13. Korean Pop Music and Korean Identities: A Political-Cultural History of Korean Pop Music and Its Use of Traditional Korean Musical Elements


1. 김민기, “고향 가는 길”

1. Kim Min-gi, “Kohyang kanŭn kil” (Road to Hometown)

From: Kim Min-gi 2 (Kim Min-gi – Vol. 2), Loen Entertainment, 1993, CD.

Kim Min-gi: vocal; Kim Min-gi: music & lyrics.



Since the 1930’s, Korean pop music using traditional Korean musical elements has been popular. Its relatively obvious development occurred in the 1970’s. One music-cultural basis was ch’ŏngnyŏn munhwa (youth culture). Within this, college students expressed their identity by singing a wide range of repertories with acoustic guitars. These repertories included songs whose compositions were based on folk music’s elements. An example is Kim Min-ki’s “Kohyang Kanŭn kil” (Road to Hometown), which uses a pentatonic scale.

2. 공명, “놀자”

2. Kongmyŏng, “Nolja” (Let’s Play)

From: Live performance at National Kugak Center (Seoul, Korea), 2 March 2011.

Ch’oe Yun-sang: percussion; Song Kyŏng-kŭn: percussion, taegŭm (flute); Pak Sŭng-wŏn: Taegŭm (flute), percussion; Cho Min-su: perscussion.

The 21st century is marked by a remarkable development of Korean pop music using traditional elements. One of the leading examples is the percussion group Kongmyŏng (Echo). This group consists of four graduates from Ch’ugye University of Arts. They have expanded their repertories by using various percussion instruments, and establishing of fusion percussion music. An example is “Nolja” (Let’s Play), which Kongmyŏng performed at the main hall of National Kugak Center in 2011.

3. 김용우, “아리랑 연가”

3. Kim Yong-u, “Arirang yŏn’gok” (Arirang Suite)

From: Live performance from the TV program Munhwajŏnjaeng (Culture Wars) by O Broadcasting System (OBS) (Bucheon, Korea), 2008.

Kim Yong-u: vocal; Yi P’il-wŏn: contrabass; Ryu In-sang: changgo (hourglass drum); Kwŏn O-jun: piano.

Kim Yong-u is a well-known singer of updated folk songs. He had widely diffused folksong into the public. He sang a rearranged version of folk song in a folk song style, to the accompaniment of Western instruments and the changgo drum. We can observe this approach in “Arirang yon’gok” (Arirang Suite). Arirang here means folk songs that include the word arirang. In this live performance, Kim sings five arirang with a rearrangement, accompanied by the piano, the double bass, and the changgo drum.

4. 김수철, “기타산조”

4. Kim Su-ch’ŏl, “Guitar sanjo

From: Live performance at Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) (Seoul, Korea), 2005, Performance.

Kim Su-chŏl: electric guitar, composition.

Kim Su-ch’ŏl is a famous rock musician and electronic guitarist who was particularly popular from the 1980’s to the 1990’s. He generated a number of traditionally-influenced works for international sports events and films and various experiments as an influential Korean pop composer. “Guitar sanjo” is his representative work that he has pioneered. Sanjo is a folk-art genre for solo melodic instruments, which consists of constantly developing movements. Guitar sanjo is a version of sanjo for the electric guitar.

5. Wŏn Il/슬기둥, “신뱃놀이”

5. Wŏn Il/Sŭlgidung, “Sin paennorae” (New Fishing Songs)

From: Live performance at National Gugak Center (Seoul, Korea), 2003.

Sŭlgidung: ensemble; Wŏn Il: composition.

Wŏn Il is a renowned composer who has worked on new music for Korean traditional instruments. Wŏn has composed many works based on various traditional rhythms, and often traditionally-influenced orchestral works. “Sin paennorae” (New Fishing Songs) is his iconic piece. The orchestral song was created based on a fishing song from the central region. It features unique sounds of various percussion instruments and traditional rhythmic cycles. In this video, the ensemble Sŭlgidung performs a rearranged version.

6. 잠비나이, “소멸의 시간”

6. Jambinai, “Time of Extinction”

From: Performance at Onstage, Naver Cultural Foundation, 2013 .

Jambinai: ensemble; Jambinai: composition.

Jambinai is the most internationally-reknowned Korean youth music group. The ensemble is composed of three graduates from the Korean National University of Arts. They use the following three arrangements of instruments: the electric guitar, the p’iri oboe, the t’aepyŏngso shawm, and the saenghwang mouth organ; the haegŭm fiddle; and the kŏmun’go zither and the chŏngju hand-held metal bell. Jambinai have extended the scope of new Korean music by delivering a post-rock sound that has no functional chords. Their musical approach is evident in “Time of Extinction” in this link.