NST & The Soul Sauce are the Avengers of Korean reggae, a combination of members from notable bands like Windy City, Kingston Rudieska, and Kiha and the Faces, in addition to solo acts like Kim Okie. Their second album Back When Tigers Smoked (the Korean idiomatic equivalent of “once upon a time”) is the band’s attempt to define Korean roots music, exploring psychedelic, blues, soul, and even Korean trot and pansori within a reggae frame.
“The Beginning of the End” lazily opens up the album, Rastafarian percussions blending in with psychedelic blues of the guitar and brass. The second track “The Night of Mt. Naeba” is at once amusing and fascinating, as the guitar and brass sprinkle a melody reminiscent of trot over a funk organ and growling bass. The violin riff sounds like something from a half-remembered opera, making the mixture even more intriguing.
The lighthearted mood carries over into the album’s first roots track “Sound man,” an ode to audio engineers. The next track “Sing a Song and Dance” picks up the pace and urges the listener to dance both lyrically and instrumentally. The violin riff in the middle adds a folk and country feel to the song, combining with the moderated guitar and brass to make it an easy-listening track.
“Riding a Jorang Horse” and its intro track “Horse Neighing” are without question the main tracks of the album. Kim Oki has somehow found a way to make his saxophone riffs sound like a “Horse Neighing,” while the 8-minute-long “Riding a Jorang Horse” paces itself organically with breakdowns to mimic a horse ride. The dub interpretation of this track at the end of the album is likewise enjoyable.
Things start slowing down from “Blooming Mind,” a scenic instrumental break that uses the harmonica, dampened bell-like synths, and shakers to give a rustic feel to the song. The addition of brass, guitar, and violin tunes adds drama towards the end before slowing down again to set the stage for the bluesy, psychedelic romanticism of “This Moment.”
“Farmer’s Funk” is my personal favorite in the album, where old school southern soul is given a twist with instruments and vocals reminiscent of Taryeong, a Korean traditional folk ballad genre. Combined with a back-to-the-basics (farming) message in the lyrics, this track is Korean reggae at its finest. The traditional Korean musical influence is picked up by pansori vocalist Kim Yul Hee in the next track “Red Tiger,” concluding the album’s journey in search of Korean roots.
This is a trailblazing album for the Korean reggae scene and a new level of cultural intermixture. I was perplexed at the existence of a reggae scene in Korea, but Back When Tigers Smoked articulates the ways in which the Korean psyche can be embraced by the Jamaican genre.