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Living with Gugak: An Interview with Oh Jung-hae

September is the month that Korean Thanksgiving Day, Chuseok, falls on. Chuseok is considered as a highlight of fall because of its long holiday period, so many people may look forward to it. During the Chuseok holiday, people can have time to get away from their busy lives and enjoy Korean traditional culture. There are several ways to experience Korea traditions, and listening to Gugak, Korean traditional music, would be one of them. There are many genres of Gugak, and one of them is Pansori. Therefore, the Sungkyun Times (SKT) met Oh Jung-hae, Korean Gugak musician, and heard some stories about her work and life.

Taking the First Steps Toward Gugak

Q1: Can you introduce yourself and share with us the special reason why you started Pansori?

Hello. My name is Oh Jung-hae, and I am a Korean traditional musician. When I was six years old, my dream was not to become a Korean traditional musician but an actress. I, however, could not find an acting academy near my house and had to go to a dance academy instead. Unfortunately, not much later, the dance academy closed, and I found a Gugak academy where I was introduced to Pansori for the first time. Since I became interested in Pansori, I decided to learn Pansori there; I was the youngest to win and won the 1st prize in the Pansori contest. After that, I became a student of Kim So-hee, who was the greatest singer of Pansori at the time, and started learning to sing Gugak professionally.

Q2: It may have required a lot of effort to master the skills of Gugak. Did you have any difficulties in becoming a Korean traditional musician?

There were mainly three difficulties I experienced in becoming a Korean traditional musician. Firstly, since Gugak was a form of music that was passed from mouth to mouth, sheet music never really existed, which made me very confused. Also, the Gugak songs themselves were hard for me to learn, so it took a lot of time and effort because the results were not immediately visible. Furthermore, living with Kim So-hee as her last pupil was another difficulty as I stayed at her house while attending middle and high school to learn Gugak. Kim considered that the establishment of a sound relationship with other people was more important than learning the technique singing of Gugak, so her methods of education were very strict. Of course, doing house chores was also tiring for me, but it was more difficult for me to learn how to behave in traditional manners because I had not learned these at home. In addition, social recognition of Gugak also gave me a hard time too. While training, I was tired of thinking that the value of what I gained through Gugak was far less than that of the time I spent to master it. In fact, being a Korean traditional musician was far from being rich and gaining fame so I was sometimes depressed as if I had just wasted my time in learning nothing. Nevertheless, I was able to move on with confidence with the way I decided to go.

Among many lessons that Kim So-hee has taught me, the greatest thing I learned from her was how “to become a good person first.” She always considered that caring for others was the most important thing, rather than how to live well. This is related to the right attitude about Gugak. Because Gugak is a genre of music that uses emotional expressions, it is meaningless to sing it with a wrong attitude. That is, she taught me how to empathize with other people when singing Gugak. Singers can never move others’ minds without truly understanding their pain or pleasure.

Q3: When most people think about you, they think not only of Gugak but also that you were an actress. Why did you start acting?

One year after I won the Miss Chunhyang Beauty Pageant in 1992, I made my debut as a movie star in the movie Seopyeonje. Im Kwon-taek, the director of the movie, watched me in the contest on T.V by chance and contacted me for the casting of his movie. As I was interested in acting, I seized that opportunity. In the movie, I starred as a Korean traditional musician named Song-hwa, which made it possible for me to work in various fields such as Korean traditional musicals.

Acting as Song-hwa in the Movie Seopyeonje (blog.ohmynews.com)

Oh Jung-hae: Mother of Gugak

Q4: It seems that there is no significant relation between Gugak and acting. How do you think the two genres can be connected to each other?

Although there seems to be no relationship between them I think acting is actually an important part of Gugak. Pansori, which is a subgenre of Gugak, is a one- man genre based on acting. I believe acting can be a kind of Pansori, and vice-versa. One difference that I want to emphasize is that the technique of acting varies based on the genre of acting. For example, while cinematic techniques prefer a natural explanation of a story, Pansori is a genre that emphasizes songs or gestures more.

Q5: You have given many impressive performances so far. Among these performances, what was your most memorable performance?

