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root salad Jeonju Festival

One of the world’s biggest traditional music events is in South Korea. Bas Springer went…


fter the bustle of South Korea’s capital Seoul with more than 10 million inhabitants, the provincial town of Jeonju, some four hours’ drive south-west, feels pleasantly calm. Besides its delicious local food and the tra- ditional houses in the Hanok Village, Jeonju has another major attraction: the Jeonju International Sori Festival, which is held annually in early October. Founded in 2001, this festival is Korea’s main event for tradi- tional music. Bringing together top Korean and world music artists makes the festival unique. But the heart of the festival is still the pansori or sori, a typical traditional Korean genre of musical storytelling inscribed on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cul- tural Heritage of Humanity.

With 170,000 visitors, 1,382 performing artists from 30 countries and a budget of almost £1.5 million the Jeonju International Sori Festival is one of the biggest cultural events in South Korea. Part of the festival takes place in the historic Hanok Village, which encompasses about 700 traditional- style homes, a cathedral, an ancient shrine and a former Confucian academy, not for- getting restaurants, where the local bibim- bap food is served: warm white rice topped with delicious side dishes with vegetables, eggs and nuts.

In this village, located in the centre of Jeonju, masterclasses and world music workshops with Korean and western artists were given. Pansori and sanjo could be heard all over the village. Often billed as ‘Korean opera’, pansori is a typical Korean genre of musical storytelling, usually per- formed by one sorikkun (singer) and one gosu (drummer) playing a barrel drum called buk. While the drummer keeps the rhythm, the singer performs a long poem by singing, narrating and acting. The pansori poems deal with universal themes like love, jealousy and brotherhood and tell stories about kings and warriors.

The term pansori is derived from the Korean words ‘pan’, meaning ‘a place where many people gather’, and ‘sori’ meaning ‘song’. It originated in south-west Korea in the 17th Century, probably as a new expres- sion of the narrative songs of shamans.

“Pansori is one of the symbols of the traditional Korean culture, like fado is for the Portuguese and flamenco for the Span- ish. We want to promote pansori to an international audience. We also want to develop pansori by sharing our music with musicians from all over the world,” explains Park Jacheon, commissioner of the festival.

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Gayageum player on sanjo night

Highlights in Hanok Village were the performances of five master sori artists who included such names as Kang Gyeong-a, Kim Semi and Yun Jongho. They fascinated the audience with their best techniques and by displaying all that they have mastered through their long, hard training.

Sanjo is another style of traditional Korean music, involving an instrumental solo accompanied by drumming on the janggu (an hourglass-shaped drum). Almost every kind of Korean traditional instrument is used in sanjo such as gayageum (twelve- string zither), geomungo (zither), daegeum (bamboo flute) and haegeum (another stringed instrument).

A shuttle bus connected the Hanok Vil- lage with the Sori Arts Centre on the out- skirts of the city, where the main concerts were held. This huge complex consists of big modern halls, a splendid open-air theatre and an intimate open-air stage in the cypress forest.

One of the memorable concerts of the festival was the Ko-Bra project, an encounter between the trio of the Brazilian pianist/composer/arranger/producer Ben- jamin Taubkin and the Korean group Jeong- gaakhoe. It was amazing how Brazilian music and traditional Korean court and folk music fused into an entertaining show. The collaboration between the trio of Belgian sax player Toin Thys and the Korean percus- sion group Dongnampung was downright exciting, resulting in a kind of free jazz with heavy banging on traditional Korean drums.

The most impressive performance was the meeting between the Canadian mezzo- soprano Rachèle Tremblay and the young, talented singer Kim Bora, excellent intepreter of folk songs from Gyeonngi-do, the province surrounding Seoul. Despite their different cultural and musical back- grounds this duo touched the hearts of the visitors in the Myeongin Hall, even bringing some of them to tears.

with birds chirping in the background – the perfect place for the beautiful polyphonic voices of the Corsican group Barbara Fortu- na. In the forest there was also a special programme with five young pansori artists who proved that the future of the form is looking good.


Every evening ended in the open-air theatre where thousands enjoyed Korean folk singers (K-Folk Big Party), a world music party with Korean and western artists and a night with such Korean pop stars as Kim Taewoo and Seo Muntak.

The closing ceremony presented young theatre troupes from all over the country who, despite heavy rainfall, gave a passion- ate demonstration of Korean cultural pride. The grand finale included 81 traditional Korean drummers on stage, acrobatic feats, choreographed displays with giant flags, all topped off with spectacular fireworks. F

y favourite spot was the small stage in the cypress forest, an open-air podium where one could enjoy acoustic concerts

Photo: Jeonju International Sori Festival

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