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Joseon pop: Tradition gets makeover

New styles of traditional Korean music take center stage

Fusion gugak act Seodo Band performs on JTBC’s “Poongryu” show (JTBC)
Fusion gugak act Seodo Band performs on JTBC’s “Poongryu” show (JTBC)

Young musicians’ efforts to create new styles of traditional Korean music are finally bearing fruit with a new school of music winning over television audiences.

While artists such as gender-bending singer Lee Hee-moon, and traditional Korean music-inspired avant-rock band Jambinai have paved the way for fusion music, Joseon pop is now breaking through with a more mainstream sound.

A reference to the Joseon era (1392-1910), Joseon pop mixes traditional music, known as “gugak,” with pop rhythms and melodies.

Cable channel JTBC’s Tuesday show “Poongryu” features performances by big-name figures from gugak genres such as pansori. Kim Jun-su and Ko Yeong-yeol, pansori’s answer to K-pop idols, compete in the show with fusion group Seodo Band and others, introducing a variety of twists on traditional music.

The artists meld elements of traditional music with elements of R&B, K-pop and hip-hop music, breaking the mold of traditional music and making it appealing to a wider public.

The show, which aired its first episode on Sept. 28, has been marking an average viewership rating of 3.5 percent. That rating is considerably higher than the 0.8 percent recorded by a recently concluded idol audition show.

“Pop music knows how to appeal to the mass. I wanted to show how gugak could appeal to the mass,” Hwang Kyo-jin, the producer of “Poongryu,” said. “Many gugak artists have willingly come on the show to promote gugak. It’s a celebration, not a competition.” 

Gugak girl band Queen performs on MBN’s “Joseon Panstar” (MBN)
Gugak girl band Queen performs on MBN’s “Joseon Panstar” (MBN)


Cable channel MBN’s “Joseon Panstar,” which ran from August to October, wrapped up with an average viewership rating of 3.9 percent. In the show which billed itself as Korea’s first gugak survival show, contenders mashed up traditional music and K-pop songs, notably the smash hit “How You Like That” by Blackpink.

On the back of the show’s popularity, the 14 teams that featured in the show, including the final winner Kim San-ok, are holding concerts from Nov. 13 to 26 at Spacebrick in Mapo, western Seoul.

Gugak artists are also making a splash overseas, where their music is labeled as world music.

While now-disbanded glam rock band SsingSsing created a buzz in 2017 when it performed as part of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts series in the US, gugak bands are now invited to perform at well-known music festivals and events abroad. 

ADG7, also known as Ak Dan Gwang Chil (Lee Jong-sam)
ADG7, also known as Ak Dan Gwang Chil (Lee Jong-sam)


A band inspired by the shaman ritual music and folk songs of Hwanghae Province in North Korea, ADG7, also known as Ak Dan Gwang Chil, is currently touring 12 cities in the US and Canada. It recently wrapped up a European tour that included performances in Spain, Belgium and the UK.

But although new styles of gugak have been gaining popularity, it’s unclear whether this will lead to greater interest in traditional Korean music in its original forms.

In September, Kim Young-woon, director general of the National Gugak Center, said the center will work on promoting “real gugak,” differentiating fusion gugak with the original forms.

“The rhythms of fusion gugak, are actually that of Western pop music. Though the wider public may view it as a genre of traditional Korean music, it is not really gugak,” Kim said at a press event.

“Still, fusion gugak is important as it can make gugak appeal to the wider public.”

By Im Eun-byel (silverstar@heraldcorp.com)
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