Pansori and Yodeling: Two Ways of Singing “Over the Top”

Recently, the German newspaper tageszeitung featured an interview with Doreen Kutzke, founder of a yodeling school in Berlin Kreuzberg (there is an information-PDF in English, too). You can hear some of her neo-traditional yodeling songs on Soundcloud. She talks about how she became a professional yodeller and, among other things, discusses the popular imagery of yodeling, what she likes about this peculiar voice art, and how the future of yodeling might look. (To find out more about “urban yodeling” in English, you can read an article in The Guardian that also mentions Kutzke or hear a short feature about her at Public Radio International, see the Urban Dictionary for an alternative definition.)

Besides learning much that I hadn’t known before, Kutzke mentioning the “Korean Yodel Federation” (한국요델협회, since 1978, also on Facebook) caught my eye. On the federation’s website, I found a (very) short history of yodeling in Korea:

해방전후로 만주쪽 등산가로부터 구전되어서 전해져 오기도 하고 또 한편으로는 일본을 통해서 들어 오기도 하였습니다. 공식적인 기록으로는 1934년 발표된 최초의 대중가수 채규엽의 음반에 ‘사랑의 유레이티’란 요델곡이 있었습니다. 1968년 한국 요델음악의 아버지라고 불리우는 김홍철씨가 스위스로 요델유학을 다녀오면서 그 이후 활발한 공연활동을 통해 전파되었습니다. 1969년 서울에델바이스 요델클럽이 창단된 이후로 현재까지 수도권 및 지방에서 8개의 요델클럽이 창단되었으며, 10여개 이상의 관련 동호회와 합창단이 정기적인 모임 가지면서 활발한 활동을 하고 있습니다.

This is my ad-hoc translation:

Around Liberation [from Japanese colonial rule, 15 Aug. 1945], [yodeling] was, on the one hand, passed down from mountain climbers in Manchuria, on the other it came from Japan. According to official records, the song ‘Yoo-rei-ti of Love’, published on popular singer Chae Gyu-yeop’s first album in 1934, was a yodeling song. Kim Hong-cheol, called the ‘father of Korean yodeling music’, went to study yodeling in Switzerland in 1968 and, afterwards, promoted it through lively performance activities. After the foundation of the yodeling club ‘Seoul Edelweiss’ [transl. hangeul: Edelbaiseu] in 1969, up until today eight yodeling clubs were founded in the greater Seoul area and more than ten related societies and choirs are meeting and conducting activities. (source: Korean Yodel Federation)

This first Korean yodel song can be heard at Heidiland, another website dedicated to the art. In its slightly inconvenient message board, Heidiland also offers a more detailed history of yodeling in Korea, as well as pictures, videos, and soundbites of the Korean yodeling-scene.

Doing research on pansori, I find interesting that, although aesthetically and physiologically completely different, yodeling shares a preference for extreme sound qualities with this traditional Korean singing-storytelling. In pansori, the most characteristic feature is the raspy, hoarse timbre/quality of the sound, in yodeling it is, among others, the sheer volume.

As a result, both arts suggest themselves as channels for emotional release. Whether in the form of “setting free ecstasy” (a free translation of the concept of sinmyeong puri 신명풀이) or the expression and subsequent release of han in the case of pansori. Or, while yodeling, as a liberating recklessness, the “total let go” (absolutes Loslassen), that Kutzke mentions in the interview.

Apart from artistic aspects, pansori and yodeling can be found in close proximity on the “musico-sociological grid”: With regard to production, in both cases songs were originally transmitted rather than composed. And with regard to the popular image today, both pansori and yodeling are considered old-fashioned by many, while at the same time evoking a sense of pride, often coloured with nationalist or regionalist implications.

It also seems that both traditional “folk” arts (pansori professionalized at an early stage, however) share a double-sided image: on the one hand well-known and generally acknowledged as an authentic expression of their respective culture (rural farming life in Korea, mountain culture in Switzerland); on the other hand old-fashioned, nostalgic, slightly cheesy, something for the older generation.

But artists like Kutzke or, in the case of pansori, crossover acts like Ninano Nanda (니나노 난다), a DJ and a pansori singer performing together, challenge the rustical atmosphere that surrounds their art of choice. While yodeling enjoys a world-wide success as an Alpine export product that has taken roots in other localities (Bart Plantenga has collected many examples, including some from Korea, in his book Yodel in Hi-Fi: From Kitsch Folk to Contemporary Electronica, Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2012, pp. 250ff). In contrast, pansori, as a stately-sponsored tradition with high-art-ambitions, seems more firmly rooted in folklore imagery. Young ensembles usually retain some traditional plotlines, hanbok (traditional clothes) or hanbok-inspired dressing is the usual attire. This might be partly due to the fact that afficionados of orthodox pansori still make up a large part of the potential audiences for more experimental work.

Meanwhile in Switzerland, according to a Korean newspaper article from last year, attempts of registering yodeling as a UNESCO world heritage are underway. But, as the article duely notes, “despite the popular image of the yodeling alpine goatherd, Switzerland does not have a monopoly on the distinctive sound”. In a way, yodeling has attained an international status that promoters of pansori can only dream of. Translated, adapted and appropriated in many ways (from country-style to more pop-ish genres…), yodeling retains its often sentimentally nostalgic associations with Switzerland, the Alps, mountain scenery (hence Heidiland).

New Glarus yodelers in traditional Swiss garb (1922) via WikiMedia Commons

New Glarus yodelers in traditional Swiss garb (1922) via WikiMedia Commons

Is this the future of pansori, too? Actually, although on a smaller scale, it seems that pansori is enjoying more and more success overseas. I doubt that it will ever be an art as wide-spread and globalized as yodeling, but local scenes might emerge from Korean communities and/or groups of like-minded afficionados. An amateur pansori-contest recently held in Paris presents some potential protagonists of such new scenes (see a newsclip by Arirang at Youtube. They might as well be small and more international, although the necessity of live performances and training will probably poses limits to a dispersed online-community and calls for face-to-face encounters. And, different from Kutzke’s approach and more in line with most forms of global appropriation of yodeling, the contest stresses traditionally, at least with regard to the choice of pieces and clothing.

Then, a “future pansori” might sound quite different from what Ninano Nanda proposes:

– 8 Aug. 2015 (土)


About Jan Creutzenberg

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