It’s all about human connection. The sweaty, vulnerable, physical kind, with lots of noise and plenty of screaming. Open Mic is the best time you can have without touching. And sure, there’s also a lot of performance anxiety, awkward mistakes, and some terrible caterwauling both on and off stage, but it grows on you.
For a little over a year now The Bar has been hosting another in a long line of Jeju Open Mic experiments. This particular iteration evolved from four or five performers who regularly outnumbered the audience, to a packed affair that often leaves barely enough room for the musicians to play.
It’s been exciting to watch it happen. It’s been especially gratifying to help build a place where people come together to create and share something larger than just alcohol, fried food, and a couple rounds of pool. Parties are great, but art is the foundation of culture, especially local culture.
Oh sure, you might not think an acoustic rendition of “Sweet Home Alabama” is art. Or that someone improvising songs based on words shouted out from the audience invests people with a sense of meaningful community, but over time, it really does.
With persistence, luck, and a genuine desire to make a space where people feel like they belong to something, people start to gravitate towards that space. But it’s not easy to maintain, especially over the long run. That’s why Open Mics have such a spotty history on the island.
Jeju has a huge transient population. You’re usually just becoming friends with someone when their contract ends and you have to say goodbye. It’s difficult to maintain a community long enough to get the traction that a local music scene needs in order to stay on the road.
Over the last ten years many Open Mics have come and gone. One of the most successful became so popular that organizers Jessie Dishaw and Brady Paron were tapped to establish the first Jeju Expats Music Festival, way back in 2012. However, the festival outlasted the Mic.
Local musical landmark, Big J, recently spoke about this, as well as some of the attempts to reignite “a scene” since then. He said that the complex environmental factors necessary to sustain a coherent local musical identity just haven’t coalesced.
First you need a venue - and it really helps if it doesn’t go out of business after six months as so many live music establishments on the island have. You also need equipment and a core group of diehard musicians willing and able to perform on a regular basis. Next you need someone with just the right combination of time, planning, and mental illness to organize the whole shebang. Finally, you sit back and watch to see if you can farm enough buzz for it to grow. This part of the process can take months, years, or it might not happen at all.
However, if you manage to keep all these spinning plates up on their respective sticks and you find yourself with a successful Open Mic, then you’re really screwed. Now you’ve got to ride the entire insane juggling act across a biweekly tightrope of erratic schedules, people leaving for good, broken equipment, influenza, typhoons, blizzards, and the occasional nervous breakdown.
So you see, the fact that any Open Mic is ever successful more than once is a bloody miracle. If, however, water is by some chance turned into wine, it’s an amazing process to be a part of and I’m pleased to report that it’s happening right now near City Hall.
From the nervous neophyte to the seasoned veteran, everyone is initiated into the ritual. Whether you play a song or just listen; whether you pound shots of tequila or just plain tonic water; dancing and yelling or standing quietly tapping your foot, you become part of something primal, mythological, nonverbal, communal.
I only wish we had a bonfire at The Bar so we could all dance around it!
Just reading about it doesn’t do it justice. When an Open Mic really roars to life, there’s an indescribable feeling of being part of something larger than we’ve become accustomed to in the sterile institutions of our modern lives where, as Joseph Campbell put it, people who are fractions imagine themselves to be whole.
Communal artistic expression is a neurologically soothing return to symbiosis, a basic human need that we’re losing in this age of the competitive market-driven individual.
On a good night, when you finally break through your phone addiction and your inhibitions, and you join in because you realize it’s safe to try, you suddenly understand that whatever contribution you make is not only welcomed it’s also essential.
It’s reconnection, and your entire central nervous system responds with a flood of serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin as you remember, even if only for a moment, the reason why we need one another.
In his book “Lost Connections” Johann Hari listed disconnection from other people as one of the nine most significant causes for depression and anxiety:
“Feeling lonely, it turned out, caused your cortisol levels to absolutely soar - as much as some of the most disturbing things that can ever happen to you. Becoming acutely lonely...was as stressful as experiencing a physical attack. It’s worth repeating. Being deeply lonely seemed to cause as much stress as being punched by a stranger.”
So there you go. Open Mic is a prescription for good mental health, and at the very least it’s better than a punch in the face. So remember, you’re not alone. Come out and join us. Help grow some human happiness and culture. And be quick about it. Who knows how long it will last.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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