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[ZOOM KOREA] Folk song masters keep the music alive

June 13,2017
Master singer Yu Ji-suk sings “Ganghwa Gosasori,” which is sung at shamanistic rituals. Folk songs from Gangwha Island, Incheon, incorporate the melodies of seodosori and the cheerful sound of Gyeonggi folk songs, as Gangwha Island is close to the historic province Hwanghae. [PARK SANG-MOON]
Clockwise from top left: Yu Ji-suk performs together with her husband Choi Kyung-man, a Korean Pipe master. Yu sings joyous tunes from “Hwanghae Gut,” which is sung at Korean traditional rituals. Yu performs “Dontaryeong” from “Pyeongan Darigut,” which is a type of Korean traditional ballad, with her students. [PARK SANG-MOON]
In March 2014, Korea’s traditional music was showcased at the opening stage of the Festival de L’imaginaire, a major music and arts festival in France.

The audience was fascinated by Yu Ji-suk, the master singer of seodosori, referring to folk songs from the historic northwestern provinces of the Korean peninsula such as Hwanghae and Pyeongan, along with Lee Chun-hee, master singer of Gyeonggi minyo, which is a genre of traditional folk songs from Gyeonggi, and Korean traditional pipe master Choi Kyung-man.

After seeing the performance, Radio France, a French public broadcaster, requested to record a performance. After devoting 18 months to this album, Yu incorporated folk songs from North Korea and seodosori that were not familiar even with the South Korean public.

The album was introduced to 60 countries worldwide, and was a way that musicians could get to know North Korean traditional folk songs.

It is said that seodosori, which was revived near the end of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) and during the Japanese colonization (1910-1945), originated from the sorrow of people living in the northwestern part of the Korean peninsula.

It is said that the sorrow resulted partly from the discrimination policy against the region’s residents by Yi Seong-gye, who established the Joseon Dynasty, as the initial king of Joseon picked none of the region’s residents for government positions.

The notes of the song are mournful and masculine. It contains the han, the Korean word for resentment, of the people who had to endure attacks from north of the border.

Master singer Yu, who studies and teaches seodosori, is designated as Important Intangible Cultural Heritage No. 29. She was born on Gangwha Island in Incheon, where many refugees from North Korea have settled.

She was influenced by her family members who excelled in seodosori, as well as janggo, which is a type of Korean percussion instrument, and dance. Naturally, she also followed that road and participated in folk song performances with Korean traditional percussion bands.

In her early 20s, Yu studied under the master singer Oh Bok-nyeo (1913-2001). Thanks to Yu’s talent and hard work, she became Oh’s top student. She had a successful career as a sori, or song, master after she won a competition hosted by the National Gugak Center in 1990. In 1998, she rose to stardom after she won the National Gugak Festival hosted by broadcasting company KBS.

Yu is the wife of Choi Kyung-man, a Korean traditional pipe master who is designated as Intangible Cultural Heritage No. 44 of Seoul. Together, they collaborate on albums and performances and strive to popularize gugak, Korean traditional music.

Real seodosori, which was sung in the northwestern regions of the peninsula, cannot be heard anymore in North Korea, Yu said. She said she became aware of this when she visited North Korea in 1995 with 450 other artists and entertainers to promote the reconciliation of the two Koreas. Seodosori still exists in North Korea, but in a different form from the original as the lyrics and the way it is sung is different, she said.

“Giwon-gwa-deokdam,” which means Origin and Blessing, is the title of her 2014 album.

She has performed it every year since its release. The songs console agony and contain prayers to block bad misfortunes in life. The performance consists of songs which were once common and have become forgotten over the years.

BY PARK SANG-MOON [moonpark@joongang.co.kr]