Pansori 판소리 : Korea’s Musical Storytelling


As a former public school music educator, every once in a while I like to flex my music muscles a bit. One sunny afternoon I convinced a few friends from my music group here to join me at a free workshop about Korean Pansori, hosted by The Institute of Confucian Philosophy and Culture at Sungkyunkwan University. Once I found the venue, which was in a downtown fire department hall, I was greeted warmly, handed the program and some snacks, and settled in for the experience.

Pansori program

Pansori (판소리) is the Korean style of musical storytelling, which dates back to the 17th Century during the Joseon Dynasty. It is performed by a male or female vocalist and there is usually a drummer. The singer is called a sorikkun (소리꾼, singer) and the drummer plays a barrel-shaped drum called a buk (북).

Pansori buk

This was a lecture recital, in Korean, about the history, forms, and manner of pansori. The first performer was Ki-hyung Ryu, the Artistic Director of the Ugeumchi Drama Company. From what I could gather, he took us through the traditional styles of pansori. As things progressed, I was very thankful that I had taught myself to read Hangul, the Korean alphabet, as we were asked to sing along with our lyric sheets at various points.

The first half of the workshop covered five different pansori: Binari (a song of praying), two lullabies, Monaeki-Sori (a song of rice planting), Yu Heung-Yo (a celebration song), and two funeral songs. The rhythm, accompanied by the drum (which we copied by clapping), seemed to fall prevalently into a three-beat pattern, with simple variations within that framework. As an example, the lullabies were clearly in 3/4 time and used a dotted-eighth sixteenth drumming pattern. It was quite fun for me to try singing along with the rest of the group, and here is a quick clip of us all singing the “chorus” part of one of the funeral pieces, as well as an example of the pansori style, as sung by the director.

The second half of the workshop was lead by Ms. Bora Kim, a singer and songwriter of Korean Folk songs. Just from the change in style and manner of the songs, I knew her portion was about more modern versions of pansori.

The music in this set was: Taepyungga (a song of peace from the 1930s), Gunbam-taryung (a ballad about chestnuts), Yeokido Hana, DubeonJae Yiyaggi (a contemporary story song), and Arirang (the traditional Korean folk song). Where the first five songs had been in 3/4 time, these had a mix of meters and I noted some jazz and music theater influences. The video below is an example of the “jazzy” feel of Gunbam-taryung:

The last song we sang was the Gyeonggi province version of Arirang, which was recognized by UNESCO in 2012 as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. It was the version of the melody that I am familiar with, both from my past teaching experiences and since it is the melody sung all over South Korea. What was interesting to hear were the various versions of the melody that Ms. Kim sang, with the different vocal trills and stylings of pansori.

So there is a quick glimpse into a piece of Korea’s musical culture. Next I hope to tackle a bit of drumming with a Samulnori class – stay tuned!

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