Taiji at #1, and Park Jin Young at #2, but what do I know, my knowledge of K-pop until 2006 is based on what I saw from outside of Korea.

    And technically, since K-pop has been loosely defined, I'd even be tempted to add West Life in there somewhere, because I hadn't actually heard of them until I visited Korea one day.

    As for the current groups like Big Bang and 2NE1, I probably wouldn't rank them very highly, if at all, but I swear that if I had made a list in 2008, the WGs would have been in the 40s at least. But my list has got to be a lot different than anyone else's, because it would be peopled by acts which I myself got wind of rather than what was actually influential.

    Anyway the pace is really slow, so I guess we'll get to #1 sometime in 2012, right?

  8. I'm using your list as a reference for Korean music. Thanks!


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