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Breathing New Life into Traditional Korean Culture

Dec 03, 2019

A festival with a six century-old heritage

It’s been about 30 years since artistic director Jaeyeon Joo (Department of Chemical Engineering, incoming class of 1985) has been walking the path of Korean traditional culture, fascinated by samulnori (‘the play of the four objects’, a traditional Korean percussion music). He spent 2019 preparing for two festivals, the Palace Culture Festival which took place in May and the Seoul Arirang Festival, which took place in October.

“During the Joseon Dynasty, Gwanghwamun was a place where the royal and folk culture interacted naturally. This inspired us to plan a performance that combines the two genres at this year’s Seoul Arirang Festival,” Joo said.

Joo has dedicated his career to translating traditional culture into today’s modern language. Incorporating different artistic genres so that audiences can enjoy traditional culture through the platform of a festival, is one example of this. At the Palace Culture Festival, a hundred amateur actors brought back to life the period of the Korean Empire (1897-1910) in a musical performance that moved throughout the entire Deoksugung Palace.

At the Seoul Arirang Festival, a troupe of teenagers reinterpreted the traditional Arirang, a folk song that is often considered to be the anthem of Korea, through street dance. “If you try to teach young people Arirang in a classroom they are unable to interact with it in a meaningful way. But if you ask them to interpret it through their favorite dance forms, they are immediately responsive. I hope traditional culture becomes something that is enjoyed interactively, not simply displayed in museums behind glass doors.”

The Seoul Arirang Festival also features a Gwanghwamun Music Program involving rock bands. The condition for a rock band to participate is that they have to perform their own rendition of Arirang. Joo, who hopes all Korean musicians will have their own version of Arirang, was overjoyed when learning that a band that participated in the program went on to perform Arirang in their other concerts.

Traditional culture as the root of Hallyu

Perhaps atypical for an engineering student, Joo frequently took electives in the humanities and social sciences during his time at SNU. A fan of rock music, he even took up part-time work as a DJ in a music-themed dabang (a traditional Korean coffee or tea house). At the crossroads of choosing a career path in 1992, he coincidentally came across a samulnori performance by Kim Duk-soo’s troupe. Charmed by the novelty of traditional music, Joo decided to join the group and has since devoted his life to the traditional arts. “I was amazed by how the music performed by Korean farmers over centuries could be enjoyed by audiences today when performed on stage. I was confident that samulnori would soon become a symbol of Korean culture.”

As the troupe grew and Joo immersed himself further in the world of traditional performing arts, Joo’s interest naturally spread from samulnori to pansori (a musical storytelling performance with an accompanying drummer). He worried about whether the pansori, which was obscure even for Korean audiences, would be welcomed abroad, but was met by cheering European audiences each time he performed it. Through these experiences, he has gained a lot of pride in traditional Korean culture. Joo has since helped get the five chants of pansori listed as a UNESCO cultural heritage.

Joo insists that traditional culture is the true origin of Hallyu (Korean Wave). He thinks that with the Hallyu currently inundating much of the world, the time is ripe to draw the world’s attention to Korean traditional music.

Written by Minju Kim, SNU English Editor,
Reviewed by Professor Travis Smith, Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations,