Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Impressions of Pansori in Guyre

When I first received the invitation to go to Guyre as a journalist to report on the pansori festival, I was very hesitant. Although I am an anthropologist, I am not an ethnomusicologist, and have had little interest in defining people’s culture by their music. I had previously visited Guyre and the attraction to it was based on other cultural interests: Guyre is a key path to the phenomenal beauty of Jirisan, and I love hiking. Guyre is famous for mountain vegetables, I am particularly interested in nutritional anthropology, and Guyre is the most famous of the four cities in the Longevity Belt where centenarians are listed as assets to the city, and I have done research on aging and society. But to go to Guyre as a music journalist, particularly on the traditional music form of pansori, really made me feel uncomfortable as I had little knowledge on it to draw from.

I accepted through pressure of the visiting American photographer for Korean Quarterly, Stephen Wunrow, who continually said he was not a writer but a visual artist and, though I was limited in knowledge, I would just be reporting on the facts of the occasion. I was grudgingly persuaded, and am very glad that I was. Music certainly is a driving force in society, a force I had little paid attention to in the past. In Guyre it is part of the pulse of the city. Samulnori and pansori were both birthed in the precincts of Guyre. They are dynamic music styles that need an audience to interact with, and with the audience the music becomes a shared communal experience of story-telling to cadence and emotional release.

The festival was primarily dedicated to pansori, and the more I listened to the singers and watched the dramatic styles of the various drummers, the more I felt charged with their vocal and percussion energy. With shouts of eolssigu (얼씨구), jo~da (~), and jalhanda (잘헌다) from the audience, I too began to be carried along with the emotions of the singers and their connected audience. And although the full story escaped me, I was able to understand some fragmented phrases and feel the joy, sorrow and despair woven into the music. I can now see that singing and even listening to pansori is a very cathartic experience.

The pansori festival opened with a soul cleansing ceremony before the unveiling of a commemorative shrine to a pansori master, more specifically, a gayageum player. This ceremony in itself was a culture experience for in the West, we are very unlikely to laud a musician posthumously and even more unlikely to hold a ceremony for him or her and dedicate a statue in memory of his or her performance. These actions really defined for me the high value that Koreans place in music and performance. 

However, since it is obvious that Koreans regard music so highly and that Guyre is the birthplace of pansori, it is very odd to me that Namwon is where the large shrines to pansori memorial singers are located other than the few at the Pansori Heritage Center. The concept of "hometown" is very important in Korea, and yet, the hometown of pansori is not the place where pansori is most commemorated. This strikes me as very ironic.

In any regard, at the end of my two days in Guyre surrounded by pansori music, I realized that music is such a vital part of the Korean culture and is essential for me to understand in order to better understand Korea itself. While I don't ever see myself becoming an ethnomusicologist, I do now have some understanding of the value of pansori and can even shout out a heart-felt jo~da (~) or eolssigu (얼씨구) to show my solidarity with the singer and the audience.

By journalist Cheryl Magnant, MA, MA

Cheryl Magnant holds two master’s—one in English linguistics and the second in anthropology. She has lived in Korea off and on since 1991 and is currently teaching at Korea University.  She thoroughly loves living in Korea.

[Published in Korean Quarterly, Vol 18, No 2, Winter 2015, p 62]
[Published in 구례 소식,  구례군, 2014 겨울, 재162호, p 40-41, translated by Younsook Shin]

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