TOKYO — In South Korea, pansori, the art of musical storytelling, is synonymous with tradition. Its name comes from the words pan, which means “room” or “meeting place,” and sori, “singing.”

Declared a cultural heritage by Korea in 1965 and by Unesco in 2008, pansori is part of the country's national folklore, passed orally from generation to generation since its age of glory in the 19th century. The singing of secular stories accompanied by a janggu, a traditional percussion instrument, at village festivals, had for a long time mainly attracted an older audience. But now the style is seeing a renaissance, with young interpreters mixing it with modern sounds, or evoking current themes.

Pansori is a way of expressing your feelings

One such group is Modern Pansori, created by singer Song Bonggeum, whose arrangements embrace jazzier melodies. “Pansori is a way of expressing your feelings. Anyone can add their feelings to enrich it,” the singer said. Her lyrics notably deal with the reluctance of the younger generation to marry and have children, and sometimes touch upon political issues.

In the piece Golden Spoon, Song Bonggeum uses pansori to mock well-known families that run South Korean conglomerates, as well as society's extremely hierarchical structure. Open to all types of musical experimenting, she says she also hopes to perform with the stars of South Korean pop groups, or K-pop, such as the boy band BTS.

Along with other artists of her generation, such as Byun Jin-sub or Yu Taepyungyang, Song Bonggeum tries to breathe new life into the genre, often by giving shorter performances than the traditional versions, which can last hours. Though her audience does not match that of K-pop groups, pansori attracts youths who are attached to tradition even if they prefer not to listen to hours of droning by traditional storytellers.

Song started performing pansori 10 years ago. “A friend played the ajaeng [a sort of zither]. She was a star, and I was a little jealous. So I wanted to sing.” The choice seemed obvious to the native of Jeonju, a city in the North Jeolla province in the country's west, a bastion of pansori. “It was normal to come into contact with pansori here.”

The idea is to shake the foundations of tradition

Known for its neighborhood of traditional houses and the Gyeonggijeon temple, Jeonju maintains its local heritage with the annual Jeonju International Sori Festival, held every September since 2001.

The idea, explains the percussionist Park Je-chun, charged with the festival’s programming, is “to shake the foundations of tradition” by promoting experimentation. “We try to find a balance between tradition and the taste of today’s youth,” explained Kim Han, the festival director.

Pansori has its own stars, like Yoon Jin-chul. During the last sori festival, Yoon dazzled the audience with a version of Jeokbyeokga, a story inspired by a passage from Sanguozhi yanyi (The Three Kingdoms), by the 14th-century Chinese writer Luo Guanzhong. There, Yoon worked with young people invited to collaborate with foreign groups, such as the Greek band En Chordais. Yu Taepyungyang has done similar work with the French band La Tit’Fanfare. It's all part of a campaign to open the frontiers of tradition even wider.


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