The Past, Present, and Future of Pansori

Written by on October 25, 2012 in Arts

To the uninitiated, pansori might come across as harsh and cacophonic, more closely resembling an alley cat in heat than a heavily trained human singer.

Recognised by UNESCO in 2003 as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, pansori is a theatrical style of music, in which a singer or storyteller (소리꾼 or 창자) sings with the accompaniment of a drummer (고수) who plays a Korean drum (북) and utters expressions (추임새) to support the singer. A pansori performance is a lively interactive experience, with members of the audience shouting their own encouragements at seemingly random times. (Some of the common exclamations include 으이, 얼시구, 좋다, 좋지, 잘한다, 허이, 그렇지, 아먼, 얼쑤, 어디.)

Here’s a classic example of a pansori performance, taken from Heungbu-ga as performed by Jo Tong-dal. Note how he weaves between singing and speaking normally as he narrates the story, as well as the lively rapport with drummer Jung Hwa-young. Unfortunately since it’s TV you don’t get a sense of the audience interaction (all the more live recordings I could find had poor sound quality).

I set out to learn how this fascinating traditional genre continues to this day, how pansori singers train their voices, and what the future of pansori will look like. I contacted Jang Goon, a classically trained pansori singer who has strived to bring pansori and gugak to modern audiences.

She’s delivered a unique fusion of traditional Korean music alongside great Korean bands like Crying Nut, Windy City, Kingston Rudieska, and Choi Sori Band, as well as forming her own bands I&I Djangdan and Ninano Nanda, the latter which she released the album “Future Pansori” in 2011. She performed at the National Theatre with a gugak orchestra and appeared on the KBS show Gugak Hanmadang.

Performing with I&I Djangdan, Jang Goon wears a more Jamaican-inspired outfit.

“I started to learn pansori in sixth grade and naturally focused on pansori in middle school and high school,” she says. “At the age of 17, I started to dream of applying pansori to create a new kind of music. Although I majored in pansori, it still was a difficult thing to do. However, its artistic attributes were clear, and I thought that I should make it easier for the public to understand it. Now I’ve made my dream come true and I am still working towards making gugak more accessible to the public.”

What I was most curious about asking was how pansori singers train. I’d heard that singers must visit a mountain, where they embark on 100 days of mountain study (산공부) at which time they train their voices in the unique acoustic setting of the terrain, utilising waterfalls, cliffs, and caves. They sing so hard their voices go hoarse, their bodies swell up, and they feel blood in their throats. The training, which lasts from the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar (단오) until Chuseok, would be considered by most singing experts to permanently damange their voices, but they push themselves to superhuman extremes for those isolated 100 days.

I was curious if Jang Goon had ever completed 100 days of mountain study, or if that’s no longer done.

“I did 산공부 for 100 days during high school and later on for a shorter period,” she says. “While pansori study itself is difficult, mountain study is physically challenging, making it hard to continue on for long periods. This is really a struggle against oneself. Sometimes I would wake up at six in the morning to serve breakfast for the teacher. Also, the training requires every hour to be spent on vocal studies, with the exception of time spent on meals and sleep.”

She also mentions that there are other, far less challenging, methods of training for pansori. For hobbyists there are a variety of lessons at the National Gugak Center, as well as culture centers, academies, and private instructors. But to truly become a myeongchang (the title awarded to a pansori master), it’s still necessary to sequester oneself in the mountains or at a temple for 100 days. And that’s only the beginning. To maintain the hoarse, cracked vocal sound necessary for pansori, a sorikkun (pansori singer) must repeat the mountain study numerous times.

Here’s a music recharge for you: another excerpt from Heungbo-ga by Kim Hyang-soon.

