Singing Like a Waterfall?


Singing Like a Waterfall?
[Focus] Pansori is a Korean national treasure, but can anyone else get it? Simon Broughton didn’t think so.

As editor-in-chief of Songlines I’m often asked if there’s a style of music that I simply can’t bear to listen to. Yes, there is Korean pansori. It’s a sort of opera, or narrative song, sung by one (usually female) singer accompanied by a drum. The style of singing is rough, shrieky and full of exaggerated vibratos, the pieces go on for hours in a language I don’t understand, and the musical texture is minimal.

So when I was invited to a festival specialising in pansori I was hesitant. But then reasoned that if I was ever going to understand this extraordinary art form, recognised by UNESCO, then this was my chance. And surprise, surprise, the experience was a revelation.

In Korean ‘pan’ is a place where people gather together and ‘sori’ means ‘sound’ or ‘song.’ The first written account of it was in 1754 (by an educated aristocrat), but the form is much older. It used to be performed in an open space – a market place or courtyard. Although it’s often described as Korean opera, the description is misleading. Unlike European opera, pansori wasn’t an aristocratic creation, but mixes elements of folk music and shamanism, Korea’s folk religion. It was performed by professional folk musicians, some of them shamans, who would regularly commune between people and the spirit world. Although it became popular all over, the pansori heartland is Jeolla in the south-west of the Korean peninsula and the music is linked to the folk melodies of the region.
Although pansori did become popular amongst the aristocracy, it was thought by many to be too common and vulgar. But it enjoyed its golden age during the 19th century thanks to aristocratic and royal patronage and the names of celebrated singers are still remembered. Female singers started performing in the mid 19th century.

In 1902, Hyomnyulsa, the first Western-style theatre for pansori, was built in Seoul with the support of the royal family. The first recordings of pansori extracts on 78rpm were made by Victor, probably just before the Japanese invasion of 1910, and then by Nipponophone. There is a direct line of pansori singing from the celebrated singers of the pre-World War II period through to the singers of today. After the war, pansori went through a period of decline until the 60s when there was concern that changgeuk (a 20th century staged form of pansori with several singers) had taken over. In 1964 pansori was recognised as an Intangible Cultural Property No 5 and leading performers were designated ‘human treasures’ and from the 70s started to receive state support to train and perform. Pansori as a unique artistic form was seen as central to Korean identity and many new contemporary pansori pieces were composed.

In 1993, one of Korea’s most celebrated film directors Im Kwon-taek made Sopyonje, a hugely successful film about a family of pansori musicians in Jeolla province. It’s been described as one of the ‘definitive works of Korean cinema.’ Today the best-known pansori singer is Ahn Sook-sun, the female vocalist on the Sopyonje soundtrack who has performed all over the world, including WOMAD. There are regular pansori performances in Seoul and elsewhere in the country and two prestigious national competitions.

Artist unknown, late Chosun Dynasty (presumed), on canvas

My revelation took place at the International Sori Festival in Jeonju (one of Songlines’ 2012 25 best international festivals). The city, in north Jeolla province, is home to many famous performers and one of the national competitions. In the centre of town is the old hanok village – an atmospheric district of largely wooden houses with tiled roofs, including the Geonggijeon shrine (Historic site No 339), several museums, galleries and tea houses.

Here is the Hakindang, a merchant’s house from the 19th century surrounded by a garden courtyard with trees and a pool. One end of the main room is the performing area, in front of a painted screen. I’m glad I arrived early and got a seat near the front as the room fills quickly and many have to sit outside on the terrace or in the garden under sunshades. Most importantly, I have a good view of a TV screen where a simultaneous translation is displayed. Even more than with opera, it transforms the experience when you can understand almost every word.

The singer Jang Mun-heui, around 30, is one of the younger generation of pansori singers. She’s in the traditional garb – a silk dress with a fan and a handkerchief. She flips the fan open and closed as a percussion instrument to add emphasis to her words. With her onstage is the drummer (gosu), dressed in a gat, the typical wide-brimmed black hat that Korean men wore till the end of the 19th century, playing the buk (barrel drum). His 12-beat rhythm runs through the whole performance – the hard decisive strokes from his right hand struck with a stick on the right skin of the drum and on the wooden top, while the left hand taps softer beats on the left-hand side. It’s clear the drummer is the musical mediator in the performance. ‘Il gosu, I myeongchang’ (First the drummer, second the singer) goes an old Korean saying.

Out of 12 pansori stories there are now only five left in the repertoire. And whereas most classical operas end tragically, all the pansori stories, despite going through moments of sadness and anguish, end happily.

