Baebaengi Debuts in Australia

Dr. Roald Maliangkay, Assistant Professor,The Australian National University, Photography by Kim Grant
I first met singer Yi Eun-gwan, holder of Seodosori (songs from the northwestern provinces), in autumn 1995, when I was in Korea to do fieldwork for my thesis on Korea¡¯s cultural heritage preservation system. Yi always welcomed me to his school, which was then still on the fifth floor of the electronics market on Jongno 4-ga, and each time we met he spent a lot of time talking to me, sometimes dashing off to grab a sheet of music or an instrument to add some transcriptions or sounds to his already vivid stories.

Like most of his peers, Yi enjoyed talking about the days of old, but I found that he was also very excited about his current work. That work included mentoring his star students, one of whom was Pak Jun-yeong. Pak, he told me, would safeguard the transmission of the long piece called Baebaengi gut (Ritual for Baebaengi), the part of the Seodosori repertoire that Yi has been most famous for. Partly because I was so taken in by Yi¡¯s spirit and sense of humor, and partly because I so enjoyed listening to recordings of Baebaengi gut, the unique art has had a major impact on my work.
Baebaengi gut is a partly sung, partly narrated, somewhat picaresque folk story. It is performed by a singer/storyteller and an accompanying drummer, who may shout single words of encouragement or expressions of praise or agreement at the singer. The some 50 parts that the art comprises together make up more than an hour, but unfortunately the piece is not regularly performed in its entire length today. Most of the songs accompanying the many unfortunate events in the story are sad.
Much like the genre¡¯s quintessential folksong Susimga (Song of Melancholy), they are built up of a number of high-pitched exclamations that slide down in a wide tremolo, bringing the tempo of the song down. Because of its structure and the way in which it is performed it is often compared to pansori (sung epic drama), but the swaying rhythms and the less dissonant tonal range of Baebaengi gut give the piece a more light-hearted feel overall, despite the songs¡¯ considerable melancholy. The drummers, moreover, commonly play the janggo (hourglass drum), rather than the buk (barrel drum), which those accompanying pansori use. Another important difference between the two genres is that due to the popularity of Yi Eun-gwan, Baebaengi gut has become associated with male performers, despite the fact that Yi himself once performed the art alongside female singer Kim Kye-cheol.

The story told is that of a minister Choe, a former shaman, and his wife, who after a long time of prayer finally becomes pregnant. The child, a girl, grows up quickly but when she is in her teens she falls in love with a monk who comes to her house to beg for food. After hiding him (and making love to him) in her bedroom for days, the monk leaves her to return to his temple. Because he doesn¡¯t come back like he promises, the girl falls ill and dies. Devastated, her parents decide to organize a contest and award all their possessions to the shaman who can help them speak to the spirit of their girl in the afterworld. A poor vagabond hears of the contest and decides to pretend he is a shaman. Shamans from all provinces of Korea come to perform for the parents, but they all fail to convince. Using his great wit, the libertine manages to pass the tests and deceive both the parents and the crowd to win the award.
Since the music is so rich in tones and emotion, and the story eventful and often humorous, ridiculing Confucian, Buddhist, as well as shaman morals, I really wanted to organize a performance of the art at the ANU. I contacted the Korea Foundation and found them to be very supportive. With the promise of their support in mind, and having seen Yi¡¯s deputy holder Pak give a great performance in 2001, I decided to give him a call. As soon as I had laid out my plans, he told me he would be happy to come over.
Five months later a small plane landed at Can-berra Airport carrying one of my personal idols; greeting Pak and his fellow musicians was a very strange but extremely exciting moment for me. After all, this was the man about whose work I had written more than a few articles, and who was now one of the most important singers of Seodosori. I felt like celebrating, and so, following good Korean and Australian custom, that night we opened several bottles while we talked about, among other things, our personal backgrounds, the preservation of Korean folk arts, and some of the wonders of Australian culture.
Besides folksongs, Pak and his friends were to perform Samulnori-style solo drumming and traditional dance: Salpurichum (shaman exorcism dance) and Gyobang gukgeorichum (professional entertainment dance, in 12/8). Because I wanted to ensure the performances could be witnessed by as wide a range of people as possible, my colleague Kim Grant and I staged four separate events. The first one, on October 18, was held at Narrabundah College, for staff and students of the college and of the nearby Montessori primary school. Although the students were wary at first, the great energy of the performers quickly won them over, and many of them wanted to try one of the instruments or take a picture with one of the guests afterward.
Another performance followed later that day, at the ANU¡¯s Burgmann Chapel. It was set up primarily for my colleagues and students, many of whom, I have no doubt, enjoyed the surrealism of Korean folk arts and its diverse religious references being performed inside a chapel.
The last and only all-inclusive performance in Canberra, then, was held at The Street Theatre on Friday, October 19. As with the other performances, Pak and his fellow musicians proved to be very flexible in adjusting to the limitations of the stage. At one point, when asked by a frazzled sound engineer about the need for more microphones, Pak replied by singing a few lines very loudly first, before adding with a cool expression on his face: ¡°No need, they can hear me, and if they cannot, I¡¯ll just move much closer.¡±

The last performance took place in Melbourne. Our Korean Studies colleagues at Monash University, Dr Young-A Cho and Dr Alison Tokita, organized a wonderful finale for the general public at their Japan Centre Auditorium.
When I asked the audience which performance they had liked best, the answers were diverse. Many of the very young students preferred the drumming, whereas most of my colleagues told me they had most enjoyed either the singing, or the dancing, or both. Yet when I asked the performers which performance they had enjoyed the most, they told me it was the last one, because they had been able to relax a little more. Their reaction came as somewhat of a surprise to me, since their performances had been so flawless and because none of them had seemed stressed throughout the days we spent together.
The event was a great success throughout, for a major part due to the performers¡¯ professionalism and sense of humor. Not only were they able to showcase the beauty and versatility of Korean folk arts, but each time they performed, they managed to involve the audience leaving it with an appetite for more. In 2009, we plan to organize a similar, yet larger event, and we hope Pak and his friends will be able to visit us again. And if Pak hesitates, I suppose we¡¯ll just have to look frazzled and tell him we cannot hear him...