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Songs of North Korea

#Sounds of Korea l 2019-02-06

Sounds of Korea


Traditional holidays tend to intensify the sadness and longing of those who were forced to flee their homes in North Korea during the Korean War. Since 1988, some 130,000 people have applied for inter-Korean family reunions. Today, the surviving applicants number only around 50,000. 


With so little time left for these aging North Korean war refugees, many are eager to find out whether their loved ones are still living, while some just wish to visit their childhood homes and reminisce about the happy times they had spent there with their families. As the inter-Korean relationship continues to thaw, there are greater hopes for family reunions in the near future. 


The first piece we’re going to enjoy today is “Yeonpyeongdo Nanbongga연평도 난봉가” from Yeonpyeong연평 Island. Though this island is administered by the city of Incheon, it lies 145 kilometers away from Incheon’s main port. However, Yeonpyeong연평 Island just 10 kilometers away from the North Korean mainland. 


This is why “Yeonpyeongdo Nanbongga” is typically considered to be among folk songs from the northwestern region, which covers Hwanghae-do황해도 and Pyeongan-do평안도 Provinces in North Korea. The song is sometimes also called “Nanani-taryeong나나니타령”, because its refrain starts with “Nana, nana.” Today’s rendition of “Yeonpyeongdo Nanbongga” is sung by Arisu.

Music 1: Yeonpyeongdo Nanbongga/ Sung by Arisu


Yeonpyeong Island is known for blue crabs these days, but about a century ago its main catch was yellow corbina. 

Schools of yellow corbina would venture up Korea’s western waters from the south to spawn at the beginning of summer. The fish would be big, fat and oily ahead of the spawning season, making them quite tasty. Perhaps Nanbongga’s cheerful, amusing lyrics were inspired by the rich fishing grounds around Yeonpyeong Island.


Next up is “Ryonggang Kinari룡강기나리,” a slow Arirang piece from the Yonggang용강 region in Pyeongannam-do평안남도 Province in North Korea. Yonggang, situated to the southwest of Pyongyang on the west coast, is well-known for its folk songs, and renowned singers such as Kim Jong-jo김종조 and Choi Sun-gyeong최순경 were based there. 


The “Ryonggang Kinari” known to us today is a combination of a slow Arirang and a folk song. It starts off slow, but the beat picks up later in to the song. The version we’re going to hear is played with an instrument called “jangsaenap장새납,” a modified taepyeongso태평소 from North Korea. 


Another name for taepyeongso, a traditional double reed wind instrument, is “saenap새납,” so “jangsaenap” literally means a “long saenap.” Let’s listen to Choi Young-deok playing “Ryonggang Kinari” with his jangsaenap. 

Music 2: Ryonggang Kinari/ Jangsaenap by Choi Young-deok


Today’s last piece will be “Nanbongga,” a version different from “Yeonpyeongdo Nanbongga” we heard earlier in the show. There are actually several types of this folk song. “Jajin Nanbongga자진난봉가” and “Saseol Nanbongga사설난봉가” vary by beat and lyrics, while “Sariwon사리원 Nanbongga,” “Gaeseong개성 Nanbongga” and “Sukcheon숙천 Nanbongga” are differentiated by their regions. 


These songs are also called “Love Song,” because their refrains contain the phrase “Oh, my love.” Today’s version will be performed by Akdan Gwangchil악단광칠 founded in 2015, the 70th anniversary of Korea’s independence. This traditional band is winning attention with its deep understanding and unique interpretation of Korean folk songs from the western provinces. I hope the day would soon come when this song may be performed inside North Korea, where it originated. 

This week’s Sounds of Korea will conclude with “Nanbongga” performed by the traditional band Akdan Gwangchil.

Music 3: Nanbongga/ Performed by Akdan Gwangchil

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