Meeting p’ansori master singer Soo Jang You (유수정)

Written by on October 14, 2013 in Arts, Korea Abroad, Special Report

This post is a continuation of the “Introduction to Gugak” blog entry.

What is p’ansori?
P’ansori can be described as an epic song, performed by a singer (male or female) and a drummer on a barrel drum. A complete p’ansori performance can take up three to eight hours and there are five surviving p’ansori songs: Chunhyangga, Shimcheongga, Heungbuga, Sugungga and Jeokbyeokka. Each p’ansori song conveys a special message for the audience and encourages listeners to participate with chuimsae, shouts like Jota! or Eolshigu! to support the singer. For further information, please have a peek at my “Introduction to Gugak” post.

Meeting p’ansori master singer Soo Jang You (유수정)

I had the chance to meet master singer Soo Jang You in my hometown Hamburg, Germany for a quick interview. Master Soo Jang You, a Jeonju native, holds the myeongchang (master singer) title for the p’ansori Chunhyangga and received the grand prize (President Prize) during the Namwon Festival.
She is a member of the National Theater of Korea and also teaches and works with gifted children, students and adults in Korea. Master Soo toured extensively through Asia, USA and Europe, performing and teaching p’ansori workshops. On October 12th 2013 master Soo Jang You visited Hamburg during the 3rd Korea Festival, hosted by the Folk Museum Hamburg and performed the p’ansori Heungbuga at old out venue.
She reprised her concert a few days later in Berlin, the capital of Germany.I conducted the interview in Korean and after transcribing it, translated it into English.
I hope, that you’ll get a glimpse into the fascinating world of p’ansori I’ve come to love so much while writing on my PhD thesis, which focuses on p’ansori!

What must a singer posess to become a master singer
One of the most important things is determination. And to keep practising! Even an amateur can become a professional singer if he or she has the mindset “I will put my life on the line to become a singer”. But to earn the title myeongchang aspiring singers also need to compete in many competitions. The most important ones are being held in Namwon and Jeonju, called “Daesaseup“, those two competitions are allowed to give out the grand prize, granted by the President of Korea (President Prize). After receiving such a prize, singers are allowed to be called (and call themselves) myeongchang – but the real challenge starts now. If you receive the honor of becoming a myeongchang, you need to prove to be worthy of that title in practising harder, not cutting yourself any slack and do everything to entertain the audience to the fullest.

What is the principle, your rule and main lesson you pass onto your pupils?
I ask my students to be respectful and polite. It is very important for pupils to be courteous on and off the stage, because their behaviour will always reflect back to their teacher.

What do you think about the statement that only people with “Han” can sing p’ansori?
The feeling of “Han” is a part of Korea, of the Korean people. I do believe that you need  to have experienced “Han” to a certain extent to fully understand and perform p’ansori – but of course not to make yourself miserable on purpose, like it happened in the book and movie Seopyeonje (she laughs). But, for example, how can a wealthy person who never experienced any kind of difficulty in his life sing about the hardships of a beggar or desperately poor person (Heungbu) without knowing the feeling of pain and true need? To convey feelings into “han” singers need to channel their experiences into the scenes, for example if you have to part with your lover, you want to be together with him but can’t – this heartbreaking yearning can be “used”. Or if you have lost someone dear to you and remember your own pain when you sing a lament in p’ansori. That being said, I believe that people from other countries besides Koreans, have their own “han”.


As the myeongchang of Chunhyangga, can you please tell us the specialities of it?
Every myeongchang will tell you, that his or her designated p’ansori is special and in fact, the basic singing techniques can be found in every p’ansori. What makes Chunhyangga special in my eyes are the extreme highs and lows the soundscape has and the intensity of feelings the singer has to pour out of his or her heart during the performance. Chunhyangga needs so many emotions from the singer, for example when Yi Mongryong, the lover of Chunhyang returns disguised as a beggar (in truth he is the the newly appointed prefect in disguise) and Chunhyangs mother cries out in despair, because as a beggar Yi Mongryong would not be able to save her daughter from the hands of the corrupt official. Or during the prison scene, where Chunhyang is kept by the corrupt official and is tortured – but stands firm in her resolve to believe in Yi Mongryongs return. Singing techniques are needed to convey those messages but important are the emotions the singer creates.

What is your opinion regarding the current state and future of p’ansori in Korea?
I believe that p’ansori has a bright future in and outside of Korea. The government is funding performances, workshops and gatherings to encourage musicians and the audience to pay more attention to the traditional music. I also feel that there are a lot of interested and talented minds in the younger generation.
During summer break thirty gifted children from Korea were choosen through an audition to participate in a special academy, to learn more about p’ansori by master Ahn Suk-seon and me. At the final concert, children and parents were delighted and moved by their performance and wished to continue to study p’ansori. Happenings like that make me think that p’ansori can be successful if it has constant support and such interested pupils.

What was your impression of the German audience?
Two things came to my mind: the diligent use of chuimsae (the encouraging shouts) because they were told to do so before the concert during the introduction and how touched people from the audience reacted during my singing, I even saw people crying during emotional scenes. I noticed, that the audience was mixed with Koreans and Germans; especially the Korean audience was sensitive and highly emotional, so I thought to myself that the Koreans living abroad, outside of Korea, must’ve yearned to hear something from their homeland and this encouraged me further to give my very best. As for the chuimsae, it is always a delight for the singer if the audience participates in his performance, so I felt welcomed and encouraged during the concert.

P’ansori was honored as an Oral and Intangible Heritage by the UNESCO. What can be done to make p’ansori more known to foreign countries?
In my opinion, it is not something only a single person can do. The government, not only Korea but from other interested countries as well, needs to support p’ansori (and traditional music) with concerts, workshops and seminars. There are dedicated singers, who travel to other countries through private contacts and on their own, but performers who are working at theaters and music centers do not have the freedom to leave their work place and travel to another country. So, organizing and promoting p’ansori needs to be backed by the government and cultural institutions as well.

Do you have a message for the readers?
Thank you for reading, I hope that you are interested in p’ansori and come to love it as well!

This concludes my interview with the wonderful master Soo Jang You, thank you for your patience and help!
If you want to cite from this article for your own work, please include the name of the author (Dorothea Suh) and link to the article according to The Chicago Manual of Style. Thanks!

About the Author

Dorothea Suh

Dorothea Suh is a PhD student in ethnomusicology and wayfarer. She researches oral traditions of East Asia, loves her violin, Korea and good coffee. You can find her on Twitter as @Novemberbeetle