My most memorable performance was not really on a stage of the highest quality. Rather, it was on Sorok Island where people with leprosy were segregated and had little chance to enjoy culture. In 1990, Sorok Island was not allowed to be accessed by outsiders without the permission of the government. Therefore, some singers including me, visited Sorok Island, to give them the experience to enjoy music, for charity. In Sorok Island, I was not impressed by the sound quality or stage facilities. What impressed me was the people living there. Because they were suffering from leprosy, some of them could not clap, so I heard the sound of bones hitting each other. It was so moving that I can clearly remember that moment even now, I am very grateful to those people because singing for those who want to appreciate my sound has become the key of every performance of mine since then.

Q6: What kind of changes do you want to make or expect to be made in Pansori?

It is important to reduce the prejudice that Pansori is boring. After acting in Seopyeonje, I noticed the movie contributed to turning a negative image of Pansori that some people had into a more positive one. I felt this change was the key for the future of Pansori. I think that if I reduce the gap between the audience and me, people can see me in a more friendly way and not just as a professional Korean traditional musician. So I wear casual clothes when singing and only wear a Hanbok when I give special performances. Nowadays, the younger generation have begun to unite Western musical instruments with Gugak in a way that does not destroy Gugak. Although I feel uniting Western music with Gugak is the right way for Pansori to go, I am afraid that there is not a strong enough understanding of Gugak.

Q7: You were appointed as an honorary ambassadorfor the National Intangible Heritage Center (NIHC). Since you are supposed to work as a goodwill ambassador for the next year, can you explain what you wantto do and what kind of plans you have in mind?

To be honest, I actually did not intend to work as an honorary ambassador because some associations would just use my name and reputation without giving me anything to do in reality. I, however, accepted that offer from the NIHC, since the purpose of it was to help the human cultural assets which I had been interested in for a long time. The lives of them in various fields including Gugak are much harder than people may expect. Most of them are now suffering from financial difficulties as they are limited in doing economic activities such as selling things because of their fame. So, I am planning to promote their works to society and give them economic stability by promoting exhibitions about them.

A Person Who Distinguishes Herself Other than in Gugak

Q8: You have had a long, successful career in Gugak. Nevertheless, is there anything else you want to try in the future?

Since I have done a lot of jobs, I do not have a desperate desire for something new. This made me consider keeping the present as the most important thing. If I have to choose one, however, there is one thing that I was not able to succeed in, which is producing a record. I have dreamed about it before, but it is very difficult to make Gugak songs, and I have not been able to find a suitable composer for this. A record is an easy way to be introduced to the public, which can contribute to the development of Pansori, as I mentioned.

Q9: You are also working as a professor at Donga Broadcasting Arts University (DBAU). What is your objective when it comes to educating students?

As I get older, I can understand my teacher’s lessons of being a good person first, so I teach this to my students. Having the right personality is a primary qualification for many types of works. I am certain that people lacking morality cannot succeed because they cannot learn about personality while doing hard work with other coworkers. Additionally, since I teach students to focus on performances, I try to prevent them from pretending to act or sing. Performances without sincerity can never move the mind of audiences. Completely empathizing with the audience 100 percent is a significant part of acting and to achieve this, students must be the right people first. To achieve my goal to teach that, I should be a role model for students in need. I think the trust between a professor and a student is the first step that allows students to follow my instruction. After the trust is built, it is then possible to listen to students and communicate with them better.

Q10: Do you have any last words for the Kingos?

I hope that Kingos always have fun by enjoying life. If Kingos turned back to the time when they started university, they would be less tired and have more fun. Moreover, I recommend Kingos to make a schedule not only for their lives in campus but for off campus. University life is the greatest time for finding out what you really want to do, so do not be afraid of failing because it is the most essential part of success. I hope that all Kingos will find what they want to achieve in life.

Gugak is Korean traditional music that should be loved and preserved for future generations. Thanks to the people who\are trying to preserve Gugak, it is still loved by many people and is now stretching all over the world. Oh Jung-hae, the Korean traditional musician, says a lot for future musicians. She has played a bright role in shedding light on the future of Gugak. It is time for Kingos to keep in mind that the spirit that Oh Jung-hae has showed through her life of Gugak would last forever.

곽명진  jcloudk@skku.edu

<저작권자 © THE SUNGKYUN TIMES, 무단 전재 및 재배포 금지>

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