The final concert to end the 2013 K-Music Festival was a night dedicated to Pansori and what better way to introduce this than Korea’s greatest Pansori star Ahn Sook Sun.
This was where I sat on Friday night – in the front row of Cadogan Hall, very close to the stage itself but I think even those sitting upstairs did not feel so distant which gives you an idea on how intimate the venue is.
Pansori is often described as traditional Korean opera but contrary to how operas often have tragic endings, Pansori stories are like folk tales and often happy, with plenty of grief along the way. This was how my experience was when I watched Ahn Sook Sun and her fellow performers last night at the Cadogan Hall.
The first part of the show was split into three parts. Geomungo Sanjo, Gayageum Byeongchang – Honam-ga + Jeabi-nojunggi and Gayageum Sanjo. The Sanjo sections are where the other performers showcase their individual skills with the Gayageum (12 string zither instrument) and the 6-string Geomungo which is played with a short stick. The drummer aka gosu is always present to provide the rhythmic beats with the barrel drum Buk. The Sanjo parts lasted 10 minutes but I did not pay attention to the clock as my eyes were constantly watching the ladies strum and beat away rapidly on their string instruments. Gayageum Byeongchang was longer than the Sanjo and introduced the audience with enchanting vocals.
After the 20 minute interval, we were presented with a wonderfully entertaining Pansori tale -with subtitles on the huge screen- called Heungbo-ga which is about two brothers Heungbo (the good brother) and Nolbo (the bad brother). Rich Nolbo kicks his brother out of their home, leaving Heungbo and his family to starve and struggle to survive…until Heungbo saves a swallow with a broken leg. He is then repaid for his kindness with a seed that grows into gourds full of treasure. Karma ensues and Nolbo suffers when his younger brother is rewarded for his good deed.
Ahn Sook Sun shows the audience why she is a well-known name when it comes to the world of Pansori. She commands the stage, makes people listen to her when she is narrating the folk tale in an intimate environment where it is just her, the performers and the drummer. It feels like a conversation at a dinner table. Heungbo was a fascinating story and to be able to engage with the audience in a variety of expressions to describe the characters’ feelings and move the story forward in 40 mins is a brilliant skill. You feel the story’s anguish and humour from Ahn Sook Sun’s words.
To finish the night off and close the K-Music Festival Ahn Sook Sun and the performers sings a Korean folk song Minyo/Arirang medley much to the delight of her dedicated fans. The native Koreans clearly know who this woman is as a few of them rushed to the front of the hall to pass flowers to her. There was plenty of cheering and enthusiastic applause from everybody. Even those who knew the Arirang medley were singing or humming along.
After Pansori Night finished, people gathered to take photos with the performers and Ahn Sook Sun herself when they came out of stage door.
Pansori Night was a rich, cultural experience and it certainly reminded me a little of Chinese Opera but without the high pitch notes. I enjoyed the intimate setting and how entertaining the storytelling style could be. Pansori itself may not be an easy art to be sucked into and if you are familiar with the world of Opera, you might have to be incredibly focused and patient in order to absorb the story and music and let the narrator take you through a journey.
**Source for first Ahn Sook Sun photo**
**Banner is the KCCUK’s advert for the event**
**Credit for photos of the Pansori performers goes to Korean Cultural Centre UK who have kindly permitted their photography from Pansori Night to be used for this review.**