Half a century with Korean music

By 김윤미
  • Published : Jun 17, 2011 - 19:33
  • Updated : Jun 17, 2011 - 19:55

80-year-old American wishes to finish translation on history of folk arts festival

It was an early morning at around 2-3 a.m. in 1953 during the Korean War. An American medic at a hospital in Gangwon Province heard loud drums, gongs and unknown musical instruments coming from the communist North Korean and Chinese guerillas who wanted to keep the American army awake.

While other soldiers hated the sounds, 22-year-old Alan C. Heyman was fascinated by the sound of a wind instrument that he had never heard.

“The sound was very refreshing and interesting. That sound intrigued me,” Heyman told The Korea Herald from his apartment in Hwagok-dong in western Seoul.

He later found out the name of the instrument after he returned to the U.S. when he met a Korean student during his masters’ course in music education at Columbia University in New York. The sound that hooked him was that of the taepyeongso, or Korean conical oboe, and it led him to fall in love with Korean traditional music and live here for more than 50 years.

“He (the Korean friend) said, ‘Western music will always be here but we don’t know if our music can continue. Especially if North Korea invades, it may disappear,’” Heyman vividly recalled. 
Alan C. Heyman plays 12-string gayageum at his apartment in Hwagok-dong, western Seoul, on Tuesday. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)

After learning that there was no course for Korean music in the U.S., Heyman wanted to go back to Korea immediately to study it. But no American except for army and embassy staff was allowed to enter South Korea as a civilian at that time.

Finally in 1959, South Korea was officially open to U.S. civilians. Heyman came to Korea in 1960 and got married to a nurse he had met at the hospital during the war.

He lived in Insa-dong in the 1960s and next to his house was a small Korean folk music school, Korea Traditional Musical Arts Conservatory. He met the principal to offer free English teaching in return for free folk music and dance education. He was able to learn how to play gayageum, taepyeongso and sing pansori there for four years.

“In 1960, there were no apartments, no supermarkets but only very small stores. I had to sit on the floor, eat on the floor and sleep on the floor. It wasn’t easy,” said Heyman, whose back was so bent forward due to old age that he could not stand straight. He was, however, willing to play gayageum on the floor for an interview photo.

“The strongest appeal of Korean traditional music is rhythmic innovation. In western music, for example, waltz tempo is always the same ― one, two, three, one, two, three,”

“But in Korean folk music, there’s lack of repetition, like a long, wide river that keeps flowing continuously, without going back or receding.”

Today’s Korean pop may be growing in popularity both in Korea and overseas, but to Heyman, K-pop sounds like Western pop.

“I can’t distinguish between the two. Musical content is almost the same,” he said.

Several times from the 1960s to 1980s, he took Korean folk troupes overseas to help them perform Korean music and dance, wrote books on pansori, mask dance and Korean shamanism in English. From 1990 to 1994, he deepened his knowledge and performance skills at the Korean Traditional Performing Arts Center, which helped him obtain Korean citizenship in 1995. He has also translated seven books into English on Korean traditional music, dance and shaman rituals.

This April, Heyman received the Silver Crown Order of Cultural Merit from President Lee Myung-bak for donating his collection of old recorded music and rare books to the National Gugak Center last year.

On June 11, he was selected as an honorary member of the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch, a non-profit founded in 1900 to introduce people to Korean arts, customs and history.

Despite his contribution and dedication to Korean folk music and dance, he has been unlucky when it comes to financial matters.

Around the end of 1963, a representative of the Asia Society in New York came to Korea and offered Heyman the opportunity to gather a group of Korean folk musicians and dancers to perform for the first time in the U.S. The following year, he took the Cheollian Dancers and Musicians of Korea to New York and they performed in the Philharmonic Hall at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

However, 17 out of 27 universities that had promised Heyman a chance to stage shows by Korean artists canceled, after rival troupe Arirang Akdan’s leader apparently spread rumors that Cheollian shows were boring.

Upon hearing the news, the Asia Society’s sponsor refused to give the full amount of contracted pay to the Korean artists.

“At the end of the tour, I told musicians and dancers about what happened. Those from the National Gugak Center said, ‘We are okay because we get monthly pay.’ But the folk artists said it was too great a loss. So I had to give all my money to make up for the loss. I came back to Korea empty-handed.”

Another bit of bad financial luck came in 1973 when he traveled to Europe, including then-divided Germany, to help National Gugak Center artist members stage a concert tour, instead of staying at Western Michigan University to work as a lecturer on Korean music and dance. After arriving in Paris on a bus that passed through East Germany, he was urgently called by a South Korean consul who demanded the group take an airplane when leaving Paris.

“He said you came here by bus, but it’s too dangerous. If East German police take musicians to the North Korean Embassy, and if the North Korean Embassy take them to Pyongyang, what will you do?” Heyman recalled.

“A French manager sent the money and we got on the airplane but the French manager deducted the money from our final pay for the show.”

At the airport in Paris, Heyman got a letter from a Brown University professor saying that the university had canceled its previous plan to let him teach Korean music and dance.

“Where do I go from here? I had to return to Korea with no plan,” he said.

In 1985, his first wife died of liver cancer. Not holding Korean citizenship, and having no medical insurance, Heyman lost all his money on hospital expenses.

His only way of earning income now is teaching English on the phone and doing some translation work from time to time. He used to have about 15 students per month but now has only two ― which gives him 200,000 won a month. His 37-year-old daughter in Canada helps “in some ways.”

Despite his financial difficulties, Heyman is still passionate about Korean arts.

Currently, he is working on translating a 50-year history of the National Folk Arts Festival.

“2010 was the 50th year of the festival but there was no English translation content. Human cultural assets have never been translated in English,” he said.

“My plan is to translate the entire 50 year history and get financial support, but it will take a long time and effort. I don’t know if I’ll live that long. It’s my long-range goal.”

Recently, he celebrated his 80th birthday at home with his family and close friends, including the one from Daegu who first taught him the Korean language.

“I have many good friends here but we don’t meet often. This was our only chance to meet. I wish for a long life and good health. If you have good health, you’re a rich man.”

By Kim Yoon-mi (