Joyful Conflagration: The Jeonju Sori Festival, 2005

I was fortunate enough to have a chance to attend a majority of the performances at the Jeonju Sori Festival 2005, and each of the times I was asked to give my opinion of the festival, the same words passed through my mind. They’re from a poem called “City Lights”, by Canadian poet Roo Borson:

To board a bus where everyone is talking at once,
and count eight distinct languages, and not know any.

The joy of bewildering, overwhelming heterogeneity was perhaps the deepest feeling I felt going from one concert to another. At one turn, Israeli and Palestinian folksong; next, Pansori; another evening, gamelan, and out in the courtyard, pounding kodo drums and a gleefully cheesy brass band. One evening, a jazz choir performing Duke Ellington, and the next, pipa and erhu fused with piano and cello and drums in wild avant-garde excusions. I heard the voices of Kurds singing, and upon North Korean instruments I’d never seen before, I heard melodies played using techniques smuggled across the Chinese border. It was the kind of international summit I was proud to attend.

To begin to write about the festival once again fills my mind with a profusion of sounds and memories. I can hear the mbira of Chartwell Dutiro, who played at the pre-WOMAD show very clearly in my head, and his voice singing melodies from the countryside of Zimbabwe. I am certain that in his youth in Malawi—near what would later be called Zimbabwe, after decolonization—my father heard such melodies as those ringing out in the night. I can hear the voice of Cara Dillon soaring through tunes that are so Celtic that they feel to me familiar, as if perhaps my own ancestors would have sung such melodies. I think back to Geoffrey Oryema and Lior, two very different men who took complete control of the concert halls with nothing more than a guitar and their own voices.

I think for many people, the Sori festival is a chance to hear well-performed Pansori and other traditional Korean music, performed at a level of excellence that is unusual, even for Jeonju. Certainly, this was also the case for me. I attended three different Pansori performances, and each of them fascinated me in their own way. Although I couldn’t catch much of the modern Pansori, 대 고구려 (“Goguryeo: A Great Nation”), which relied on a modern text and impressionistic dance blended with martial arts to convey something of the spirit of the time, I could tell that great battles and historical exploits were being discussed in a way that entertained the audience. As for me, I far more enjoyed Yum Kyung-ae’s rendition of Sugoong-ga – which in fact I discovered I could mostly follow along, because I already knew the story of the long-suffering rabbit beforehand. And the performance by Park Song-hee and her disciples of the Pansori Heungbo-ga – a story I know very well – was a revelation to me, with the highlight of the show being one of the pieces sung towards the end by Kim Sunyoung, accompanied by hilarious action and banter and marvelous comic dancing. I believe that I fell in love with Pansori that night, so much so that my poor girlfriend had to listen to my wild ravings about wanting to adapt vocal Pansori techniques to the saxophone.

Another foreigner who accompanied me to that performance shared my excited first impressions of Pansori: for all that it is billed as a kind of “Korean opera”, the first comparison my friend and I discussed was that with Bessie Smith, the famous African-American blues/jazz singer. For one thing, the way an audience reacts to a Pansori performance is much more like how a good audience reacts to a jazz performance. In American, “얼씨구!” would be phrased somewhat differently, but just the same, people yell encouraging and affirming words to the performers as a matter of course. When I got over my shock at the young woman next to me calling out “응!” all of a sudden, I found myself very happy to find something so jazz-like within the Korean tradition. As with Pansori, it’s the sign of a good audience. Also, the way the singer interacts with her accompanists, with her audience, and with the musical material reminded me of Bessie Smith. I heard a toughness, a throatiness, in the voices of many of the Pansori singers I saw that was, for lack of a better word, very “bluesy”, as in, much like American blues singers’ voices. I think that is the biggest surprise I had throughout the festival, and a memory I will carry with me for a long time.

And while I also heard many other performances of Korean music, such as the Gyonggi Dodang Gut, a marvelous performance of piri at the Wind from Asia orchestral fusion concert, and a lineup of fascinating stringed instruments—familiar and unfamiliar—at the Mural of the Black Turtle (Sori Sounds) concert, for me the greatest highlight was the Tradition and Avant-Garde in Asia concert series. I attended all of the shows in the series, and each one was worthwhile in its own way.

The Living Fire Ensemble was aptly named, for fire was what they brought among us in the concert hall. Kurdish songs were interlaced with virtuoso solos on all of the instruments, and the largely instrumental program was a joy for me, since I prefer instrumental music to vocal. I suspect that a lot of the audience did not really understand what they were witnessing; it was the performance of traditional music by a people who themselves have been denied a homeland in the modern world. It was as significant an event as the performance of Pansori in occupied Korea would have been earlier in the last century, or perhaps even moreso (since, to have an occupied homeland is still to have a homeland, something Kurds don’t even have). To be witness to this was an honor, but more than anything it was a joy to see musicians in total control of their instruments. Among all the excellent soloists, in my opinion Hussein Zahawy’s work on the daf (a percussion instrument) was the most outstanding – a rose among a bouquet of fresh blooms.

Another kind of resistance – to received ideas about what music ought to be – was presented in the Musica Ataraxia (no link, sorry) concert, where traditional Asian instruments were fused with the most blisteringly serious live avant-garde music I’ve heard in years. This is the kind of music one needs training or serious practice to understand, of course, and I am certain some of the audience was shocked, but people were actually very surprisingly receptive and appreciative, or at least polite. Personally, one of my long-standing dreams has been to hear avant-garde music performed on traditional Asian instruments, so I was very happy to see the show, difficult as the music was to parse at times.

But the highlight of the Tradition and Avant-Garde series was the joint performance of the Yair and Salameh ensembles. It doesn’t surprise me that it is artists, rather than politicians, who know the secret to peace between Israel and Palestine – careful listening, observance of a shared tradition, and attention to building harmonious coexistence. But geopolitics aside, the music should always be the most important thing about any concert, and the music in this show was incredible. The oud was transformed from “some Middle Eastern guitar-like thing” into a living thing for me that night; the instrument took on a soft, dark voice, like that of a lover in the night, calling softly for nothing but to be listened to. The sitar – another favorite instrument of mine – shimmered like a fire burning farway in the desert, only occasionally audible but, each time, absolutely spellbinding. The rhythms played out on drums, ranging from tablas to darbukka (a kind of goblet drum) and some of the things that were done with tambourines that night defy the human imagination.

Of course, it was often far too difficult to explain this to the people waiting outside the concert halls, each of the many times they interviewed me after concerts finished. How do you tell people that you feel like you attended something that, simply by happening, amounted to a binding together of the human spirit across boundaries, languages, animosities, troubles, and discords? I feel that a lot of the programming fit very well with the Festival’s theme, which bound together Confusion, People, and Harmony. However, to speak of such concepts to people who were already struggling to understand me would have been futile, so I often simply put it this way, expressing a sentiment in which I know I was not alone: “It has been a breath of fresh air for me. I feel as if great windows had been opened onto my inner world, and light let in through them. Something sleeping within me has been awakened, conjured back to life. I am very happy right now.”

And even a few weeks later, thinking back on it, I am still very happy right now.

— Gord Sellar, Oct. 2005.

A Korean translation of this text (by Jung Chullsung) was published in Munhwa Journal (Nov. 2005).

November 8, 2005

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