Tradition continues… and changes

I had the opportunity to catch some live Korean music this week and a chance to speak to its practitioners, albeit only briefly. The hosts, on a work visit to Seoul, treated us to some great traditional music, hospitality and of course, food.

I have always wondered about the irresistible allure of tradition for official purposes. Why is it that conferences, events, meetings attract disproportionate attention of tradition when compared to its limited appearance in our daily lives?

I remember even as a school girl, going to official events where a Minister would be called for a prize distribution ceremony. There would always be the Tamizh thai vaalthu starting with Neerarum kadaluduththa nilamadanthai elilolugum..the official Tamil song of the government of Tamilnadu.  Most of them wouldn’t be really with the words, probably not even know it – like me! In Beijing, Croatia, bali, Singapore, Iran, there was always something – an opening song, traditionally clad dogsbodies, a picture on the ppt slides, images on the abstract book, souvenirs to take back, a prayer… something. In some venues, traditions are imposed on visitors. Strict dress codes, and no, it wasn’t at all bad in Iran. About Australia, I have some vivid memories of elaborate aboriginal dance, music and ceremony, as it was in New Zealand and Bhutan. But in Australia, New Zealand and Bhutan, it really did mean a lot to those who organised and conducted the traditions. For others, it only had nominal significance I suppose. Or really, what does it mean?

Is it because we enjoy it that we do it?  Is it because we want to show what’s ours? Is it because we want to show visitors something new that ‘isn’t available’ elsewhere? Is it because we want it to form part of our identity?  Is it because it is too expensive and scarce that we can only afford it on occasions only?

I suppose it could be one or more of the above, into which I am not going to go into in this post. There are stories, and these are for another time (as Shonaleigh, my dritzilla friend likes to say in her story-telling sessions!)

Our live Korean music performance was a cosy chamber performance, in a lovely space just beside the royal palace. Stomping up mosaic-tiled flights of stairs, we kept going up and up till we eventually got to this place with a small stage, with a lovely sleek glass pane which worked as a white board for lessons. I could tell by the English writing on it that a music lesson had recently finished, going by the notes on it to lower the pitch, adjust the octave, voice modulate and so on and so forth. On the centre of the backdrop was a painting, projected on to the wall – the painting of the five mountains and the sun and the moon, a very popular painting in Seoul. The ambience was great, the hospitality and attention to detail were effusive and just right, and the hosts were humourous and enjoyed themselves.

Our hosts for the evening were professors of music, philosophy, law and medicine, all from a leading private university in Seoul, who ostensibly enjoyed getting together. Students who were helping out with the evening were all equally effusive and welcoming. On offer was traditional Korean music.  Two young women, in traditional dress, performed on traditional instruments. One of the instruments being played was a 6 stringed instrument. 20131112_110320The other was a 24 stringed instrument. The first piece was one a traditional instrument played to a traditional tune.

It reminded me of the South Indian veenai, apart from the drum-beat like strums that the musician produced with her pick. One of the largest picks for any musical instrument, we were told. There were sequences which were sophisticated and engaging. The rough and tumble of the pick was matched by the smoothness of action on the strings. I can imagine playing a krithi on it, it should still work!

The earthy tones of this instrument were great, it beckoned something from the inside. The professor remarked as much, saying he preferred the sound from the traditional instrument better. The newer instrument with more strings, technically I suppose can be more sophisticated, but the melodies played on it were not so much to my liking, it didn’t engage plough deeper, and it was shriller. However the audience liked the song played on the second instrument, possibly more than the first. This too did not go unnoticed by the music professor.

The undertone of adaptation ran through the evening. The instruments were adapted, the music was adapted and the clothes were, and perhaps the teaching too!


It was really interesting to see this interaction and assimilation of western music into Korean culture. I wonder what the debate is on this. For I am sure, there is one. Western classical music seems very popular in Korea, but as it seems the indigenous Korean music too. But is indigenous music incorporating western nuances done to experiment or perhaps to stay alive, or is it a mere demand from parents and students, and also audiences?

Chamu Kuppuswamy

Interesting link here to a story I heard in Seoul –


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