A myeongchang must possess four distinct characteristics: inmulchire (physical appearance), sasulchire (poeticness), neoreumsae (gestures), and most importantly, deugeum (vocal techniques). Deugeum is something that is achieved dramatically, and most pansori singers who’ve achieved it have a story about the moment it happened. Song Heungrok (1801-1863), often referred to as the king of pansori, trained under a waterfall for three months until blood gushed from his throat. When he felt like his throat would burst, his voice was suddenly able to rise above the noise of the waterfall. Bang Manchun (b. 1820) trained for four years at a temple in Hwanghae-do (a province in modern-day North Korea) until he lost his voice. One day he grabbed hold of a temple pillar and let forth a superhuman yell, then collapsed to the ground. The noise he made startled a nearby carpenter who thought the temple was collapsing.

“I cannot say myself that I have reached deugeum while I’m still alive,” says Jang Goon. “However, over the years I have picked up one philosophy — ‘music is life and life is music’ — one thing more important than the technical and performance aspect is the spirit, mind, and life within. I discovered that through experience, a deeper sound and breath could be achieved. As I learn more about life, I feel my sound getting deeper. Also, I feel more free and less restricted. This could mean that I have started on the road towards deugeum…”

As she continues with her exploration of fusion pansori, she creates some of Korea’s most unique music; you can guarantee nobody else in the world has ever mixed pansori and dub before. For her band Ninano Nanda, she adapted the popular classic song “Sarang-ga” from Chunhyang-ga, creating “Ninano Sarang-ga.”It brings rhythm to an arhythmic music, and her gosu uses a digital sequencer rather than playing a buk, but it clearly has some traditional Korean elements in the mix.

“People think it’s new,” Jang Goon says, “while at the same time think it to be familiar.”

The song “Sarang-ga” comes from Chunhyang-ga, one of the most popular pansori madangs (for simplicity’s sake let’s translate that as “play”). Its popularity might be especially because of the movies of director Im Kwon-taek, who  made Seopyeonje in 1993 about a family of pansori singers, and then Chunhyang in 2000 which dramatised the original madang.

It has since heavily become the most popular performed pansori song. Here’s another more traditional version by pop singer Ali, who has a strong background in traditional Korean music before she rose to fame.

Chunhyang-ga is just one of five surviving pansori madangs, out of an original twelve. While it’s tragic that the majority of them have been lost to time, the situation isn’t as dire as it may seem, as there’s still a lot of material in each madang. A full performance of Chunhyang-ga itself takes eight hours to perform, although it seems more common these days to just perform an excerpt of it.

Still, as pansori keeps up with the modern age, it continues to evolve and grow. “For example, the teller’s voice in front of hundreds of people still cannot be captured properly with an amplifier,” explains Jang Goon. “Capturing both the whispering and upper register can only be done by an engineer who has a complete understanding of the emotional changes of the teller and the unfolding of the story.”

One of the most notable changes is to the format of pansori; whereas it used to be a performance by only one sorikkun narrating the story with backup from a gosu, it has picked up more theatrical elements as pansori finds itself in front of larger and larger audiences.

Originally pansori was performed as a monologue, but it’s becoming more common to have more singers, especially in Sarang-ga where they can play their respective roles. Here’s an example that seems more traditional than the previous two examples, but introduces an unconventional element. Ahn Sook-seon is joined on stage by Lee Bong-geun for this duet performance of “Sarang-ga.”

As well, the library of pansori music continues to expand as new madangs are written. The term for this is “changjak pansori,” and there’s an increasing amount of pansori madangs composed in modern times.

One recent success in this field was Lee Jaram’s Sacheon-ga, an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan. It met with acclaim and has been performed in New York, Paris, Poland, and most recently at the All Eyes on Korea festival in London this summer.

“Going back and forth from tradition to modern is not easy,” says Jang Goon. “However for this reason Ninano Nanda is a format to continue experimenting. Performing art can only find its true meaning when it is performed. More people should look into the future through the perspective of pansori to understand its modern position. Like cultures universally, future pansori will be defined and continued though performers of the present, but ultimately in the perspective of tradition there is no change.”

About the Author

Jon Dunbar

Jon Dunbar is a former editor and staff writer for His first visit to Korea was in summer 1996 when he was a teenager, and he returned permanently in December 2003. He is involved in the Korean underground music scene and has supported local musicians through writing, photography, and occasionally planning events. He has been blogging for more than a decade, mainly on music, urban exploration, and his cats