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     As the traditional Korean folk song Arirang was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity on December 5, regional governments of areas from where the different variations of Arirang originated are taking advantage of Arirang’s inscription for promotional purposes.

 

    Mungyeong, Gyeongsangbuk-do (North Gyeongsang Province), intends to build a national Arirang museum that includes exhibition and performance halls. “There are many foreigners looking to find more about Arirang but there are almost few places where they can view Arirang-related materials and performances,” says Mungyeong City Mayor Ko Yun-hwan.

 

    Jeongseon County, Gangwon-do (Gangwon Province) is also considering building an Arirang-related exhibition and performance hall and a national Arirang research institute.
 

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    Jindo, Jeollanam-do (South Jeolla Province), also decided to set up comprehensive plans to globalize Jindo Arirang while Miryang City, Gyeongsangnam-do (South Gyeongsang Province), intends to develop the existing Miryang Arirang Festival, held in April or May, into an international event.

 

    According to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, there are 60 versions of Arirang and some 3,600 variations. A number of experts believe that Jeongseon Arirang is the oldest among all types that still exist because it has the smallest difference between the highest and lowest notes.

 

    “Musically, Jeongseon Arirang has the oldest form,” said Jin Yong-seon, head of Jeongseon Arirang Research Institute. “The fact that it had a narrow range between the highest and lowest pitches means that it would have been casually sung in everyday life and passed down from generation to generation.”
 
    Nevertheless, Jeongseon Arirang is not considered the origin of all Arirang songs, since the melodies of Miryang, Jindo, and Bonjo Arirang are completely different from that of Jeongseon Arirang. 

 

   An important aspect of Arirang is its uniqueness that distinguishes it from other folk songs. Basically a simple song, Arirang consists of a universal refrain “Arirang, arirang, arariyo” and lyrics that have developed differently from region to region.

 

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    According to a book titled The Culture of Arirang by Kim Yeon-gap, a longtime devotee who spent years researching Arirang, Ari or Arari means an archaic and simple “sound,” “song,” or “word.”


    The lyrics were not created by any particular individual but a result of collective contributions made by ordinary Koreans over generations. They convey the joys and sorrows of common people from arising from love and parting ways.
 
    The variation of Arirang with which Koreans are most familiar was actually composed by Na Un-gyu for his black-and-white silent film Arirang, released in 1926. Thus, it is different from most traditional versions that have no specific composers.

 

    “When we talk about Arirang, it usually means ‘Bonjo Arirang,’” says Kim Yeon-gap in an interview. “Referring to Arirang songs originated from different regions, we add the names of different regions in front of Arirang such as Miryang Arirang, Jeongseon Arirang, or Jindo Arirang.”

 

    Then, how did Arirang spread throughout the country? According to Kim, in the late 19th century, Daewongun, the father of King Gojong during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), started rebuilding Gyeongbokgung and called in singers from around the country to motivate the laborers. Later, the laborers returned to their homes and helped create the regional versions of Arirang.

 

By Limb Jae-un
Korea.net Staff Writer
jun2@korea.kr