Some 60 miles off of the southern coast of South Korea is Jeju Island, an oblong nugget of volcanic rock, blanketed by lush green and laced with lava tubes. This strange, stunning landscape is a tourist hub, drawing millions of visitors yearly to its sweeping beaches and dormant volcanic craters jutting from the water.
On this subtropical island province, Omar and the Eastern Power have found a home for their intercontinental psychedelic rock music. But their hazy, honey-dripping sound has its roots far from the Korea Strait.
The titular Omar (Benassila) was born, raised, and learned guitar in Casablanca, Morocco. As a youth, he left home to explore the world, eventually landing in Korea, by way of India, Thailand, and China. Drummer Wael Fahmy Ibrahim Zaky left his home near Cairo, Egypt, to study in South Korea on a scholarship. The two met and ended up sticking around, largely held in place by the music they made together.
Omar and the Eastern Power soon doubled in size, gaining two Korean musicians: bassist Tehiun Kim and guitarist Oh Jinwoo. From the hip, bustling music venues of cosmopolitan Seoul, the band migrated to the greener pastures of Jeju Island.
Three years, one album, and many concerts in Korea later, the Eastern Power is now bringing its sound abroad. Inside Arabia spoke with the band in a sleepy, sunlit nook, overgrown with grass and tucked behind a music venue in Rabat, Morocco. The band was in town to perform at the annual Visa for Music festival; it was Benassila’s first time back in his home country for four years, and his first time ever performing there. “It’s very fresh, it’s very new,” he told Inside Arabia.
He has gained another home on Jeju Island. Moving to the island brought the band closer together and gave its members space to breathe, Benassila told Inside Arabia. Seoul, while brimming with opportunity, is three times smaller than Jeju but holds 15 times the amount of people. Listening to the band’s music, you can hear it yearning for open skies. It is a heavy sound that would feel just as good under a hot, heavy noontime sun as it would in the depth of night.
The music has a psychedelic rock attitude and bones of Saharan blues, Afrobeat, Moroccan gnawa, reggae, and East Asian funk. “It’s a couscous of genres,” Benassila said. “It’s kind of like the heritage of the whole world, you know? We are mixing a lot of elements from everywhere into one thing.”
These days, they are listening to Nigerian Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, Malian “desert blues” icons Tinariwen, and Khruangbin, a Texan trio that plays psychedelia inspired by 1960s Thai rock. You can hear all of these genres interlaced in their songs, blended into something novel.
“It’s like our faces, with one groove,” said Tehiun Kim. “Different faces, but you get one sound, one groove.”
That groove was incubated in a small house in a Jeju fishing village called Hanrim. The island’s music scene is still young and not quite “strong enough to survive, yet,” said Kim. Despite the many bands and festivals there, Kim thinks that Jeju islanders are just “not really used to listening to live music.”
“I think it needs more time,” he told Inside Arabia. “But the vibe is so good.” He even sees some hope in the growing flocks of tourists that are coming to the island, but for the cultural, not economic, input. “It will be more open, with more different experiences coming in.”
Broadly speaking, South Korea is running to catch up with itself. The country has changed rapidly and drastically over the last 60 years. In 1960, following the Korean War, the country’s GDP per capita was around $158—$10 less than that of Morocco at the time and $10 more than that of Egypt. Now, it is nearly ten times those of both North African countries, and South Korea has skyrocketed to become the 11th largest economy in the world.
As the country’s economic power has grown, so too has its cultural might. Korean restaurants and TV shows, for example, are proliferating across the globe. Korean pop music, or K-pop, is a worldwide phenomenon (who hasn’t heard “Gangnam Style”?).
Most of Korea’s cultural exports, however, center on the experiences of ethnic Koreans; around 96 percent of the country is ethnically Korean. The country has long had an insular society, espousing homogeneity, and encouraging a kind of ethnonationalism.
But this, too, is changing. There are 40 times more foreign nationals living in South Korea today than there were in 1990 (still only 2 million in a population of 51 million), most from East Asia. Korea’s rapid ascent to prosperity has left it with an aging population that needs young, working immigrants to keep its economy functioning.
“Korean people are not really used to a lot of foreigners coming in,” Benassila told Inside Arabia. “But now, with globalization, more and more people are.”
The society’s reaction has been decidedly mixed. Things came to a head in 2018, right in the Eastern Power’s backyard. That year, hundreds of Yemeni refugees arrived on Jeju Island, fleeing the catastrophic civil war that is decimating their country.
Yemenis were drawn to Jeju because the island did not require visas for entry, thanks to a 2002 tourism-revitalization program. In the first five months of 2018, 561 Yemenis arrived on the island.
On June 1, Seoul, pushed by unprecedented anti-refugee backlash, effectively closed its doors by requiring Yemenis to have visas in order to go to Jeju. In October, it denied refugee status to 339 Yemeni applicants, instead of giving them only one-year humanitarian visas.
Everyone in the band knew the situation well. Benassila said that at first, “lots of people went to help them out,” but skewed media coverage and deep-seated stereotypes led many to eventually abandon their hospitality.
Still, Benassila added, many people have open hearts and are trying to “show the positive side of what immigrants can bring, to show that we are all human beings.” Jeju Island’s first Yemeni restaurant opened in November 2018, co-founded by a Yemeni and a Korean with the aim of bringing the two communities together.
Like that restaurant, Omar and the Eastern Power expresses a new Korean reality, however nascent it is. There are so few immigrants in Korea from the Middle East and North Africa region that they are lumped into the ambiguous demographic category of “Other” (which has only around 50,000 people total). Regardless, Benassila and Zaky feel right at home.
“Korea is calmer and quieter, and services like internet and infrastructure are more comfortable,” Zaky told Inside Arabia. “Freedom is different too. You can’t, for example, get abused by police as much as it happens in Egypt. [But] Korea has socially conservative issues [too] and many things that you can’t do as free as we do in North Africa.”
Despite the differences, “both countries will be like home for me,” he said. “It’s all about the people you spend your time with.” Like their bandmates, Zaky and Benassila see themselves more as world citizens. Kim said that when you create art with people from other cultures, you “start to understand that the world is more like one, not different countries.”
Omar and the Eastern Power wants to travel with that idea. Their borderless mentality is common among today’s music-makers. It does not always work, though. Their plan to play in Egypt had to be canceled when Cairo denied Benassila a visa. “It was a shame. I wish people would give more trust . . . and see the positive side.”
This year, they hope to play in Europe, put out a second album, and reach more people. Cross-cultural communion through art is potent. But the pervasive fear of “the Other” can sometimes feel all too impenetrable.
Benassila is optimistic: “We can start with people who are interested in music, because if they are open about music, then they are open about lots of stuff. Listening to music is not all so easy. You can just listen to whatever they’re giving you or you can choose what you want to listen to. If you start thinking about what you want to listen to, you’ve already made a big step, and you can make other choices in life, you know?”
Omar and the Eastern Power harmonizes all four of its human elements. “That’s the way that we make music,” Kim said, by “understanding how to balance each other. So, maybe the world—it could get balanced too.”
“Please!” He added, with a laugh.