Saturday, May 8, 2010

korean music

my little sister is the kind of generous individual who will gladly share many things with me - like chicken pox, when we were small children, and on this particular trip to Korea, her cold. despite delays caused by my nonstop sneezing and fever-induced ramblings, we managed to go out and explore more of Seoul today.

knowing my love of exploring local music, my dad bought us tickets to see a show at the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts. originally i had been hoping to see some pansori, a form of traditional folk music where a singer tells a story while a drummer accompanies him or her along with verbal responses - hence sharing components of the call and response format of black gospel music as well as the simple yet tremendously expressive nature of the blues. i've been working on this theory that pansori is the korean form of the american blues, only centuries older.

an example of pansori - starts at 37 seconds

it's cool enough to make me want to learn korean just to put on interesting pansori shows in Kensington Market.

as it turned out, pansori wasn't being featured today. instead, we saw other traditional performances: we saw court music (byeolgok) performed with five instruments i had never seen before (except the drum. i know what drums are). then there was a salpuri a folk dance that was put on originally to exorcise evil spirits in the shaman tradition. i have to admit i know a lot more about music than dance, so although the female dancer with the white scarf was quite expressive, i paid a lot more attention to her accompaniment. the music was disturbing, simply haunting. aspects of it made me think of the darker pieces of Godspeed You Black Emperor, only with centuries more suffering and brooding behind it. it was weird and abrasive and a very foreign sound to our Western-trained ears, but i found myself irresistibly drawn to it. i wish i had been allowed to record it, so i could, i don't know, learn the zither to replicate it, or something.

an example of salpuri. slow and haunting music - kind of like godspeed you black emperor

the final act was a sanjo featuring the geomungo instrument. Sanjo, from what i understand, is a folk music performance where one musician solos. it seemed like pansori, only with an instrument telling the story, rather than a vocalist. it was kind of like two friends from the deep American South, sitting on a porch on a hot day, with one man playing banjo and the other guy the washer, one man singing "my baby done left me an' i got the blues" and the other guy responding "amen!", only here these men were wearing traditional korean hanbok, not overalls, and they were playing the zither and the barrel drum. same sort of feel though, if you get what i mean. and the audience members, especially the older ones familiar with the sound, were equally moved by the music, and i heard some of them call out responses along with the drummer. it was quite the sight.

the whole show was pretty enlightening. Korea has such a long rich music history, and we are so lucky that so much of it is still preserved, especially when the Japanese invaded the country and forbade the expression of any Korean music for decades - it's a wonder that people were still around to remember how to tell it, Korean-style. i would love for elements of traditional Korean music to seep into mainstream music, like the way the blues, reggae, and even bollywood sound has. of course, i don't think i could really bear it if Avril Lavigne started belting out pansori, so maybe there is some blessings in obscurity.

Also, due to my inability to tell the difference between chun (a thousand) and man (ten thousand), i now own a thirty dollar, authentic bamboo-carved recorder.

after the show, we went to the Kangnam Express Bus Terminal and explored the many shops around there. i picked up some priceless gifts for my friends, but my favourite find was the record store where i picked up some of Korea's more contemporary musical treasures that i'd been searching for: some Shin Jung Hyun, known as the godfather of Korean classic rock, Park Ji Yoon, a pop singer turned introspective singer-songwriter/actress/photographer, and the Rock Tigers, who call themselves as the pioneers of Korean rockabilly - and are possibly still the only Korean rockabilly band that i've ever heard of anyway.