Yeowoorak Festival lets artists take their own spin on gugak

'Jeongga' (traditional Korean songs based on Korean poems) master Kang Kwon-soon, Song Hong-seop Ensemble and Sinnoi's collaboration performance "I and My Fellow Traveler" will be staged at 3 p.m. on July 4. [NATIONAL THEATER OF KOREA]

Gugak, or traditional Korean music, has definitely gone hip.

This can largely be contributed to the four-member band Leenalchi, which has been taking the world by storm, together with Korea’s contemporary dance troupe Ambiguous Dance Company, presenting a whole different style of pansori (Korean traditional musical storytelling performance). What surprised the audience was how eccentric the traditional music sounds when combined with electronic dance music beats, topped with hybrid dance performances presented by a contemporary dance troupe.

BTS also played a part. Just before Leenalchi rose to stardom last year, Suga, a member of the K-pop superstar band, released a rap song “Daechwita” last June based on a gugak genre, daechuita (parade music played by wind and percussion instruments, generally while marching). The song even made it to the Billboard Hot 100 chart and the top 10 of Britain’s Official Chart singles chart.

But industry insiders say they want to give credit to the country’s Yeowoorak Festival that has been holding an annual music festival showcasing pure and crossover gugak concerts for over a decade in an attempt to popularize the country’s traditional music genre and break the prejudice that it is boring.

To celebrate the music genre that’s now beginning to be recognized by wider audiences globally, the National Theater of Korea, the organizer of the annual festival, said this year’s 12th Yeowoorak Festival will showcase a lot more “experimental stages featuring unprecedented collaborations between music groups of different genres who got together to produce the traditional sounds of Korea.”

This year’s event runs from July 2 to 24 at the National Theater of Korea in central Seoul.

Instead of appointing an artistic director and music director separately like in previous years, the theater decided to appoint just one creative director this year to head the festival.

Korea’s acclaimed geomungo (six-stringed Korean zither) player Park Woo-jae was named the creative director for this year’s event. Park said last week during the festival's press conference, held at the National Theater of Korea, that “Yeowoorak has positioned itself as a trend-leading festival.”

“Musicians doing gugak and other genres got to gather together and try different things to make gugak sound more fun and appealing,” he said. “We believe it’s about time we take it to the next level and showcase more experimental works that hyper-connect different genres in the performing arts genre including music, dance and even media art. But in its core, we still focus on presenting gugak in a refreshing way.”

A total of 13 performances will be presented, which have been divided into four categories — Director’s Pick, Yeowoorak Collabo, Yeowoorak Choice and Director’s Lab.

"The Two Eyes" will be premiering as the festival's opening piece on July 2. [NATIONAL THEATER OF KOREA]

A new work titled “The Two Eyes,” in the Director’s Pick category, will open the festival on July 2. It is a collaborative performance between Muto, a music group composed of two media artists, an electronic musician and Park as a geomungo player, and a pansori group MNH Studio.

The work is based on Simcheongga, one of the most famous of the five surviving pansori tales.

“By organically combining cutting-edge technology like LED kinetic image and media art with pansori, the eccentric stage will no longer be the background for musicians but will play a role as one of the performers,” explained Park.

According to the organizers, four performances under Yeowoorak Collabo are “fresh collaborations between artist groups that you can only see in the festival.”

"Shaman and Photographer" will be staged at 3 p.m. on July 11. [NATIONAL THEATER OF KOREA]

There will be a collaborative performance between shaman Lee Hae-kyeong and photographer Kang Young-ho titled “Shaman and Photographer” on July 11. As Lee dances the Hwanghae Province’s Daedong Gut ( gut is Korea’s traditional shaman ritual) to the gugak beats, Kang captures Lee’s dance moves on his camera and transmits it on the stage’s backdrop in real-time.

Yeowoorak Choice consists of performances by artist groups that have been creating their own unique musical worlds, and have gained recognition for it. One of the troupes is Chudahye Chagis, a so-called psychedelic shamanic funk band, who will be presenting “Underneath the Dangsan Tree Tonight” on July 10. The group won this year’s Korean Music Awards for the song that crosses different genres of gugak and hip-hop, but they call their genre of music “psychedelic shamanic funk.”

For the upcoming performance, the band, composed of leader Chu Da-hye along with four dancers, a guitarist, a bassist, a drummer, three gugak instrument players and one shaman, said they will present a gut performance to console the hearts of the people.

Audience members who want to see the most experimental performances can look into the three performances under Director’s Lab. For example, there will be a tofu-making demonstration on stage in one of the performances on July 21 at 7:30 p.m. Titled "The Tempo of Tofu,” it is presented by duo Dal:um, composed of a gayageum (12-string zither) player Ha Soo-yeon and a geomungo player Hwang Hye-young.

For more information about the festival, visit