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Songs about Jeju Island

#Sounds of Korea l 2023-05-18

Sounds of Korea

Songs about Jeju Island

Welcome to “Sounds of Korea” on KBS WORLD Radio. This traditional music program invites you to deepen your understanding about Korean traditional music by taking a closer look at various music-related topics every week. Today, we’ll talk about folksongs inspired by the people and life of Jeju Island. I’m your host ________. Please stay tuned, I’ll be back shortly.  

Jejudo Island is known to be plentiful in three things – rocks, wind and women. Nowadays Jeju Island has become a popular tourist destination, thanks to its beautiful scenery and convenient means of travel. But in the old days, the island was so far from the mainland that political prisoners were often exiled there. 

The rocks that formed the island were mostly porous basalt, which couldn’t hold water even when it rained, rendering the land unsuited to rice farming. One of the main sights of Jeju is long stretches of black basalt walls. The walls were built with the rocks sorted from the ground and served as barriers that keep the soil from being blown away by the island’s strong winds. When spring planting begins in Jeju, seeds are mostly swept away by the winds, so Jeju farmers would herd their cattle or horses into the field to tamp down on the ground and keep the seeds firmly planted in the soil. Farmers sing a song while their horses or oxen pack the ground, and that song is entitled “The Jeju Stepping Song.” Today’s rendition is performed by Koh Tae-pyeong and Hyun Gap-bong from Namwon-eup village of Jeju City. 

Jeju Stepping Song/ Sung by Koh Tae-pyeong and Hyun Gap-bong

Jeju farmers have to sort out numerous rocks when tilling land and drive the oxen and horses when seeding, which makes farming on Jeju Island a much tougher endeavor than that on land. Do you remember earlier in the show that Jeju has plenty of women as well as rocks and wind? So, the difficult field work was left up to women. 

The reason there are many women on the island is not because more girls were born than boys, but because men oftentimes died earlier than women. Most men in Jeju made a living by fishing in the distant sea. Imagine how dangerous it must have been for them to sail out to the vast sea on dingy wooden boats. Many of them got lost in the sea, leaving women to take care of the remaining family and make a living. 

So, women cultivated the fields, did house chores, and became women divers, better known as haenyeo해녀, to collect pricey abalones and octopus from the deep sea. Jeju women were so busy that they didn’t have time to cook food, forcing them to eat rice mixed with cold water and doenjang된장.

Although women went without hot food, their parents and children and spouses were fed hearty meals, a representation of their love for their families. 

Coming up next is a song entitled “The Millstone Grinding Song.” A millstone was an indispensable tool for Jeju women because it was the only way to hull the grains and pulverize them into powder. “The Millstone Grinding Song” was sung when women were milling grains into flour. Here’s Koh Seong-ok, a gugak artist from Jeju, singing “The Millstone Grinding Song.”

The Millstone Grinding Song/ Sung by Koh Seong-ok

Singing songs was probably what made all the hard work bearable for Jeju women. The last song for this week’s episode of Sounds of Korea is “Ten Scenic Sights of Yeongju.” 

Yeongju영주 is what Jeju Island used to be called in the old days. The ancient Chinese believed that there were three divine mountains – Bongraesan봉래산, Bangjangsan방장산 and Yeongjusan영주산. In Korea, Baekdusan백두산, Jirisan지리산 and Hallasan한라산 were considered the three godly mountains. Since Yeongjusan Mountain was equated with Hallasan of Jeju, Jeju ended up being dubbed Yeongju. 

During the Joseon era, a nobleman who was appointed a magistrate of Jeju Island wrote a poem about ten most beautiful sights in Jeju. Included in those sceneries are the sunrise seen from Ilchulbong일출봉 Peak in Seongsan성산, bizarre rock formations along the Yeongsil영실 route of Hallasan, and endless tangerine orchards in autumn. These unusual sights must have fascinated mainlanders in the old days. 

Many decades passed before the descriptions about these ten sights were added to the melody of Jeju shaman music, which ultimately became “Ten Scenic Sights of Yeongju.” Master singer Kim Ju-ok, who played a big part in creating this song, sings the song. 

Ten Scenic Sights of Yeongju/ Sung by Kim Ju-ok

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