Jang Mun-heui is performing Simcheongga (The Song of Sim Cheong), the story of a daughter who sacrifices herself for her blind father so that he can see again. When his wife dies in childbirth, Mr Sim begs for milk for his daughter and raises her alone. After Sim Cheong throws herself into the sea to pay for offerings at the Buddha temple, the underwater Dragon King is impressed by her filial piety and returns her to earth where she marries the emperor. Sim Cheong, now empress, holds a banquet for all the blind people in the kingdom hoping to find her father. When he appears at the banquet and discovers his daughter is alive he regains his sight.

In a pansori performance there are alternating passages of narration (aniri) which simply advance the story (like recitative in Mozartian opera), and songs (sori), the equivalent of an aria. This is combined with gesture (ballim) using the fan and a handkerchief. After Sim Cheong’s mother has died, the fan clearly represents the baby Mr Sim is left holding. During the story the singer is both the narrator and all the characters. It’s the sori sections that are the most emotional and attract the applause. Part of the revelation is seeing the interaction with the drummer and the audience – the drummer is always grunting or yelling expressions of encouragement and the audience do the same. I realise pansori is actually closer to traditional flamenco than opera – there’s the prominent use of the fan, for one thing, but deeper than that, there’s the depth of emotion that cante jondo has and the involvement of the audience yelling the Korean equivalent of olé encouraging the performer on.

The audience in Jeonju seem like aficionados – along with the drummer they are murmuring encouragement and bursting out with laughter at the comic bits. Mr Sim falls into a stream, struggles to get out but slides back down. The singer’s eyeballs ogle. There are chuckles all round. It feels like a community experience, not just a performance. What draws most applause are the tragic moments – the dark bitterness in Jang Mun-heui’s voice over the death of Sim Cheong’s mother, and then an other-worldly quality when a nightingale in a willow pavilion sings a sad song at her funeral. Very often nature and animals are reacting to the events of the story.

Music is seen by many traditional Korean musicians as a natural force. Many years ago I remember the gayageum (zither) player Hwang Byung-ki explaining to me the principles of pungnyu (wind and stream). Instrumental musicians would often go into the natural environment to play – a popular theme in Korean paintings – and it was seen as a way of purifying the soul and cleansing the mind. But Hwang also explained the ornamentations in Korean music like a waterfall. If you play (or sing) two notes – the first higher and the second lower – the second note is decorated and pitch-shifted like a stream arriving at the bottom of a waterfall. It really helps to keep this in mind when listening to Korean instrumental sanjo music and the exaggerated vibrato of pansori.

In Seoul, I talked to the male pansori singer Bae Il-dong who trained for seven years living by a waterfall in Jeolla province. “People don’t train like this now,” he says, “but this was the traditional way. It helps develop the rough quality you need in the voice and helps you maintain energy in the performance.” Male pansori singers have a range of over four octaves. He describes himself sucking in the sound and energy of the waterfall and how the pungnyu quality of everywhere is different. It has certainly given him the rough, sandpaper quality in his voice, loved by pansori aficionados. He’s worked with Australian drummer Simon Barker on pansori jazz fusion projects.

Jang Mun-heui’s performance of Simcheongga lasts about three hours. You can vary the length of the performance by leaving out certain episodes – this was obvious to us foreigners in the audience when the person managing the translation had to skip several sections from time to time.

As in opera, it’s the tragic rather than the joyful bits that move the most. The most vivid part of Simcheongga is the evocation of the shamanistic ceremony on board a boat before Sim Cheong sacrifices herself and ‘flies into the vast blue water like a seagull’. The grass, trees and even the mountains weep. The birds, including a very distinct cuckoo, sing farewell. It was one of the most moving pieces of music dramas I’ve ever seen.

So I’m totally won over to pansori after all. Just as kimchi, the hot Korean pickled cabbage, tastes strange at first, pansori takes some getting used to. And just as there’s nothing to beat jamon and flamenco on its home ground in Andalucía, I think pansori needs to be heard in Jeolla, with a translation. Yes pansori singers do occasionally perform in the West, but for me it’s the intimacy, the translation, the audience and the ambience that are just as important as the music. When all that comes together, pansori really is one of the world’s great musical art forms.

This article was originally published in Songlines, July 2012


Simon Broughton_ Editor in Chief of Songlines
Simon Broughton_ Editor in Chief of Songlines

Simon Broughton has been involved with world music for over 25 years. He is co-editor of the Rough Guide to World Music, the leading book on the subject, and Editor-in-Chief of Songlines magazine, the leading world music publication in the English-speaking world. He also works as a free-lance film maker and has directed many music documentaries for BBC and other broadcasters.