The growing international popularity of Korean pop star PSY, who became one of the summer’s most-talked-about stories since his music video went viral in July, has made clear that a culture in motion knows no bounds. Language, geography, and other elements traditionally seen as barriers to transnational exchange have not proven strong enough to inhibit the free flow of different cultural goods, especially music.
In the midst of the Jasmine Revolution that spread through Egypt, for example, local youths were listening to the latest K-pop hits and enjoying the newest Korean dramas. Reports also suggest that throughout North Korea, even in rural areas, not only music and television but also movies from across the 38th parallel are becoming sought-after commodities. Accordingly, despite the likelihood of censure, North Korean youths have started to show interest in adopting the hairstyles worn by K-drama stars and even imitating the Seoul dialect. Where Korean culture receives a welcome, the forms in which the songs or stories are relayed seem to be less important than the messages they carry.
Situated between a stretch of ocean and the sprawling Eurasian landmass, the Korean Peninsula has long been a site of continuous inflows of diverse cultural influences. In the 19th century, especially, the move to open the country to the outside world and to the trajectory of modernization made interaction with outside cultures a natural and commonplace occurrence. From this vibrant exchange between Korea and other countries, especially with regards to musical heritage, came new, unique creations that remain well-loved to this day.
Among these is “Yeonga,” one of the most widely known songs in Korea’s unofficial national repertoire. Featured on soundtracks for recent movies and dramas, the popular song was a regular favorite among young students out on field trips or camping trips during the early 1970s. True to its title, which means love song, the song’s lyrics portray the wistful longing of a lover waiting for the day that his true love will return to him from across the ocean.
“For you alone I will wait, for my love I will wait forever.” For generations of Koreans who looked out at a peaceful ocean with the lilting refrain of “Yeonga” on their lips, the fact that the song has its origins in the popular culture of New Zealand may come as a surprise. As the story goes, the original version of “Yeonga,” better known as the popular Maori folk song, “Pokarekare Ana,” was sung often among New Zealand soldiers stationed in Korea during the Korean War. The melody and its ode to enduring love passed from the soldiers to the Korean people, picking up Korean lyrics along the way, and quickly become a classic love song.
Similar stories of cultural influences from outside finding positive and even innovative reception on Korea’s shores can be found in the background of other ‘70s hits.
Diva songstress Lee Eun-ha’s hit “The Third Daughter of Choi Jinsa” is a remake of American soul singer Al Wilson’s “The Snake.” While retaining the heavy beats and rich mix of strings, brass, and guitar that was characteristic of northern soul, as well as Wilson’s humor, Lee’s rendition told a uniquely Korean story of a middling suitor seeking to marry the beautiful third daughter of a lower-class official during the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1897).
“Banks of the Ohio,” a folk song first sung in the 19th century and made popular by singers like Johnny Cash and Olivia Newton John, was adapted by Korean singer-songwriter Jo Young-nam. Entitled “My Homeland Chungcheong-do,” the version sung by Jo paints an idyllic picture of the fields, thatched cottages, and relatively quiet lifestyle that awaited a refugee family fleeing to Chungcheong-do (Chuncheong Province) during the Korean War. While the adapted song pays tribute in its own way to the difficulties overcome by previous generations of Koreans, its story would likely startle those familiar with the murder story recounted in the original English tune.
In 1977, at the first annual MBC College Musicians Festival, Lee Myeong-woo of Chungnam National University debuted with a stirring remake of “Erev Shel Shoshanim,” or “Evening of Roses,” one of the most famous Hebrew love songs often sung in Jewish weddings. Entitled “Gasiri,” the new song incorporated the words from “Cheongsan Byeolgok,” or “Song of Cheongsan,” a traditional ballad first sung during the Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392). Lee’s sonorous voice, together with the simple and evocative melody of the Hebrew song, would secure a place for his performance of “Gasiri” as one of the most memorable of the past decades.
Western classical music has also featured prominently in newer Korean pop songs, the most recognized example being the incorporation of Beethoven’s “Ich liebe dich” into a hit ballad by ‘90s star Shin Seung-hoon. Another popular ‘90s singer, Lee Hyun-woo, turned the melody from the 2nd Movement of “Winter,” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, into a plaintive song on the end of love.
The overseas success of PSY’s “Gangnam Style” may be the beginning of a new chapter in Korea’s history of interaction and exchange with other countries through the medium of culture. A key element of the success of “Gangnam Style,” in addition to the welcome received by foreign culture in Korea, may very well be the readiness to embrace what is different and value what is good, no matter what “good” sounds like. Ultimately, the power of culture lies not in the labels of “yours” or “mine” but in the ability to bring “you” and “me” closer together.
By Wi Tack-Whan Adapted and translated by Kwon Jungyun Korea.net Staff Writer