Feature/Interview

#IWD2020: Sun-Mi Hong, drummer

When Sun-Mi Hong was twelve, she saw and heard a drum kit for the first time. It was the start of a fixation that has led to the Korean-born Sun, as she signs herself, becoming one of the leading young drummers in the Netherlands with a reputation that is spreading across Europe. Rob Adams reports:

Sun-Mi Hong, Korean drummer

Sun-Mi Hong. Photo credit: Petra Beckers

Sun’s involvement in music began when she started piano lessons at the age of seven. Having grown up in the church, she was always singing and felt no inhibitions about making music in public until she was called on to play piano in front of an audience. The experience put her off playing the piano completely and she stopped taking lessons.

“So when I told my parents I wanted a drum kit, they were sceptical, to say the least,” she says. “It took me about five years to persuade them that I was serious about becoming a drummer. I’d sit at the table and drum with my chopsticks, imitating the patterns I’d heard other drummers playing, and eventually, my parents said, Okay, you can have a drum kit but you have to take it seriously.”

Her parents needn’t have worried. When Sun enrolled at a drum academy, she spent hours practising what her teachers showed her.

“After my first lesson, which taught me single strokes, my legs and arms were shaking because I’d used my muscles so much, playing these single strokes – and nothing else – for about four hours. I was sore but I was also so, so happy. This was what I wanted to do with my life.”

At this time, there were very few places in Korea where budding drummers could study kit drumming and very few teachers who could help Sun to advance. Having discovered Brian Blade, Roy Haynes, Jack DeJohnette, Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams, among others, Sun was determined to follow in the path of these players who had, she says, “really changed my perception of music and drumming.” Friends she met through music were talking about going to Amsterdam Conservatoire to study. Sun liked the way they were talking and decided to apply to the conservatoire herself.

“I was lucky enough to be accepted on the course and to experience six years of studying jazz with some of the greatest drummers in Europe. It changed my life,” she says. “There’s so much culture to be learned. These masters’ way of thinking, their way of approaching music was so inspiring. And as well as that, being with, and playing with, friends from all over the world was incredible. The whole experience shaped who I am now. The cultural transition was challenging and took a lot of strength. But I feel it made me stronger, more open to change and more prepared to embrace the unexpected.”

Sun graduated from Amsterdam Conservatoire in 2017 and with her fluent style, switching easily between dramatic but controlled powerhouse outbursts and a relaxed groove, she has quickly made a big impression on the Dutch scene.

Soon after graduating she released her first album, First Page, which featured all original compositions, and the following year, 2018, she and her band won the Sena Dutch Jazz Competition. This led to her being selected to participate in the Young VIPs Tour, which sees the Netherlands’ most promising young jazz musician-composers given a platform at venues including the Bimhuis in Amsterdam, and she was subsequently invited to play concerts in the UK as part of the Going Dutch project, which was administered by the Jazz Promotion Network and funded by Dutch Performing Arts.

Sun has a simple philosophy when choosing musicians she wants to work with: friendship.

“I thought a lot about what sound I wanted to put into my compositions,” she says. “I asked myself, Who can inspire me to write more songs, who can help me to develop in terms of musicality and ensemble playing? And basically, it’s a matter of trusting your instincts. The guys in my band felt right from the first rehearsal and they’re all friends. They’re a central part of my compositions and artistic output but we’ve also spent a lot of time hanging together, as well as playing, and that feeling of camaraderie is so valuable. It’s made me feel compelled to continue to develop.”

LINK: Sun-Mi Hong’s website

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