Pansori, Korean Storytelling in Song

Wrapped in peach-colored silk, the kneeling woman yelps a long and sustained note. The drum beats heavily. The singer pauses, hands outstretched, barely breathing as she chants out her musical story. Though I cannot understand a single word of the Korean lyrics, I hear the emotions in her sliding vocals, and I see her earnest facial expressions and understood the deliberate gestures of her hands.

This is pansori— South Korea’s live storytelling tradition, performed by a classically-trained singer paired with a lone drummer who matches the moving rhythm of the story’s plot on a two-sided skin drum. At times the drumming is slow and heavy, like armies marching—at other moments there is a higher, faster rat-a-tat snap of breaking twigs, the slowed tempo of two lovers bidding farewell, or the picked-up pace of running horses. With a cascade of musical words, the singer follows the beat while swinging intensely from great sadness and woe to sudden joy, lovesickness, or raucous laughter. Her vocal skill alone is captivating—she growls, summons, trills, belts and soars. She makes bold declarations with the shaking tremolo of a breeze passing through forest leaves. She coos, sighs, and moans—then chirps like a happy bird in a tree. Before visiting South Korea, I had never heard anything like it.

Hahoe Folk Village in South Korea
Hahoe Folk Village is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Andong, South Korea /Oh Segeun

The first pansori performance I ever heard took place in Andong’s Hahoe Folk Village, a Confucian-era town that is now a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the shadow of ripening persimmon trees, I felt drawn back in time as I sat on a stone floor (heated by a subterranean wood fire), enclosed in a room of sliding paper walls. The young singer wowed me with her amazing vocal power, matching the equally impressive drummer that diversified his rhythm a dozen times in the span of two minutes. Only hearing pansori live could I truly appreciate the skill and training that goes into the art form. Indeed, pansori is the sound of pure passion, carried down through up-and-down centuries of this resilient nation. An hour listening to the impressive musical story taught me more about South Korea than anything I had ever read.

Anyone visiting South Korea should make a pansori performance a priority, if only because you will never hear anything like it anywhere else in the world. The well-trained musical ear may catch elements of improvisation and jazz drumming, or folk singing and classical opera, but pansori is a far older tradition that with every note, carries the deepest human emotions across the gap of language time. 

The Korean term pansori combines the words pan (“open space”) and sori (“sound”)—pointing to the art form’s distant origins when singers performed outside, in nature, on the street, or in open courts and outdoor stages. Born from Korea’s ancient shamanic tradition, pansori became a popular kind of entertainment in the late 1600s, when singers and drummers would draw a crowd in the streets while reciting gripping tales of love, bravery, and sacrifice. For centuries, pansori was almost always sung by men, but female singers became more popular as the art form transitioned to the indoor stage. Today, the most celebrated pansori singers are women (often designated “national treasures” by the government).

Pansori singer in South Korea
Pansori singers are often designated national treasures by the South Korean government/Andrew Evans

Like any celebrated opera singer, the great pansori artist trains for life, mastering musical and dramatic techniques that are centuries old (imagine doing all the parts of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in chant and song, from memory). The true art of pansori lies in the skill of improvisation and the jazz-like intuition of a paired-up singer and drummer. The traditional training technique for pansori artists is to practice alone out in nature, next to a cascading waterfall, learning to mimic the scale and range in the sounds of a mountain stream tumbling over rocks. At times, the vocal interpretation of nature is uncanny.

The singer often uses the fan in her hand to add another dramatic flourish of the story, waving it frantically, or gently sweeping it in the air, or even laying it in her lap as she narrates the text. Original pansori performances (or “cycles”) sometimes lasted as long as 10 hours (about the same amount of time as reading a book aloud)—an exhausting endeavor for both artist and audience. More modern performances tend to focus on highlight renditions (similar to showcasing Puccini’s greatest arias).

Of the 12 forms (or cycles) of traditional pansori, only five have survived to the present-day. The subject matter of these stories portray historical themes like family honor, personal sacrifice, forbidden love, and epic battles.

In the latter half of the 20th century, pansori almost died out completely as the post-conflict era migrated towards modernization and western culture. The resurgence in the past few decades can be attributed to more globally-aware South Koreans embracing their own unique national identity, as well as mainstream audiences that are enchanted by the stripped-down but powerful shows. Pansori is now a regular theatrical offering in big cities like Seoul and Busan, but the more rural southwest corner of the peninsula is considered the birthplace of the tradition.

There’s no question that pansori traditions influenced later Korean art forms, from more modern operas and stage plays, to the subtitled South Korean dramas that become huge hits on Netflix. But when visiting South Korea today, it’s a rare and special opportunity to catch a live performance. 

Anyone visiting South Korea should make a pansori performance a priority, if only because you will never hear anything like it anywhere else in the world. The well-trained musical ear may catch elements of improvisation and jazz drumming, or folk singing and classical opera, but pansori is a far older tradition that with every note, carries the deepest human emotions across the gap of language time. 

Silversea Cruises’ story on Korea’s storytelling tradition of pansori was created as part of a content partnership with the Korea Tourism Organization, NY.