HAENAM, JINDO COUNTY, South Jeolla — Understanding history is like piecing together old fragments concealed in places deep underground or in ancient texts.
But for those who listen carefully, at the right time and place, remnants of the past waiting to be discovered may be lying just under the nose, remarkably intact even after hundreds of years.
Whether it is Mother Nature’s unchanging melodies or the raw chantings of pansori (traditional Korean narrative singing), tuning in to the sounds around us can aid in the understanding of Korea’s history and heritage, according to the Korea Cultural Heritage Foundation (KCHF).
Its Folk Music Route tourism course is drawing all ears down to the very southern tip of the peninsula, in Jindo County and Haenam County in South Jeolla.
“[The Folk Music Route] is a tourist course that we’ve curated around Jindo and Haenam counties, intended to offer a new way of telling the stories of the area’s cultural heritage,” Kim Hyun-sung, head of KCHF’s content application team, said. “South Jeolla is particularly famous for producing Korea’s traditional music and artists, so we decided to curate a tourism course that incorporates different sounds of historical places in this region.”
One destination of the Folk Music Route sheds light on one of Korea’s biggest heroes: Admiral Yi Sun-sin (1545-1598).
The Usuyeong Tourist Site in Haenam County is the very spot where the legendary Battle of Myeongnyang against the Japanese navy took place in 1597. Yi famously commanded his men and won the battle with just 13 fleets against 113 Japanese fleets.
Impressive books, documentaries and movies have been made about the battle, but they don’t compare to the experience of being there in person, in the presence of the crashing waves and rapid whirlpools. Locals in the area describe the sound as the “ocean’s cry.”
The currents that go east to west change direction around 2:30 p.m., and the water flows as fast as 20 kilometers (12 miles) per hour. These are the very waves that Yi’s ships rode on, according to history scholar Park Gwang-il, who guided the Folk Music Route on Sept. 14.
“It was ultimately a battle against time,” he said. “Both sides were familiar with the currents, but Yi succeeded in timing.”
Yi, before the battle, is known to have famously said, “If you wish to die, you will live; and if you wish to live, you will die.”
The heritage foundation held special concerts by the ocean at the Usuyeong Tourist Site from Sept. 14 to 17, showcasing live performances of pansori and Italian opera. No modern sound devices, not even microphones or speakers, were used in order to recreate the sounds that ancient Koreans of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) would have heard and sung.
“We tried to recreate the music the way that it would have been performed hundreds of years ago,” Kim said. “Unlike other tourist routes that we are offering in this year’s campaign, the folk music route offers a chance to experience Korea’s intangible heritage.”
Pansori is listed as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage by Unesco.
The Jeolla region is especially known for its rich music. Notably, it has an entire genre of folk music dedicated to the region, called namdo sori. This branch of traditional Korean music includes pansori, minyo (folk songs), danga (short songs), japga (folk songs sung by professional singers), and nodongyo (songs sung during physical labor) from Jeolla, Gyeongsang and parts of the Chungcheong provinces.
Jeolla provinces are also home to many musical talents including Lee Nan-young (1916-1965), who sang “Tears of Mokpo” (1935), and more recently, trot singer Song Ga-in.
Jindo County’s Yongjangseong Fortress, also part of the Heritage Foundation’s folk music route, is a roughly 15-minute drive from the Usuyeong Tourist Site.
The rocky fortress belonged to the Goryeo Dynasty’s (913-1392) Sambyeolcho police, who built the wall to fend off Mongolians.
Discovered through an extensive excavation project, it is the only known fortress from the Goryeo Dynasty that remains today.
The hushed hills today are a great location for a peaceful stroll or to just revel in nature, but around a thousand years ago, it was likely the center of chaos, according to Park.
“Lots of fighting likely occurred around the fortress as the Mongolians tried to bring down the last remaining bit of Goryeo,” he said.
Goryeo, for some 40 years from 1231, was constantly attacked by neighboring states, namely the Mongol Empire. Sambyeolcho, under the Goryeo military regime, fought against intermittent Mongolian attacks.
Even after Goryeo signed a peace treaty with the Mongols and submitted itself as a vassal state to the Yuan Dynasty, Sambyeolcho continued fighting. Dubbed the Sambyeolcho Rebellion (1270-73), they never let up until they were driven off as far as Jeju Island and saw their end.
Scholars debate whether the Sambyeolcho Rebellion was heroic or self-serving. But, whatever they were so adamant about protecting, it was within this citadel.
“Close your eyes and listen for the sound of the wind and water,” Park said. “Let the sounds carry you through time.”
The Folk Music Route of Korea is part of KCHF’s Visit Korean Heritage Campaign, which has curated various tourist courses throughout the country. More information is available on chf.or.kr/visit/en.
BY LEE JIAN [email@example.com]