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Ensemble Mik Nawooj brings a chamber hip-hop opera to Oakland

on June 7, 2012

Sitting at a low table in the dining room of the home he shares with his business partner Christopher Nicholas and his girlfriend, JooWan Kim poured tea for everyone at the table as the conversation about the upcoming concert began. He took his seat at the table, crossing his long legs and swinging that shoulder-length black hair slightly as he shifted onto the pillow on the floor.

Kim wrote the music for all of the songs in a new production titled Great Integration: A Chamber Hip-Hop Opera that will be performed on Friday at Club Oasis in Oakland. His group, Ensemble Mik Nawooj, will perform what Kim calls “hybrid” music, a mix of classical and hip-hop music with rhymes from rap artists accompanying an orchestra. The performance will be presented in a format similar to a play or an opera with two full acts. “What’s interesting about this project is that we are making it into pop music, as opposed to art music,” Kim said.

When he arrived in the United States from Korea at the age of 21, Kim a classical pianist, wanted to create music for films. But in 2005, while working with a project band, he wrote a chamber music piece—a classical composition intended for a small group of musical instruments—for MC Kirby Dominant, a rap musician from Oakland.  They decided to add rap to the composition, and the end result was a blend of classical music and hip-hop. Kim and Dominant performed together in several videos, and later with Ensemble Mik Nawooj on an album titled Great Integration: A Chamber Hip-Hop Opera.

Ensemble Mik Nawooj

“After the success of that piece, Kirby suggested we make an album. I thought it was a good idea. But after making the album I didn’t push to get the music to go further for about two years,” Kim said.

Kim also formed his orchestral group, Ensemble Mik Nawooj, in 2005. The orchestra is made up of artists from all over the world who play the flute, clarinet, violin, cello, drum and bass. The music is primarily classical with elements of jazz, pop and rap vocals. “What I’m doing is not mashing up classical and hip-hop music,” Kim said. “My music and the company’s music is hybrid music, which means that it’s neither classical nor hip-hop.”

“Think of us as the love child that hip-hop and classical gave birth to,” Kim added.

In the beginning, Kim said, the group created music but there were few live performances. Now the ensemble is more aggressively promoting the orchestra, they have several videos on YouTube and four CDs, and they played their first live concert last September.

In 2009, Kim asked his best friend Nicholas—who at the time was completing his jazz studies at the University of North Texas—to move to California and join him at the company. As the business manager for the group, Nicholas spends a great deal of time keeping track of the details: what images to use for their press campaigns, or how to raise money for the next video. He also co-produces the material for the their record label, Golden Fetus, which Nicholas and Kim formed in 2009.

Kim said that starting a record label hadn’t originally been part of his plan, but “I realized the people signing new artists were only interested in who I sounded like. I realized no one was going to understand me. Here I was this Asian guy trying to do this weird hip-hip—not even hip-hop!—so I decided to do it myself.”

Kim got up from the table and sat at the baby grand piano in his living room, playing his part of the “Water Bearer,” a musical composition from Great Integration which will be performed at the show on Friday. It was fast, like the sound of thunder and galloping horses, and there was a feeling of anticipation in the music as it seemed to move through the space.  As the tempo changed, the piano seemed to take on the sound of a flute and then of a drum—very big and loud and controlled at the same time.

As Kim played, the expression on his face was serious and his fingers moved swiftly over the keys. It was intense, yet you could see how easily the music flowed from him to the piano keys; playing seemed as natural for him as the sunlight that shone through the window over his shoulder.

The upcoming concert will be performed in two full acts and will feature a different master of ceremonies for each act. Do D.A.T., a 29-year old rap emcee from the Bay Area, is the featured vocalist during the first act. Rico Pabon, known for his hip-hop and Latin music, will be the vocalist for the second. The storyline is based on a battle between celestial kings and the idea of creating a new world.

“My goal as a musician or a record producer is to create the best thing possible,” Kim said.  “That becomes the real art. It’s something that [the listener] can hear. There is a thought behind it, a philosophy and a personality. If they get some sort of emotional reward from the experience, then I did my job.”

Ensemble Mik Nawooj performs at Club Oasis in Oakland on June 8 at 8 p.m. You can find more information about the show here.



  1. […] About Us « Ensemble Mik Nawooj brings a chamber hip-hop opera to Oakland […]

  2. […] A blend of classical and hip hop, featuring Rico Pabon & Do D.A.T. More information here. See Oakland North’s previous coverage here. […]

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