The international success of the K-Pop song ‘Gangnam Style’ has probably become a bigger story here than the song itself. I catch TV fragments in buses and taxis with people imitating the ludicrous walk and dance steps with their wrists crossed in front of them and reports of the singer Psy going to the US on tour. What a shame that it’s a song that sounds totally un-Korean that attracts the world to Korean music.
I’ve come to Jeonju International Sori Festival to explore music that is intensely Korean. Jeonju is a city in the south-west of the country, in Jeolla province which I liken to Andalucía in Spain. It is famous for its food and its traditional music – pansori singing, often described as folk opera, but is more like flamenco. Even at the festival one of the bands in the Sori Frontier competition for ‘world music’ groups ended their set with the lead singer donning sun glasses and the dance moves for a Psy imitation. They didn’t win.
The opening of the festival included Korea’s most celebrated pansori singer, Ahn Sook-sun, singing and playing the gayageum zither at the same time with a hundred of her pupils (pictured above). It was an extraordinary spectacle – they were all dressed in over-colourful skirts, playing in unison and even lifting their arms together as they played. Ahn Sook-sun and the last dozen or so gayageum players rose up on a stage platform to join the rest of the ensemble stretching back as far as the eye could see. It was a surreal moment of Korea meets Hollywood, but also strangely reminiscent of North Korea and those amazing massed games in Pyongyang.
International artists included El Gran Combo, a great 50-year-old salsa band from Puerto Rico and Portuguese fado singer Claudia Aurora (pictured right), now based in the UK. Her set of traditional and self-composed fados was packed out in the courtyard of a traditional house in the centre of town.
But for me it’s the pansori and traditional music here that is fascinating – and the glorious locations in which it’s performed. On Sunday I was at an amazing pansori performance that completely overturned the idea that this is a difficult and severe art form. It was funny, easy to follow (with on-screen subtitles) and was a tour de force performance from Chae Sujeong who is an irrepressible bundle of energy.
An unexpected ingredient has been the severe rain. I went to a performance of young pansori singers on Sunday evening where they had to sing through the sound of torrents of rain falling off the tiled roofs. Traditionally pansori singers trained by singing against waterfalls, so perhaps it was strangely appropriate.
For me, the highlight was an instrumental player who I’d never heard of before. His name is Kim Ilgu (pictured below) and he plays the ajaeng, Korea’s extraordinary bowed zither. The sound is very raspy and scratchy with a wide vibrato, most unsuited you would have thought for a solo instrument. But his playing drew you in from the first stroke. It flowed like a slow eddying stream, stopping and swirling in currents and eddies. Just as I was picturing this stream from the intense tone colours of his playing, the rain started and the pattering of the raindrops on the roof while we were cosy inside made for one of the greatest musical experiences I’ve ever heard. The applause at the end was tumultuous, like something for an Olympic event rather than a complex classical recital. I only learned afterwards that Kim Ilgu is one of Korea’s living national treasures. What a star.