Pansori at the Palace

postfiles10.naver.netOn this warm summer night we had a great time at Deoksugung, the smallest palace in Seoul. The concert was part of a series called “Pungnyu” (풍류 / 風流), a word that could be translated as “appreciation or taste for the arts”.

As this weekly concerts are hosted by the Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation, the organisation that designates the “living human treasures” of traditional arts, the line-up is amazing: All performers are “keepers” of their respective art, thus among the best and experienced performers in their field. Lee Hee-mun (이희문), himself folk singer, acts as the master of ceremonies—and occasionally joined the other performers in short duets.

The venue is lovely—the Jeonggwanheon Hall (정관헌) is a pavillon built around 1900 by Russian architect A. I. Sabatin as a relaxing place for the royals. According to the explanation carved in stone, “King Gojong is said to have enjoyed coffee and held banquets for foreign envoys in this Western-style building.” In fact, the pillars are decorated Korean style, making this building an early example of fusion architecture . Thanks to the open terraces on three sides, a fresh breeze was blowing and as the stage was not elevated, it all seemed pretty casual, the right atmosphere for a gugak concert.

After changing our shoes for slippers, we sat down on cushions and awaited the show. The most interesting part for me was the first performance by PARK Song-Hee (박송회, *1927), famous pansori singer and keeper of Heungbu-ga (흥부가), the song about Heungbu and his greedy brother Nolbu. (For a partial recording of the event, including Park Song-Hee’s part, see here.)

There were also various minyo and japga (민요, 잡가; folk songs), including, of course, Jindo Arirang (진도아리랑). But it was not only to this melody (familiar even to me) that the audience—many older people—joined in clapping, shuffling and even singing.

Park Song-Hee started her performance with a danga (단가, lit. “short song”), the usual introduction of a longer pansori recital. This specific song was written on the occasion of the funeral of Park’s master Bak Nok-ju (박녹주 / 朴綠珠, 1905–1979). Its title is “Insaeng Baengnyeon” (인생백년, “a life of 100 years”) and the lyrics are as follows:

인생 백년 꿈과 같네. 사람이 백년을 산다고 하였지만 어찌하여 백년이랴
죽고 사는 것이 백년이랴 날적에도 슬프고 가는 것도 슬퍼라

날적에 우는 것은 살기를 걱정해서 우는 것이요
갈적에 우는 것은 내 인생을 못잊고 가는 것이 서러워 운다

인생 백년이 어찌 허망하랴 엊그제 청춘 홍안이 오늘 백발이 되고보니
죽는 것도 섧지마는 늙는 것은 더욱 섧네

인생백년 벗은 많지마는 가는 길에는 벗이 없네 장차 이 몸을 뉘게 의탁하리
차라리 이 몸도 저 폭포수에 의탁하였으면 저 물고기와 벗이 되련마는

그러나 서러마라 가는 길 오는 세월 인생무상을 탓하리오
어와 세상 벗님네들 이 내 한말 들어보소
청춘 세월을 허망히 말고 헐 일을 허면서 지내보세

(for a recording of a performance see here)

Then Park presented a few episodes from Heungbu-ga, with surprising vitality given her age of eightysomething. The final “Bak-taryeong” (박타령, “Song of the Gourd”, which turns out to be full of money) proved to be the most popular, activating song.

Besides the great voice of this eminent pansori singer, the most amazing thing was, as noted above, the audience. There were a few younger kids (including me) who mostly remained calm, shooting an occasional photo. But the majority actively supported the singer, crying chuimsae (“jota! eolssigu!”) and moving their arms and upper body almost like dancing while sitting on the floor.

Despite my expectations—the program suggested a rather eclectic combination of various singing styles—this was not like the usual tourist-friendly “traditional music shows” I have witnessed. The only exception was the more solemn gyeonggi japga (경기잡가, a “vulgar song” from Gyeonggi province), performed by the singer sitting on the floor playing a drum, which did not attract much interaction, except for a sole “jal handa!” (잘한다, “well done”) that died unheard. Otherwise, the audience was visibly moved and at the same time moving.

I realized that the composition of the audience (a lot of the spectators seemed to be afficionados) as well as the selection of material (the well-known and moving folk songs were quite effective) plays a larger role than I thought. Even rather short potpourri performances like these can create temporal communities among strangers—moving and shaking together in this rather small space which holds not much more than a hundred people.

After the concert we strolled a bit around the palace ground, sharing a cup of instant coffee. While some musicians kept on playing what sounded like a daegeum (대금, bamboo flute), somewhere in the dark not too far away on the right, we heard loud, erupting cheers and applause (which sounded somehow artificial) from the left, i.e. from Seoul Plaza (서울광장). Some kind of pop concert?

As we later crossed the plaza, pungmul drummers were dancing in front of the gigantic stage that hides the ongoing construction of the city hall. Small shadows in bright light, they were mirrored on the wall, a large video projection. Far away in close-up, a stark contrast to the moving voices we had heard before in the intimacy of an old palace hall.


Gugak concerts at Deoksugung take place every Thursday night until early October. Admission is free except for 1000 won extrance fee for the palace. For the weekly program (also at other palaces in Seoul), see CedarBough T. Saeji’s excellent schedule of upcoming performances of various traditional performing arts in Korea.

See two more reports on the Pungnyu series, including videos, here and here.

— 26 May 2011 (木)

  • Deoksugung Pungnyu (regular Thursday performance), Jeonggwanheon Hall, Deoksugung Palace, 2011-05-26, 19–20 h.
  • 덕수궁 풍류 (목요상설공연), 덕수궁 정관헌, 2011년5월26일, 19시~20시까지.

About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
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