Hahn Dae-soo performs at the Jarasum Jazz Festival in 2018. (Courtesy of Hahn Dae-soo)
At 72, Hahn Dae-soo is as exuberant as ever, his throaty laughter and irrepressible energy filling the studio.
The “halbae,” a term of endearment for grandfathers in Korean, as he calls himself, is back in Korea after four years in New York. But he is no ordinary halbae: He came to record his 15th album, “Blue Skies, White Clouds,” which was released Nov. 14.
“It is the pandemic, the desire to spread the word that it is not the time to sing about togetherness, that has brought me to make music again,” Hahn said during an interview with The Korea Herald on Nov. 6. on the reasons for his new album. “The best vaccine is people cooperating with each other. Peace and love is the best vaccine!”
Cover of Hahn Dae-soo’s 15th album, “Blue Skies White Clouds” (Audioguy)
The latest album is a mix of old and new that runs the gamut from blues rock to jazz and instrumentals. Old favorites, written in his teen years that catapulted the young hippy from the US to fame, are now sung by the septuagenarian, and they are all the more persuasive for it. A sparkling guitar arrangement of an old favorite reminds us of Hahn’s roots as a folk musician, while new songs written during the lockdown in New York capture slices of life in the city, which Hahn says is no longer the same. The last track is a whimsical “public service song,” urging people to wear masks.
“I had a life here,” said Hahn, referring to his time in Seoul before he left for New York, dropping everything to give his daughter Yangho a better life.
Hahn was 59 when Yangho was born. As he put it, “My wife decided to have one (child).” Like most parents who have children late in life, the singer’s world has since come to revolve around Yangho, now 13.
When Yangho could not keep up at school, Hahn decided to move the family to New York. But the move came at a price. “My creative work suffered,” he said.
Being on the move is nothing new to Hahn. That has been his way of life, whether by choice or not.
Hahn was 10 when he arrived in New York with his grandparents, his grandfather, a well-known theologian, having been invited to work in the US. Here, a little detour into Hahn’s childhood is necessary.
It is a bizarre tale, one that will perhaps never be explained. Hahn’s father, a promising nuclear physicist studying in the US, simply vanished one day, leaving behind his son, 7, and young wife. When his mother remarried seven years later, Hahn was left in the care of his grandparents.
Singer Hahn Dae-soo poses at Herald Square in Seoul on Nov. 6. (Park Hyun-koo/ The Korea Herald)
Hahn was 17 and living in Korea when his long-lost father was located in New York. By this time, his father was married to a white woman, working in the printing business and had forgotten all Korean. Hahn went to New York to live with his father, but did not find happiness in his new home. While there have been many speculations about the incident, Hahn’s father never discussed what had happened to him.
It was during the time he was living with his father’s new family that Hahn wrote “To Country of Happiness,” yearning for a happiness that seemed to have eluded him. “I was tortured by my relationship with my father. I didn’t have too much desire for life,” he said.
He went on to study veterinary science but ended up pursuing photography. By and by, he made his way back to Korea.
In Seoul, he set about exploring his passion for music, something he credits to his grandfather, whose house was filled with music, and his mother, a pianist. He started singing at clubs and soon began attracting fans who were fascinated by his “new” music.
He had just had his first concert and was getting ready for his first album, when he was called up for mandatory military service. “I was drafted when I was peaking as a singer-songwriter,” Hahn said. That album would come four years later. In 1971, he joined the Navy.
“I was not the same man,” he said, when he was discharged. The young man saw no hope in humanity, saw no human kindness. “Songs became more hard-edged,” he said.
From 1974 to 1977, Hahn worked as a photojournalist and a culture beat reporter at The Korea Herald. While working here, he made two albums.
His first album, released in 1974, included the infamous “Give Me Water” that caught the attention of authorities. “This was the Yushin era and I got into trouble,” he said, referring to the authoritarian Park Chung-hee regime.
“The authorities found it was affecting the youth,” he said, explaining that they didn’t like anything that had to do with freedom. The authorities misunderstood, however. “It was about my thirst for love!” he said. “I was hungry for love and freedom. But freedom was interpreted politically.”
Authorities objected to Hahn’s music that was inspired by “Ode to the West Wind” by poet Percy Shelley, Nietzsche’s nihilism and Buddhist belief of no possession, according to Hahn, fearing it may corrupt the minds of the country’s young people.
Although it was the album that got him on the regime’s watch list, Hahn holds the first album the dearest, “because I didn’t know what I was doing.
“When it came out, it was such a thrill,” he said. “A very personal thing became public. I was on a high.”
It was his second album, “Gomusin,” featuring a pair of white rubber flats on a barbed fenced wire, that really landed him in trouble. Not only was the cover art problematic, a song in the album with a title that refers to the road to freedom rubbed the authorities the wrong way. “They heard the song and burnt everything, including the master tape,” he said. His album was banned.
“At age 24, 25, new songs were coming out that I could not record or present anywhere,” he said. That is when his wife urged him to go to New York. “‘You’ve got to be a rock star in New York,’ she said,” Hahn recalled.
New York was a rude awakening. “I realized being rock ’n’ roll in New York is a completely different game. I tried hard, but I made money with studios,” he said, referring to his work as a photographer. “I didn’t realize that music was a business. I was stupid.”
Yet, he continued to write music. “I had an incredible desire but couldn’t present music,” he said.
He was divorced in his 40s and, feeling empty and lonely, “songs came out like a flood.” Songs about loss of love and innocence, pain, insomnia and paranoia came rushing forth.
He came to learn that back in Korea people were making money selling pirated copies of his old music, which encouraged him to give music another try. In 1989, he released his third album, “Infinity,” in Korea, but decided not to stay. “I realized that the Korean government had not changed much.”
In New York once again, he was offered a job with a well-known studio in Florence, Italy, and was about to leave when he met his wife while apartment hunting. They ended up sharing a bottle of vodka, and the rest is history. After four years alone, he felt loved and taken care of, he said.
“Photos became digital in the late 1990s, early 2000 and I got lost. I didn’t like the quality,” he said. His wife noticed his unhappiness, too.
Hahn Dae-soo (right) records with Seth Martin at Audioguy studio in Seoul. (Chun Ho-won/ Audioguy)
A turning point came when he was invited to perform at a Fukuoka rock festival in 1997. Here, the Korean media “rediscovered” the old rocker. “All major Korean channels invited me. There were TV specials,” he said. So he packed up, once again, and moved to Korea at the wise counsel of his Russian-born wife, 22 years his junior, who pointed out he was wasting hard earned money with all the flying back and forth.
In Korea, there was more work waiting for him: a book, an album, hosting a music program. He also had friends, colleagues. Eventually his wife joined him in Korea and he stayed on, making music and taking care of his “two daughters” – Yangho and his wife Oxana. Until he left again, this time, for his daughter’s sake.
His stay in Seoul this time is a short one. “We are sleeping on top of each other in a gosiwon in Sinchon!” he said with a big laugh. He plans to leave for New York next month.
Pressed about his next projects, he raises the possibility of a 75th birthday concert. “At LG Arts Center or the Sejong Center with many musicians from Korea and around the world,” he said. “It would be a birthday bash!”
But his next sentence comes as a surprise, although it should not have. “My BIG, BIG project is to have Yangho grow into a mature, kind-hearted lady and meet a nice gentleman!”
Hahn records his albums in a single take, much like how life is lived only once. “No music, nothing is perfect. My first take is the best and I give everything,” he said