In today’s music market saturated with pop stars, boy and girl groups, and one-hit wonders all producing flashy pop songs that rocket up the charts and subsequently fall off into obscurity, it’s easy to forget the music of yesterday, let alone last week. But actually, Korea has been in the pop music business since the 1920s.
It is known either as trot (short for foxtrot) or bbongjjak, and you may catch on to its infectious one-two rhythm if you find yourself in the company of the older generation, such as places like traditional markets, roadside truckstops, or even sometimes if you get into the right bus or taxi.
Just like modern K-pop, bbongjjak is a product of foreign cultural influences in Korea. The genre came into being during the Japanese occupation of Korea, and there is a distinct similarity between the Japanese musical genre of enka and Korean bbongjjak. Both genres are also notable for their western-influenced harmonies and use of modern electric instruments, and in fact there has been much debate over how purely Korean bbongjjak really is. But like every foreign musical genre that’s come to Korea — from modern pop and hip-hop to psychedelic rock and reggae — local musicians reinterpret it in a unique, fundamentally Korean way.
Finding good bbongjjak can be a daunting task: the stores or carts where it’s sold have an overwhelming selection, and the vendors usually steer you away from the richer sounding albums in favour of something more modern. On the other hand, albums are super cheap; even double albums are usually under 10 000 won. For decades, the cassette tape has been the medium for bbongjjak, although CD reissues are more common now. Also, there is a wealth of music on YouTube.
Let’s start with Nam Jin, a bbongjjak singer born in 1946 who debuted in 1965 and is still active today.
Here’s a duet he does with…well, we’ll get to her later. This recording gives you an idea what these Gayo shows are like: flashy stage sets, big orchestras, and elderly audiences captivated by the music.
Lee Mija was born in 1941 and her career was at its height in the ’60s. Unfortunately most live video recordings of her are when she’s a bit older, which is a shame because she was once quite attractive. One of the sadder things about watching these videos on YouTube is that often the singers are well past their prime.
Na Hoon-a is a well-known name in bbongjjak. He began performing in the ’60s, and seems to still be active on stage today. He caused quite a sensation in 2008, when a rumour was started that he had been castrated by a Japanese gangster. Enraged, he set up a press conference where he attempted to pull down his pants and prove the rumour false, but was stopped by reporters so the camera could cut away.
Don’t worry, this video is safe for work. Like a lot of bbongjjak songs, this one has the theme of travel, in this case to his hometown.
In the 1980s, it looked like bbongjjak was on the way out, losing ground to more modern styles of dance music. However, the introduction of cassette tapes allowed recordings to proliferate, and bbongjjak flourished with a new generation of young singers.
Here’s Kim Yong-im, probably my favourite singer. She was born in 1966 and started her career in the early ’80s.
Joo Hyeon-mi was born in 1961 to Chinese-Korean parents, and her first album debuted in 1985. More than two decades later, she performed a duet with Seohyun of Girls’ Generation which was nominated for the 2009 trot song of the year at the M.net Asian Music Awards.
Epaksa stands out among bbongjjak performers, calling his music “techno-trot.” He became a middle-class sensation in the mid-’80s due to his energetic and humorous take on the music. His popularity spread to Japan, where he became decently well known.
Born in 1981, Park Hyun-bin has lived a shorter life than most of the careers of the singers above, but he debuted in 2006 as a modern bbongjjak singer. His age has afforded him the opportunity to appeal to the kids, and he’s made a lot of more modern-sounding music, but I like this cover of a song from 1973.
1999 saw the debut of Jang Yun-jeong, probably the youngest professional bbongjjak singer today. Born in 1980, she sings songs that bridge the generation gap, allowing her to perform on both younger K-pop shows and older Gayo shows.
Her big hit was (loosely translated into English as) “Oh My Goodness,” and you couldn’t be blamed for watching this live recording and thinking it was filmed in the ’80s. Well, maybe their fashion is just a bit too modern, and there is a bit more emphasis on dancing.
Oh yeah, and remember the first video, a duet featuring Nam Jin and a much younger female singer? That was Jang Yun-jeong.
This music is still alive and well in Korea, but it’s somewhat out of the mainstream spotlight. I question why that is so; there’s still a lot more bbongjjak has to offer the world.
If you ever happen to find a bbongjjak cart selling CDs or tapes, be sure to pick one up.