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Pansori in a modern style

by AcklinEHuey

Here’s an unusual and fabulous song for anyone looking to broaden their musical horizons! The band Lee-nal-chi (이날치) take a modern approach to perform traditional Korean Pansori.

Pansori was a genre of storytelling through songs and gestures that began in the Joseon dynasty. The performer stood in front of the audience with a fan narrating the tale with a skilled drummer for accompaniment. It must have been very demanding as the performance could be anything from three to nine hours long!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In this unique and refreshing contemporary look into the world of the genre, 4 professional pansori singers, accompanied by a drummer and two bassists, perform ‘The tiger is coming’. The song is adapted from a traditional story. The video has had over 13 million views after going viral. In this post, learn more about Pansori and where this song originates from.

The music video no doubt helped the spread of the song’s popularity. But I first heard the song on the radio. It grabbed my attention immediately as it was so different amongst a playlist of K-pop and western music. And yet it was still catchy, too. The line ‘Tiger is Coming’ (범 내려온다 Beom neryeo onda) repeats over and over again creatively invoking the flutter of trepidation and fear in a village with the news that a tiger is coming down the mountain!

That’s what I felt when I listened to it, anyway. But apparently, this piece is a small section taken from one of the few remaining traditional pansori stories called Sugungga (Song of the Sea Kingdom). Here’s the band again, this time promoting Korean tourism. So we can enjoy the song and the quirky moves to a backdrop of the main attractions that Seoul has to offer.

In an interview, the band members explain that their aim is to make pop music that’s fun and easy to dance to. And indeed it’s hard not to watch this video without getting up and strutting around the living room… (you may want to draw the curtains first 👀 )

I love the choreography. The dancers somehow manage to be goofy yet cool at the same time.  (Choreography in Korea is great these days. That’s one of the reasons I love Korean Zombie Films) The dancers are dressed in eclectic outfits ranging from modern hanboks to spangly hot pants.

For some reason, this reminds me of the quirky time travel drama Rooftop Prince where a Joseon king and his men are transported to 21st century Seoul. They exchange their Joseon robes for hilariously brightly coloured training suits to ‘blend in’ with this new world. Great job blending in chaps!

Pansori began in the Joseon dynasty and there were 12 pansori stories originally tailored for the lower classes. But towards the end of the Joseon period, Pansori became popular with the nobility too. Even the royal court got into it, so the stories had to accommodate upperclass taste. And the stories whittled down to five! (The National Gugak Centre has publications on Pansori and other traditional arts)

THE STORY of  Sugungga(수궁가) 

As I mentioned, this song is part of the traditional pansori story called Sugungga.

Sugungga (Song of the Water Kingdom) is a well-known humorous tale. There are variations to the story but essentially it’s about an underwater kingdom ruled by the Sea Emperor who gets outwitted by a rabbit. The animal characters use their wits as well as their opponent’s gullibility to escape death.

When the Sea Emperor becomes unwell, he needs a rabbit’s liver to survive. So he sends his trusty turtle up to dry land to find a rabbit. But on the way, the turtle comes face to face with a tiger who wants to make him into turtle soup! The turtle has to think quickly to escape. Eventually he meets a rabbit and persuades him to go back to the kingdom with him. But when the rabbit realises why he’s there, he too has to think quickly. He outsmarts the Emperor by saying that he left his liver back on dry land so will have to go and get it. And so the rabbit manages to escape from death.


Another of the five pansori stories that remain today is the famous romance of Chunhyang (2000) about a magistrate who falls in love with a peasant girl. But they are forced apart in a Romeo and Juliet style tragedy because of their different social ranks. You can watch the story of Chunhyang told in Pansori in this film version for free on the Korea Film Archive Youtube Channel.

related posts:

Read more about Chunhyang

see more from dramasrok about life in Korea on Facebook Pinterest and Instagram 

Pansori singers generally came from families of inherited Shamans or itinerant performers. The soloist performs all the characters who come from all walks of life. There are gods and animals too. And to emphasise this, the music and narrative changes depending on the status of the character. So for upper class characters there’ll be a solemn and graceful rhythm. But for the lower classes, the rhythm and narration is more simple and lively. For a fierce animal or powerful god, a faster rhythm.

A special point about Pansori is that it embraces improv. and so the accompanying drummer joins in by calling out at appropriate times during the narration. And the audience can actively participate too by spontaneously shouting out when the spirit moves them! So if you are into audience anticipation, this could be for you!

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see more from dramasrok about life in Korea on Facebook Pinterest and Instagram 

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