Young musicians transform gugak earning the genre fresh popularity

Seodo Band was the winner of JTBC's ″Captain of Poong-New — Korean Traditional Music Meets Pop Music.″ [JTBC]

“I believe going down this road, with traditional music, won’t be a lonely one,” said Seodo Band’s (stylized as sEODo BAND) vocalist Seodo, whose real name is Seo Jae-hyun.

After JTBC’s gugak, or traditionalKorean music, competition show “Captain of Poong-New — Korean Traditional Music Meets Pop Music” came to an end on Dec. 21, a new generation opened its ears to the genre of music.

Dubbed the “founders of Joseon pop,” Seodo Band, the winners of “Captain of Poong-New,” grabbed the public’s attention with its distinctive musical style. Centering on pansori, or traditional Korean narrative singing, and blending it with gugak and trendy pop music, the band has created a fascinating new sound. Seodo Band was praised as the “Joseon era Coldplay” and even Korean-American musical director Kolleen Park, known for having a sharp tongue, teared up and thanked the band for “existing.”

JTBC’s “Captain of Poong-New” was not the only show to take on gugak. MBN’s fusion gugak competition show “Joseon Pan Star” (translated) also aired in the latter half of 2021. Young gugak musicians dominated these programs, not to experiment with gugak in its classic form but rather to add a pop twist.

The loud and piercing sounds of taepyeongso (traditional Korean oboe) and high-pitched singing is what gave the band AUX, one of the contestants on “Captain of Poong-New” which came in third place, the nickname “Joseon metal.”

These interpretations of gugak have given the genre a new, fresher and more accessible image. Contestants on “Joseon Pan Star” released an EP that fused gugak with Christmas carols on Dec. 13, featuring K-pop boy band BTOB’s Lee Chang-sub. Three days later, “Panhoran,” a gugak full-length album that mixed genres of all kinds including ballad and metal rock was released. Gugak has also been used in advertisements for Apple and Samsung smartphones. The main contestants of “Captain of Poong-New” even embarked on a nationwide tour on Dec. 24.

BTS's Suga, under his other stage name Agust D, released the song ″Daechwita″ last year which has strong gugak sounds. [BIG HIT MUSIC]

Gugak’s crossover to the world of pop culture can be partly attributed to BTS’s Suga’s solo song “Daechwita” (2020), released under his other stage name Agust D, and alternative pop band Leenalchi’s first full-length album “Sugungga” (2020). “Daechwita” landed on Billboard charts and the Korea Tourism Organization's tourism promotional videos featuring Leenalchi surpassed 48 million views on YouTube. Leenalchi was even awarded “Musician of the Year” as well as “Best Modern Rock Song” and “Best Jazz & Crossover Album” at the 18th Korean Music Awards held in January.

“Sugungga,” defined as alternative pop, walks a thin line between traditional gugak and pop music. “We created the rhythm first and chose which parts of pansori to harmonize with it, rather than dramatizing pansori as a whole,” Leenalchi’s bassist Jang Young-gyu said in a past interview.

Seodo Band is comprised of a singer, keyboard player, guitarist, bassist, drummer and percussionist, but its musical style has the feel of a performance of ancestral rites, almost like a present-day shaman.

“Seodo Band has a solid base in gugak, yet is pioneering the latest trend by diverging itself out of the old-fashioned gugak style,” said pop culture critic Lee Young-mi. “Popularization does not necessarily mean how much you insert gugak elements into your songs; it depends on how much the team is keeping up with the current trends of pop music and receiving positive feedback from the public.”

Band AUX came in third place in ″Captain of Poong-New — Korean Traditional Music Meets Pop Music″ and is nicknamed ″Joseon metal.″ [JTBC]

Although the popularity of gugak was still rising when "Captain of Poong-New" first started airing, the contestants were serious about their goals.

The show's name featured the subtitle “Battle of the Hip Traditional Singers” (translated) in Korean, setting the premise that this competition would be like a war without guns. In the semi-finals, contestant Kim Jun-su performed a remake of “Daechwita,” adding a quote from Admiral Yi Sun-shin (1545-1598): “Those who seek death shall live. Those who seek life shall die.” Contestant Choi Ye-rim expressed her wishes that “gugak singers would be able to perform in better environments and not have to change into costume in the bathrooms.”

While gugak was trendy among the public until the 1970s, its popularity started to fade in the 1980s.

“The inflection point [of gugak’s popularity] was when the gugak band disappeared from ‘National Singing Contest’ [KBS’s long-running weekly singing contest since 1980] in the 1990s,” said Kim Hee-sun, professor at Kookmin University of College of General Education, who used to be head of research at the National Gugak Center. “No one except professionals would sing the genre.”

Gugak’s return can also be contributed to popular trot singer Song Ga-in’s participation in “Captain of Poong-New” as a judge. Song, who used to be a gugak artist, is known to sing at least one gugak song during her concerts.

“Originally, experts thought that gugak was a thing of the past, but Song completely turned that paradigm around — both gugak and trot have resurrected together,” Professor Kim said.

The Korea Tourism Organization's promotional videos featuring Leenalchi surpassed 48 million views on YouTube. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

The political sector is also paying attention to gugak. Lawmaker Lim O-kyeong, a member of the ruling Democratic Party, said last month in a policy debate at the National Gugak Center that “in a time in which hallyu [Korean wave] is being spotlighted, the gugak industry, being the most Korean thing ever, may be a blue ocean.” This comes after a law regarding gugak was proposed last year, on things like training more professionals, increasing broadcast programs and developing more educational content.