The Korea Herald


‘Nongak is a friend’

By Lim Jae-seong

Published : Oct. 14, 2023 - 16:01

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“Nongak is close as a friend to me. I experienced happiness, anger, sorrow and joy, developing love with it,” said Jeong Hyun-ji, who plays the sogo -- a small, traditional Korean hand-held drum -- in the Gochang Nongak Cheongchun Gutpae.

Gochang Nongak Cheongchun Gutpae is an official youth troupe that performs Gochang Nongak, the traditional music created and developed by farmers in the coastal county of Gochang, North Jeolla Province.

“I always swim into the meaning of nongak, and playing nongak is more than just fun, it has had a great effect throughout my life,” Jeong added.

Her first step in the traditional music scene was accidental.

“It is a very trivial and funny story,” Jeong said, explaining why she joined a school band that plays samulnori -- performances with the four percussion instruments of the jing (gong), buk (drum), kkwaenggwari (hand-held gong) and janggu (hourglass-shaped drum).

“When I was in middle school, samulnori band members could eat lunch earlier than other students so that they could practice during lunchtime. And I just wanted to eat lunch earlier,” she laughed.

But she became absorbed in the traditional music, sometimes even skipping lunch.

“After going to high school, I found there were no traditional music bands in the school. I asked the headmaster to make one, but that failed. Feeling hunger for musical activities during high school days, whether they have such a band or not became an important standard for me when choosing a college,” Jeong said.

At college, she first came across Gochang nongak.

“I didn’t know there were different nongak by provinces until then. But I continue to love the music that I first met so far, " she added. "Isn’t it something called a 'bond?’”

As all friendships go, there was difficulty in her love of nongak.

“I thought I could reach the level I wanted to reach if only I gave enough effort. But that was not so. Spotting my limits is painful, and the more I learn, the greater the pain,” Jeong said.

“But It would be something like growth pains. It would be how all humanity grows, isn’t it?” she added.

For Jeong, learning nongak is more than learning music.

“I hear stories about our ancestors and other masters who succeeded in the tradition, which occasionally gives me the idea that nongak is a magnificent art,” Jeong said.

“This reflects the life and spirit of Koreans, thereby the values they held are seen in the music, regardless of how much the modern world has changed. That’s why learning and developing the tradition matters.”

Photos by Im Se-jun

Written by Im Se-jun, Lim Jae-seong