… San Peu-ran-shi-seu-ko~~~…

UPDATE (11/09/2006): There are a number of factual errors in this post, as to the derivation of specific Korean pop-music words. Check out Charles’ comment (appended to this post) for more info. Yeah, just goes to show you that you can’t take it for granted when people explain something to you that they actually know what they’re talking about, as I was assured of the derivation of these words more than once, back in my Iksan days. Shrug.


Actually, that’s an exaggeration. The title of this post, I mean.

Tonight, on the way home from the grocery store, I decided to catch a cab just because it’d be slightly less strain than standing in a full subway car with a heavy bag of vegetables and stuff. So anyway, I got in and this older guy was hacking up a lung. I told him my destination but already I was starting to feel as if I was in a time warp.

You see, when you catch a taxi in Korea, they play this music… it’s called Bbong-jjak, which is, I think, the Korean equivalent onomatopoeia for what we in English call “Oom-pah” music. Now, I learned how to pronounce the word bbong-jjak in India, believe it or not. Ritu’s husband John taught me how to say it right. I’d never seen the word before, and thought it was “bong-jak” but those consonants are double-consonants, and need to be spat out… kind of. It’s hard to explain exactly but I’ll just say it makes those consonants much more percussive when you say them the right way.

Oompah, then. It’s not really quite like oompah music, though, and sometimes it’s called teu-ro-teu, which is just the English word “throat”. I don’t know why exactly it’s sometimes called one, sometimes the other, since for the average person the genre names seem interchangeable, but I think “throat” emphasizes the passionate or powerful nature of the vocals, where in other songs, the — ahem — flair is concentrated in the beat and instrumental parts. But, really, I don’t know. But I do know that 90% of cab rides I’ve experienced in Korea involve this kind of music.

(6.5% of the remaining involve Christian evangelicals preaching in frightening, fiery, and to me incomprehensible Millennial Korean, which is a special dialect in which the local words for words hell, salvation, Jesus, and God are used repetitively, almost the way sacral words are used in Queebcois French except without the cuss function; 1.5% involve Bbong-jjak karaoke where people call in on their cell phones and sing along; 1% involves something I can only characterise as Buddhist-relaxation tapes with synthesizer, water sounds, and wisdom said softly in a very calming voice by an older man; 0.75% involves the evening news; and the last 0.25% involves blaring techno music of the Korean variety, which I’d say sounds a lot like North American or European techno music from about 6 years ago. But then, to me, North American techno music from right now also sounds like North American or European techno music from about 6 years ago.)

So anyway, this guy, he had this cassette in his tape deck, and he was playing the kind of stuff I’m always wandering in search of, but never know how to get. It was this bbong-jjak kind of music, except it dated back to between the 1950s and 1960s (according to the cabbie). I’m thinking it was closer to the 60s, as I could hear a synthesizer of some kind, an old one, playing during one of the songs. He also told me, I’m pretty sure, that it was recorded and released in San Francisco. I was surprised, but he said it “came out” in San Francisco a couple of times, to make sure I understood. How do you fancy that? And in one of the songs, the woman singing actually mentioned San Francisco, though that was all I caught because I was talking to the cabbie. Interestingly, she pronounced it in perfect American English pronunciation, while it was the cabbie who said “San Peu-ran-shi-seu-ko.”

So now my head is full of images of Korean vocal music stars hanging out in 1950s San Francisco, recording stuff in Korean and living the rest of their lives in this uneasy mix of Korean and English, being mistaken for Japanese so soon after the War, and so on. It sounds fascinating, doesn’t it? I wonder if there are any books on the subject. And I would LOVE to get my hands on the tunes he was listening to. Anyone know the names of any singers from that era? Or the folk singers like those that showed up in ?때 그 사람들?

Well, I must get back to Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. I have to give a lecture in a couple of days on American pop culture, and I thought we’d start by working our way from blackface minstrel shows through ragtime and bebop to the Cool Jazz era. This is working our way up to interrogating the relationship between “black performers” in America and “mainstream popular culture”. Next week will be the beats, Elvis, and the Beatles — but against the foreground of their precedents in African-American popular culture. Well, given how hard it is to find footage of blackface minstrelsy, I’m going with Mr. Lee’s satiric revival as an example to start the class, and I need to pick a section to play.

Which reminds me, I also have a short story idea floating around in my head about a black American guy from about 1840 who is a runaway slave, doing blackface song-and-dance in a traveling minstrel show, who meets a very interesting, er, being one night out behind the wagon after his show. Or something. It’s a vague hint of a narrative so far, mostly character and mood, really, but it’s started haunting me already… more stuff to research, I suppose. I would certainly love a chance to do something where it’s not “The Magical Negro” all over again. What happens if the magic scares the hell out of him, like it would anyone else?

5 thoughts on “… San Peu-ran-shi-seu-ko~~~…

  1. 트로트 is actually a Koreanization of “trot,” not “throat.” This in turn is a shortening of “foxtrot.” 뽈? is a slang term for it derived from the incessant rhythm. Personally, the stuff drives me crazy.

    I have a senior(선배) who majors in Korean popular music (which is why I know the above information–I’ve translated a number of abstracts for her papers). I can ask her about that period if you’re really interested.

  2. Charles,

    Well, then it turns out I was misinformed on a number of counts. Damn. Which is weird. 트로트 doesn’t sound like foxtrot music to me. :)

    Please do ask your senior, I’d love to know more about the period. Especially whether there were really recordings being made in San Fran, any by whom in what circumstances, as I’m deadly curious about that.

  3. Just in case I have it already, what’s it called?

    By the way, Charles provided some interesting info, but on books not available outside Korea in any case, so I won’t bother to reproduce it here.

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