The Jeonju International Sori Festival is a music festival with a particular (but not exclusive) emphasis on traditional Korean music. ‘Sori’ means ‘sound’ in Korean.
When I first walked through the hanok maeul, I passed by a public concert along the main road, featuring performances of traditional Korean music. I also passed by a booth distributing festival programs. Since I didn’t expect to walk into the Sori Festival, I looked through the English language program, seeing if there was anything which was a) interesting and b) could fit into my travel itinerary. I found that the festival included pansori performances. I had already heard of pansori, and as a lover of the theatrical arts I knew this was the event for me. I discovered that one of the performances was scheduled for an evening, 7:00pm, for which I had already booked accommodation in Jeonju and didn’t have anything else planned. Tickets were still available, so I got one for 20,000 won.
Pansori is a form of chanting/singing stories for an audience which became popular during the Joseon dynasty, and professionalized in the 19th century. Generally, there is a single singer accompanied by a drummer for the song/chant sections. Both men and women perform pansori. Today, only five pansori dramas are still performed.
The one I saw is Jeokbyeok-ga, which is adapted from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (one of the famous classic Chinese novels). It was performed by Jang Munhee, a woman, who according to the festival is a ‘master artist’ of pansori. It was performed inside a lovely historic hanok house, called ‘Dongheon’, without the use of any microphones, in an attempt to recreate what a pansori performance in a Joseon yangban home would have been like. Based on what I’ve read, since Jeokbyeok-ga is mostly about men and military and battles, it is a bit unusual for it to be performed by women. You can see a tiny little clip of the performance at the Sori Festival 2014 website – Jang Munhee’s performance is from 5:29 – 5:41. It is almost certainly a recording of the very performance I attended (there was a video camera running in the audience).
Coincidently, the Cantonese opera I saw in Hong Kong was also adapted from Romance of the Three Kingdoms, albeit a different episode, focusing on different characters.
Later, when I told (South Korean) people that I had seen a pansori performance, their first question is “Wasn’t it boring?” My reply is “No, it was not boring.” I did enjoy the performance, but I’m not surprised that some people think pansori is boring. “But did you understand it?” they asked. My answer is “Yes, because they offered everyone in the audience a book including an English translation of Jeokbyeok-ga, and there was also an LCD screen on the side displaying the English translation of the lines during the performance. Granted, if there had been no English translation, I probably would have been pretty bored during the two-hour performance.
The English-language book included a bit of explanation of pansori. There are the narrative sections, which are not sung or intoned, and have no drumming. Then there are the song/chant sections, which are sung/intoned, and are accompanied by the drummer. There are several different types of chants, with different drumming patterns and rhythms. The book marked what were narrative sections, and what were song/chant sections, and which type of song/chant. Generally, the song/chant sections were the last part of a scene, and as one would expect, had heightened drama.
When I was in high school, I read all of Homer’s Iliad in Ancient Greek, which I think indicates how I feel about epic poetry. And to me, this pansori performance felt more like a performance of an epic poem than a musical or opera. It’s also a good story, and while I am not qualified to be a pansori critic, I felt the performance did add something to the telling of the story which I would not have gotten from reading the translation alone. Overall, it was a very good experience.
And afterwards, there were snacks for the audience. I went straight for the fruit.
And who did I see in the audience? None other than the British guy who had helped me when I first arrived in Jeonju. It turns out that he had come to Jeonju to attend the International Sori Festival. He lives in Gyeongju and has great personal interest in traditional Korean culture. He had been to the 2013 International Sori Festival as well. He said that in 2013 the pansori performances had happened in a different hanok building, and when he found out that the venue for this year had changed he was concerned it would happen in a modern auditorium, so he was happy to find that the pansori were still being performed in a historic hanok house.
He asked me about what I planned to do at the Sori Festival, and I told him that I hadn’t planned to participate in the Sori Festival at all, and that this performance was basically the one one I would attend since I was leaving Jeonju the next day. “That’s alright,” he said “this performance is the best part of the festival”.