Nestled on the southwestern tip of the Korean Peninsula, Yeongam is a rural county in South Jeolla Province with some 53,000 residents. This is where players of the gayageum, a traditional Korean zither with 12 silk strings, gather from around the nation to compete every fall.
The backdrop is Wolchulsan, a mountain with exquisite rock peaks that famously anchor a national park. Yeongam also is said to be the birthplace of Wang In, a legendary scholar who introduced Chinese characters and classics to Japan in the fifth century. As an imperial tutor and treasurer, he became known as Wani.
The gayageum competition honors another native son of Yeongam, Kim Chang-jo (1856-1919). Kim is credited with creating the instrumental solo genre of “sanjo” for the gayageum around 1890, based on folk melodies handed down in “pansori” narrative songs and shamanic ritual music.
Literally “scattered melodies” and played to the accompaniment of an hourglass drum, the sanjo is often compared to the sonata in Western classical music. It is composed of several movements, each in a different tempo, starting very slowly then quickening and finally ending with a tempest of passion.
The stylized structure, opening a way to channel the player’s creative potential, did not go unnoticed. About a decade after Kim introduced his gayageum sanjo, many musicians followed suit to compose similar pieces for their respective instruments. Thus the sanjo form became widespread and took root as a standalone genre.
Considering the prominent place of the gayageum sanjo and its progenitor in the history of traditional Korean music, it seems natural that Yeongam County has commemorated them by establishing the Gayageum Sanjo Memorial Hall. The Gayageum Theme Park, where the memorial hall is located, was dedicated in 2014, at the foot of Wolchulsan. Kim Chang-jo is said to have played his gayageum on a boulder alongside a waterfall at the mountain.
The annual gayageum contest, targeting performers of all age groups, is held in conjunction with commemorative events for Kim Chang-jo and the gayageum sanjo. This year’s event, held Sept. 3, was particularly noteworthy in that it included the presentation of video clips about two virtuoso musicians -- An Ki-ok (1894-1974) and Chong Nam-hee (1905-1984) -- who inherited Kim Chang-jo’s original sanjo form and ended up in North Korea during the chaotic postwar period. The video presentation was followed by performances of their respective sanjo compositions.
An Ki-ok, born near Yeongam in Naju, South Jeolla Province, went to North Korea in 1946, shortly after Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule. Recognized as one of the greatest performers of traditional Korea music, he had spent some 10 years learning the gayageum sanjo from Kim Chang-jo as his leading student. In North Korea, he taught many students as a professor at Pyongyang University of Music and Dance.
Chong Nam-hee, also born in Naju, was a top student of An Ki-ok. A multitalented musician with few peers on the modern scene of traditional Korean music, he studied sanjo works of both Kim Chang-jo and An Ki-ok. He went to North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War and taught at Pyongyang University of Music and Dance. He co-authored a book on gayageum teaching methods with An Ki-ok in 1958.
Both musicians became a “people’s actor” in the North. But their whereabouts and activities remained largely unknown in the South amid the Cold War confrontation on the Korean Peninsula. A breakthrough came in 1990, when South Korean gayageum player Yang Seung-hee met Kim Chin (1927-2007), then headmaster of Yanbian Arts School, in Yanbian Korean autonomous prefecture in northeast China.
Kim performed as a guest musician at Yang’s recital, held on July 16, 1990. The performances of their respective sanjo pieces was a historic moment of sharing common ground. “I couldn’t believe my ears. The music he played sounded so familiar that I felt as if I had found a long lost relative,” Yang recalled.
In fact, they had grown from the same roots. It’s just that neither had had the opportunity to learn about each other’s presence. Yang studied the gayageum under Kim Juk-pa, a master player and granddaughter of Kim Chang-jo, in the traditional rote learning method. In contrast, Kim Chin, originally a violin and cello major, studied under An Ki-ok in Pyongyang in the Western musical education method using five-line staffs.
The joint concert led to further exchanges and reciprocal visits. Kim handed Yang the sheet music of sanjo works by Kim Chang-jo, An Ki-ok and Chong Nam-hee, as well as hundreds of volumes of North Korean publications and treatises about traditional music and related arts. Before the normalization of diplomatic ties between Seoul and Beijing, bringing the gifts home was a challenge. But these materials became the basis for her theoretical research in the origins of the gayageum sanjo and its separate lineages of transmission in the two Koreas.
Today, Yang, a state-designated “human cultural treasure,” plays a vital role in Yeongam County’s preservation and promotion of the gayageum sanjo. They say their next motto is having the gayageum sanjo placed on UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity to share the great musical asset of the Korean people with the rest of the world.
Inter-Korean coordination will likely make the effort more significant. Joint endeavors by musicians and scholars of both Koreas to study the current state of the gayageum sanjo in the South and North can be a more efficient and meaningful approach. "Ssireum,” traditional wrestling, was separately nominated by the two Koreas but simultaneously inscribed in 2018 at UNESCO’s recommendation. In contrast, Arirang and kimchi-making were inscribed separately.
Over seven decades of territorial division has caused segregation in many areas of culture and the arts, not to mention differences in the language spoken in the two Koreas. Authorities in Seoul and Pyongyang may well consider private-level contacts for nonpolitical issues as a potential icebreaker in the stalemated cross-border relations for eventual peace and common prosperity.
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.