One of the things I talked about last night with Sang Joon was Seoul. He was telling me about his experiences there, and I was asking about what the cultural scene is like, trying to see how valid my own views are. He said the area around Hong Ik University is really different from anywhere else, and described all kinds of things he’d experienced while living there for a few months.
One of the most interesting things he described was one day seeing a pair of women in kisaeng outfits (the Korean form of the geisha, a kisaeng is), dancing some kind of special dance to a bbongjjak song—meaning, to the kind of music you hear in taxi cabs and to which people in their 50s tend to party to when they get down to soju and dancing. I can’t remember what else there was with the kisaeng, but there was something shockingly modern in the middle of that.
I told Sang Joon that it seemed to me that a lot of culture, older culture, had been lost throughout the countryside during all the troubles with Japan and the Korean War. Whatever had survived, it seemed to me, ended up in Seoul, and that was where the older heritage of Korea—heritage as a living thing, not as something on the shelf in a museum—was able to kind of survive in an interesting fashion, every so often emerging to confront the nation as it has become.
He provided me with another example, a fascinating one at that. The Korean form of pansori is a “traditional” form of singing (accompanied by a single percussionist who tosses in comments on the song) which, according to Lime, involves a kind of mangling of one’s own voicebox through continual practice at producing a very idiomatic sound. In any case, the production of sound is rooted very low in the abdomen, and it sounds like nothing else. Well, this “traditional” form of narrative-epic singing (which only assumed its current form a couple of hundred years ago, really) has showed up entertaining ways: I once saw a woman singing the theme from “Ghost” (you know, that awful song that goes “Oh, my love, my darling / I’ve hungered for your touch…”) with modern accompaniment, but in a pansori voice. That, now that was funny.
But Sang Joon mentioned something that blew that out of the water. It’s a song created by Tae-Ho Park that deals with what has been, in recent years, a very standard Korean story of dramatic struggle: the computer game Starcraft. Pansori are supposed to tell great narratives of powerful struggles; this song, according to Sang Joon, tells the story of the struggle of some lowly dog-like cannon-fodder creature sent to attack an alien enemy in the heat of battle. The Gosu (the drummer who throws in comments along the way) is ridiculously funny when he quotes a line from the game itself: “All forces ATTACK!”
It’s hilarious, and worth a listen, even if (like me) you can’t pick up much of what’s going on… though I suppose if you don’t know any Korean, it may not be of interest at all. And if nothing else, it is a fascinating example of how old culture confronts the new (and very popular) modern technoculture. Maybe this kind of thing isn’t limited to Seoul (after all, Sang Joon saw a live performance by Park in Jeonju, at a festival), but I think it’s more common there than in the countryside. Which is a shame for me, living in the boonies, because it’s downright fascinating.
UPDATE 9 November 2004: At Kevin’s request, here’s a link to the file in an alternate format. I couldn’t find a converter for Quicktime, but I think Realmedia is accessible in the Mac platform. Let me know if I’m wrong!
UPDATE 29 July 2008: I discuss remixing of Korean culture old and new here, but the reference to Pansori is buried, so I’m adding the video I found embedded here: