An untraditional take on Korea’s traditions
Usually, traditional performances get staged overseas only after first gaining a certain level of popularity in their homeland. However, a fusion gugak, or Korean traditional music, performance group Dulsori, which means wildflower in Korean, worked its way into Korea after gaining international fame.
After nearly a decade of tours covering 53 countries on six continents, the group finally opened a theater for its signature repertoire “World Beat Vinari” in Seoul on Aug. 18.
Although it is relatively unknown to Koreans, “World Beat Vinari” has earned a reputation overseas at the World Music Expo (Womex), known as the scene where “performances’ marketability gets judged by experts from around the world,” in Copenhagen in 2009.
“If your performance gets selected to perform at the expo, you can insert the Womex certification mark in your album. This mark is like a certified check that guarantees the quality of its music to world music fans,” says Moon Gap-hyun, artistic director and a member of Dulsori. “About 760 groups that were already famous in their home countries applied to perform at the expo, but only 37 were selected. Participating in it is already an honor for anyone, but our team even received a standing ovation.”
“World Beat Vinari,” carries the theme of Vinari, which means “well-wishing,” and starts off with loud drumming, which is soon joined by the melancholic sound of the geomungo and gayageum, two traditional Korean stringed instruments. Other instruments include taepyeongso, a traditional Korean oboe, and the kkwaenggwari, a small gong that makes a strong, sharp sound.
Although the concert is percussion-driven, it includes Korean folk songs, sori (narrative singing) and Nori Madang, or a farmer’s dance. The show is divided into three parts, presenting “wishing” songs of success, love and health.
“Even if it’s a traditional performance, it won’t work if you try to spread it overseas by sticking to a traditional way, the way the music was handed down,” says Moon. “It’s important to take a nontraditional step in order to attract an international audience,” he adds, explaining that is why “World Beat Vinari” is “light and cheerful.”
Although it may look like it was Moon’s “quick thinking” and “swift move” to turn to international stages first to build a reputation, Moon says he had “no choice” as it was difficult to reach a certain stardom in Korea.
“I was quite famous around my home town in the southern provinces, but when I first came up to the capital in 1999, no one took notice of me,” he says. “I felt like I was thrown out to a lonesome wilderness for about a year and that’s when I decided that I needed a more ‘compact’ and ‘interactive’ performance rather than just presenting something traditional in a traditional way.”
After several performances abroad with “Tao,” Dulsori’s first repertoire, Moon noticed that “fusion gugak” attracts foreigners. Over the years, Moon and the group’s members put their heads together to produce a repertoire that can “let people from around the world enjoy Korean sound, rhythm and custom,” and came up with the “World Beat Vinari.”
In the early years, they received $1,000 (1.13 million won) as guarantees, but now Dulsori receives about 8,000 euros (11.35 million won) for a performance in Europe, $20,000 in North America, $12,000 in Asia and $10,000 in South America and Africa.
“Many traditional performance groups in Korea are eager to receive government aid to go abroad, insisting the government’s help is crucial in order to succeed overseas,” Moon says. “But I believe that with excellent content, you can sell your production at a proper price. Most traditional performing groups use their money or government funds to take their shows abroad to promote traditional performing arts .?.?. If we stick to this routine, we may be able to exchange cultures but will never be able to sell content.”
That is why Moon tries hard to develop his shows as he continuously trains members of the group. Moon describes all 12 members of Dulsori, who are mostly in their 20s, as “multi-players,” who switch between different traditional musical instruments during the performance.
“I always try hard to lift the level of the members and aim at making all of them become professional multi-players. That way, we can raise the standard of the performance,” he says.
Thanks to its new theater, Dulsori was able to incorporate media arts, such as 3-D images, for “World Beat Vinari” in Seoul.
“That’s the main difference with the ‘World Beat Vinari’ we have performed overseas,” Moon says. However, the artistic director says it’s not perfect yet.
“I often hear from people that Dulsori has reached the top, and we are successful. But I always tell the members that we are just starting and we have a lot to learn from now on.”
By Yim Seung-hye [firstname.lastname@example.org]
* “World Beat Vinari” is on open run at its exclusive theater Cine Core in Jongno, central Seoul. Performances are at 8 p.m. weekdays and 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. There are no performances on Monday.
* Tickets range from 40,000 won to 60,000 won. Subtitles are available in Korean, English, Japanese and Chinese. For more information, call (02) 744-6800.