The Los Angeles Korean Festival is like a lot of other cultural festivals in the city. It's free and packed with people of all ages walking around eating food on sticks. However, there's one key difference between this four-day event and the myriad others that pop up across the city throughout the year and that's the entertainment. Sure, you'll get the traditional performances, talent shows and local artists. But, right now, nobody is doing pop music as well as Korea and, even at a free event in a park, the K-pop presence is legit.
K-pop was virtually everywhere on the grounds of Seoul International Park on Saturday evening. Girls Generation blasted in a corner where people were indulging in boba drinks and ice cream. On the opposite side of the grounds, a group of teenage girls rummaged through boxes of ephemera inside a booth that was stocked with the coolest goods repping the latest crop of Korean superstars. Early in the evening, a local duo called Coco Avenue — two non-Korean women who won a K-pop singing contest at last year's festival — got the crowd dancing with their gender-swapped cover of G-Dragon and Taeyang's hit "Good Boy."
But, it was the "Saturday Night in L.A." programming later in the evening that brought out the K-pop diehards. By 9 p.m., there were throngs of fans seated in front of the stage and crowded on the sidelines to catch a four-act bill headlined by Seoul-based girl group Mamamoo. The crowd was ethnically diverse and crossed style tribes from preppy to punk. They were, however, mostly young — often zits-and-braces young. Their enthusiasm was intense as well, screaming at the mere mention of Mamamoo and holding up signs marked by mustaches that have become the vocal group's signature.
The event was more of a showcase than a typical concert. Hosted by Sam Hammington, an Australian comedian based in Korea, and Jenny Jo, who is from Los Angeles but is a radio and TV host in Seoul, "Saturday Night in L.A." squeezed four acts into an hour-and-a-half slot. Throughout the night, Hammington and Jo chatted with the performers, sometimes in English, sometimes in Korean.
Vasco, the first to perform, had the heaviest sound of the artists on the bill. He raps in Korean with a bit of English mixed into the lyrics, over beats that range from funky '90s to the stark, bass-heavy sounds that are more popular today. He played so briefly that it was a bit difficult to make an assessment on his overall sound and performance.
Ultimately, brevity was the biggest issue of the night. There was hardly enough time to get a feel for the set. Once the artists hit the point where you could say, "Hey, I can get into this," they were gone. Pungdeng-E, a fun, all-female pop/hip-hop trio, brought boundless energy to the stage when they appeared in coordinated, slim-cut suits, pigtails and ball caps. At times, their booming backing track nearly swallowed them (at least from where I was standing), but their dance moves were on-point and the all-too-brief a cappella bits they did between songs were solid.
Esna, a Korean-American singer-songwriter who has done well in the Seoul scene, was the strongest vocalist of the night. Her husky soul style works well with both ballads and upbeat numbers and she used this to her advantage. Esna crammed a lot of variety into the slip of a time slot, including the ballad "Biting My Lip," from the Korean drama The Heirs, and her recent collaboration with Manamoo, "Ahh! Oop!" The latter served as a good transition into Manamoo's upbeat headlining set.
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Manamoo is cut from classic girl group cloth. Depending on the song, they might remind you of everything from '60s pop groups to En Vogue to the Spice Girls. The four-person group made its debut last year and quickly hit big with songs like "Mr. Ambiguous" and "Um O Ah Yeh." They hit the stage in matching outfits — white button-down shirts and denim short shorts — and choreographed moves. The crowd, which had been screaming for them prior to the start of the show, was ecstatic, and the group quickly hit on the notes that kept the audience enraptured. After the show, there was a good sized group of fans crowded around the getaway van, trying to get memorabilia signed by the singers of the moment.
How big is K-pop right now? So big that the L.A. Korean Festival wasn't even the only K-pop game in town this past Saturday. Only two-and-a-half miles away, Big Bang — one of the best-known bands to emerge from Korea's pop scene — was playing Staples Center. That big ticket show, though, didn't have a visible affect on attendance at the Korean Festival, which packed in the K-pop diehards and, despite the short sets, appeared to leave most of them happy with their choice.