A trip to Oz that unlocked Korea’s music

When she’d heard the high drama of Korea’s traditional drumming as a child, Chloe Kim was busy learning classical piano and violin, and found this other music more a curiosity than a fascination. Even when at 12 she began teaching herself to play drum-kit, the connection to traditional drumming seemed oblique at best. It took a move to Australia for that to change.

Simon Barker, Chloe Kim and Jeremy Rose. All photos: Prudence Upton.

Kim completed high school in Canberra, and then auditioned for the jazz course at Sydney Conservatorium. Simon Barker, a master of Korean drumming, heard that audition, and immediately knew something special was afoot. “There was just a feeling in her playing that she was not afraid,” he says. “She had a sense of courage mixed with creativity that was really exciting.”

While Barker downplays his role in mentoring her (and she protests to the contrary), one aspect is undeniable: he opened the door to Kim’s rediscovering her homeland’s traditional drumming. Barker, who had spent two decades immersing himself in it, was the first artist to fully integrate the concepts on to a western drum-kit. Not only did this allow him to collaborate with Korea’s finest players, it vastly expanded the vocabulary he could bring to jazz, improvisation and, crucially, solo drumming.

Kim took to these ideas with relish. The pair formed a trio specifically to address Korean traditional music, and meanwhile Barker provided her with the technical and conceptual tools to allow to develop her own directions on the instrument.

Both have released albums of solo drum “songs”, and these sparked Jeremy Rose to compose Disruption! The Voice of the Drums, in which an eight-piece version of Rose’s Earshift Orchestra (which presented Iron in the Blood at last year’s Sydney Festival) contextualises the two soloists’ astonishing originality. Rose explains that he sought to explore the power of drums, whether as the soundtrack to disruption and protest, to ecstatic and transcendental experiences, or to healing.

Barker, amazed by his young collaborator’s creative maturity, says that when he was Kim’s age (24), he had not yet conceived of the possibility of the drums being so complete by themselves. “I found it really difficult to have a sense of an emerging identity on the instrument,” he says, “and I had no idea you could create your own thing. For her not only to really get it, but to take those tools and then be willing to offer her ideas takes a lot of courage. I think she’s an incredible young musician.”

He rejects the idea that he “taught” her to do this, preferring to see his role as “enabling, not hindering”, and says that the biggest contribution an arts educator can sometimes make is simply to get out of the student’s way.

For Kim, alone in a foreign land, Barker’s deep understanding of Korean culture was a huge plus, going hand in hand with his living example of the absolute commitment required to reach for the exceptional.

“I’m really excited to continue discovering and strengthening my own areas of creativity and drumming,” she says. “Because that is such a strong core and resource in me now, I feel so confident and encouraged to move forward.”

Among Kim’s many joys in performing Disruption! is the opportunity to watch Barker play, an experience she always finds mesmerising. “And recently,” she adds, “I noticed that Simon also enjoys watching my drumming, which makes me really happy!”