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They call him the Asian Justin Timberlake: Jung Ji-hoon alias Rain, born 1982 in a suburb of Seoul, is Asia's prince of pop - one of the first stars ever to achieve international fame across the culturally splintered region. He fills concert halls in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, China and the Philippines alike – his four albums have sold multi-millions of copies. He is also a well-known TV actor, playing in popular pan-Asian soaps like "Sang Doo! Let's go to school" and "Full House". He introduced his first film role in the Competition section of this year's Berlinale film festival in Berlin: in Park Chan-wook's "I am a Cyborg, but that's ok", Jung plays an inmate of a psychiatric clinic. (See review)


Yodelling for Asia

He's a yodelling Asian popstar, but that's ok. Jens Balzer interviews Jung Ji-Hoon, alias Rain

Mr. Jung, you are one of Asia's leading pop stars, but here in Germany, no one has heard of you. Could you describe the sort of music you play?

I move between various styles, but basically you could say that my music is based on Black Music, like HipHop and R'n'B. Mixed in with a bit of Trance Pop.

Jung Ji-hoon alias Rain. Courtesy JYP Entertainment

Are these genres generally popular in Korea?

Definitely. We all like this sort of music. All Koreans like R'n'B.

Who are your influences?

I love Ray Charles and James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, and I worship Michael and Janet Jackson. My dance style combines Michael Jackson's moonwalk with martial-arts elements. I always develop my own choreographies, I want them to look different from the typical American ones.

But your music seems prototypically American. Is there any Korean music that you like?

American music has become very popular in Korea recently. The Internet has had a huge influence on this and the effect is really starting to kick in now. It used to be pretty hard to get access to American records and CDs, now a mouse click is all you need. This is not to say that we only import US music now, it's a two-way thing. Thanks to the Internet, Korean music has become popular throughout Asia. It was not long ago that each country had its own stars: South Korea, Japan, China, Thailand, Malaysia etc. And nobody knew about them in the other countries. Now when I play in Bangkok, tens if not hundreds of thousands of people turn up.

The Chinese have got a word for this: han-liu, the Korean wave – meaning the increasing dominance of Korean pop culture throughout Asia. Has Tokyo been replaced by Seoul as pop capital?

Hallyu -that's the Korean word for it – probably began five years ago, on the back of the huge popularity of Korean TV series. I was also in some of them, for example "Sang-Doo! Let's Go To School" or "A Love to Kill" where I played a martial arts warrior. But the question is not where is the centre of Asian pop culture. Before it was Hong Kong, then it wandered over to Tokyo, and maybe it's Seoul today. But so what? The important thing is that Asian culture is growing ever tighter, that Asian artists are not restricted to only playing in their own countries, but now they can tour neighbouring states – and all round the world! This helps them develop their talent and advance their culture as a whole.

Courtesy JYP Entertainment

Do you think we're seeing the rise of some sort of pan-Asian culture?

Look, I basically make music because I enjoy it, but music also always works to break down walls: between nations, cultures, people. It is important that people in Asia come together and develop a common language. Just like the European Union you have in Europe, an Asian Union is being created at the moment, at least on a cultural level – and it might even be the first step towards uniting our countries politically and economically. I truly believe that there will be a union of this kind one day, and it will be a global power. We entertainers can help to create this.

When you play in China, Taiwan or in the Philippines – do you change aspects of your songs or your choreographies?

I alter nothing in my music or dance style. But when I go to Japan, I sing something in Japanese. Lots of Korean artists do this. There is hardly anybody who sings in a foreign language at home though, unlike in Europe, where everybody sings in English – that sort of thing is rare in Korea. But when we tour abroad, we try to fit in.

Last year you played in the USA for the first time.

Yes in Madison Square Garden in New York, a fantastic experience. The audience was about 70 percent Asian American, the rest were Afro and white Americans. I also sung a duet with P.Diddy, who's an old friend of my producer Park Jin Young.

You also sang a one with Christina Aguilera.

Yeah. That was for an advert that Pepsi produced for the football World Cup. "Da da da" it was called (YouTube). Pretty funny.

Did you know that this was originally a German song?

No, really? No idea.

It came from the group Trio from Großenkneten.

Incredible. Korean teenagers were crazy about that song last summer.

Film still from "I'm a cyborg, but that's ok." Courtesy Berlin International Film Festival

In the film" I'm a cyborg, but that's ok", (review) which premiered at the Berlinale, you do some amazing yodelling. Where did you learn to that?

Oh, yodelling is big in Korea. There's a very old yodelling tradition. I had a very good teacher, Suh Yong-rhul. He's Korea's most famous yodeller, and travels regularly to Switzerland to learn the best techniques from local yodellers there.


The interview originally appeared in the Berliner Zeitung on 13 Februrary, 2007.

Jens Balzer is a music critic for the Berliner Zeitung.

Translation: lp - let's talk european