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Gugak musical ‘Arirang’ sings of Korea’s bright future

June 26, 2013 - 19:29 By Korea Herald
The Korean traditional folk song “Arirang” reflects Koreans’ unique sentiment of “han,” representing the suppressed yet hopeful desire for justice. The UNESCO Cultural Heritage piece is also believed to have played a key role in creating solidarity among Korean people throughout historical hardships and in shaping the Korean identity.

In commemoration of gugak, or Korean traditional music, song’s listing as a UNESCO Cultural Heritage item last December, the National Gugak Center is staging the original musical “Arirang” through Sunday at the center’s performance hall in southern Seoul.

Famed director and playwright Oh Tae-seok teamed up with equally critically acclaimed composers Park Bum-hun and Kim Sung-kuk for the musical, which follows the story of a group of Korean descendants in Russia working as stage actors who journey to bring the remains of Gen. Hong Beom-do (1868-1943) to Korea after the unification of the Koreas in 2018.
A scene from “Arirang” (National Gugak Center)

Hong, a real-life character, fought against the Japanese military in the 1920s but was captured by Russians, deported to Kazakhstan and finished out his life there as the janitor of a theater. The actors perform the shamanic rain ritual, give Korean performances that were held on Kazakhstan stages, and perform other acts rarely portrayed in gugak performances.

“We have worked on molding various versions of ‘Arirang’ found across the Korean Peninsula as well as in nearby lands. Some of the melodic lines are changed and rhythms have been readjusted to be more familiar to the audience,” Kim Sung-kuk said.

“When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, I hoped that the same thing would happen to Korea within 10 years. But now I wonder whether that will take place before I die. I wanted to let that happen in the piece so that the ‘Arirang’ the characters will sing is not desperate or sorrowful, but exciting and hopeful,” Oh said.

The creators refrained from using any electronic sounds, instead making the most use of the human voice.

“We are not even using ear-worn microphones and it is a great challenge to the singers,” said Kim Kwang-sook, artistic director of “Arirang.”

“We are hoping that through our raw voices the audience will be able to share our exhilaration and yearn for peace between the Koreas.”

“Arirang” is staged at 7:30 p.m. on weekdays and on 4 p.m. on weekends. Tickets are priced between 10,000 won and 30,000 won. For more information, visit

By Bae Ji-sook (