Korean music from another time: Navigating the turbulent 20th century
This falls well outside my normal range of topics, but I wanted to demonstrate that it isn’t always about mobile learning around here (but it is always about context). I had stumbled across three different Korean singers from the early 20th century (1926, 1930, 1936 to be precise) that left their mark on Korean culture. Some redefined what it meant to be Korean (and a Korean woman at that) in a colonial context; one, in particular, personified a bit of the tragedy inherent in the Korean 20th century. All produced moments of beauty in their work despite the events circling around them. I will present them chronologically along with the audio. I will point to sources that provide much better explanation than I can ever hope to muster here. But first a brief contextual note.
The Context: the Korean 20th century
This will be the most simplistic synopsis of Korean history ever presented in a blog written by an adult (I wager), but here it goes:
- 200BC-1910AD-Korean has long history as autonomous nation with a distinct culture, language, and social dynamic.
- 1910- Korea becomes official Japanese colony in 1910, with the monarchy eventually being dissolved. Korean language is banned, names are changed, identities are lost, groundwork is laid for the Korean War.
- 1945- Korea achieves independence in 1945 at the end of the Second World War.
- 1948-Korea is split in two distinct sections with two distinct governments along the 38th Parallel. This process had slowly been ongoing
- 1950-1953-Korean War
- 1953-1980- Rebuilding and emerging economic juggernaut in the region. This economic advancement was accompanied by domestic hardship, sacrifice, limited political freedom (South Korea’s first democratically elected president wasn’t until 1992).
So the 20th century has been a trying one in the Korean context. Families were displaced, kidnapped (as was the case with members of my wife’s family) to North Korea never to be heard from again, Koreans developed communities in places they had no ancestral connection to (Manchuria, Siberia, Hawaii, China, etc). It was within this earlier period from 1920-1945, right in the middle of this Japanese colonization, that this music was produced. Three women recoded, distributed, and were made popular by these tracks.
Give them a listen and imagine another time, perhaps less touched by calamity and forced migration, a time evoked a bit by the almost serene fragility of the time.
Yun Sinduk (윤심덕)
‘Danube River’ (사의 찬미) composed by Iosif Ivanovici in 1926.
Yun was born in Pyongyang, educated in Tokyo (one of the first Koreans at the Tokyo School of Music), and dogged by scandal for much of her short career. She became quite popular as a singer, especially with this track. She committed suicide along with her lover in 1926 aboard a ferry traveling from Japan to Busan, Korea. They threw themselves overboard.
Lee, Jung Seok (이정숙)
Lee released this track in 1930 and it became quite popular. The track is called 오빠생각 and evokes a spring pastoral scene, flowers and all that. It is my favorite of the three tracks precisely because it is so contained, simple, fragile. Lee was a popular singer of the time and a good example of the emerging trot (트로트) music phenomena in Korean music. Trot was sort of borrowed from Japanese enka music and localized for Korean audiences. It is sentimental, popular with the masses, and still being piped through local buses when I arrived in Korea in the late 1990s. I fell in love with its seeming hokeyness at first and then its delicate structure after that.
Choi, Seung-Hee (최승희)
This track is called A Garden in Italy and was recorded in 1936. Choi has the most remarkable story of the lot, as tumultuous as Yun’s, but with significantly greater length. She was born in 1911 and presumably died in North Korea in 1969. She was born in Seoul into an upper-class family during the very beginning of official Japanese occupation/colonization. She graduated from secondary school at the age of fifteen, disobeyed her father (who wanted her to study law) and plunged into studying dancing and choreagraphy under a famous Japanese modern dancer (Baku Ishii). She became quite a famous dancer and branched out into developing dances that evoked Korean themes and folk traditions. Up until this point, Korean folk traditions were rarely evoked in formal art of any sort as they were considered inferior to the colonial culture of the Japanese.
The Japanese intellectual community embraced her and she even appeared in Japanese fiction of the time (Kawabata’s “The Dancer”-he eventually won the Nobel Prize). She knew or was friends with Matisse and the Picassos of the world. She eventually formed her own dance institute and became immensely popular (and redefined Korean female modernity in the process), married a Communist Korean playwright. During the Second World War II she was routinely criticized for performing for the Japanese forces. In 1946 her and her husband moved to Pyongyang and both received posts from the North Korean government. She eventually fell out of favor and disappeared, presumably having died. Later, she was claimed to have died in 1969 according to the North Korean government. When she left South Korea in 1946, her works were banned until 1989.
She recorded this track, A Garden in Italy, for Japanese Columbia Records in 1936. Well worth a look to learn more about her life.