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UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage

#Sounds of Korea l 2018-11-07

Sounds of Korea


Newly registered UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage is announced every November. This year, Korea submitted for consideration the traditional wrestling sport ssireum씨름. When President Moon Jae-in visited France earlier this month, he reportedly met with the Director-General of UNESCO to suggest that South and North Korea work jointly to enlist ssireum as an intangible cultural heritage. 


Beginning as the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity program in 1992, the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage program is committed to safeguard oral traditions or intangible heritages around the world. This mission has been well-received by the international community, eventually leading to the adoption of an international accord named “The Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage” in 2003. At present, 378 intangible cultural heritages from 129 nations are on this list, averaging three to four heritages per country. But Korea has 19 on the list, reflecting both a rich cultural history and a zeal to garner international recognition for it. 


Today’s first piece is the Jongmyo Shrine ritual music, the first Korean intangible heritage to be included in the list. This part is titled “Heemoon희문” and is performed by the Court Music Orchestra of the National Gugak Center. 

Music 1: “Heemoon” from the Jongmyo ritual music/ By the Court Music Orchestra


The royal ancestral ritual at the Jongmyo Shrine and its music were registered with UNESCO in 2001. Jongmyo Shrine, where the memorial tablets of Joseon kings are stored, was already inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. It is rather rare for both the ancient architecture and the rituals performed inside that structure to gain joint recognition. 


Jongmyo ceremonial music is comprised of two parts – “Botaepyeong보태평” which marks the scholarly achievements of past kings, and “Jeongdaeup정대업” which celebrates their martial arts skills. Both “Botaepyeong” and “Jeongdaeup” are each made up of 11 smaller pieces. While “Botaepyeong” sounds somber and peaceful, “Jeongdaeup” feels majestic and energetic. 


The royal ancestral ritual at Jongmyo Shrine and its music were was only for the royal class, but “Arirang”, registered by UNESCO in 2012, is a song still widely loved by all Koreans regardless of their social status or age. “Arirang” was particularly popular during the Japanese colonial period, for the song had comforted many Koreans through their trials and tribulations. It is also the song both South and North Koreans sing when they take part in international events together. Arirang still generates new interpretations and adaptations. Let’s listen to “Arirang”, sung by Caribe and “Miryang Arirang” played by Orientango, in succession.

Music 2: “Arirang”/ Sung by Carib, “Miryang Arirang”/ Performed by Orientango


Other Korean cultural heritage included in the UNESCO registry is music like gagok가곡 or pansori판소리, and religious ceremonies like the Gangneung Dano Festival and Yeongsanjae영산재, the royal dance Cheoyongmu처용무, and practices like kimjang and ramie weaving. Each of these traditions helps us understand the lives of Koreans from generations past. 


Today’s last piece is “Yeongnam Nongak영남농악” performed by the Kim Duk-soo Samulnori Ensemble. Nongak is not only music, but an all-around art form that features dances, plays, acrobatics, and parades set to music. In times past, each Korean village had a nongak band, the job of which was to rev up the atmosphere during holiday celebrations or shamanistic rituals. Nongak was inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2014. Here’s the Kim Duk-soo Samulnori Ensemble performing “Yeongnam Nongak.”

Music 3: Yeongnam Nongak/ Performed by the Kim Duk-soo Samulnori Ensemble

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