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What is Pansori?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 12 November 2014
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Pansori is a form of Korean music which has been classified as a National Cultural Intangible Property by the Korean government, in the interest of preserving it for future generations. Pansori performances take place at Korean cultural festivals, in addition to being scheduled as events in their own right, and numerous recordings of such performances are available for people who want to listen to or study pansori. The Korean government believes that pansori is a very important part of Korea's national heritage, and there is some concern that the art of pansori could die out due to lack of interest.

In a pansori performance, there are two performers: the gosu and the kwangdae. The gosu is a drummer, who accompanies the kwangdae, or singer. In more modernized performances, sometimes several singers perform, voicing different characters in the piece to provide more color. The audience is also an integral part of the pansori, as they are expected to respond with sounds of encouragement and applause at various points in the performance.

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Pansori performances are classically quite long, with the music being used to tell a traditional Korean folktale. A full madang or story can take hours to perform, so modern pansori performances are often offered in sections so that audiences do not get restless. During the performance, the audience can hear singing and stylized speech, along with the sounds of the drum and chuimsae, sounds which are made by the gosu as the singer performs. The audience can also respond with chuimsae of its own.

These epic sung folktales have their roots in the 1600s, and they became especially popular in the 1800s. By the 1960s, however, pansori had begun to die out in Korea. The training involved is grueling, as are the performances themselves, and interest appeared to be dwindling. In response, the government attempted to protect and promote this traditional art form, encouraging pansori performers to interact with the public in the hopes of exciting the next generation.

At any given time, several pansori performers typically have a very visible public profile, becoming stars in the genre, and an assortment of up and coming performers is typically in training. Thanks to the government's measures to protect pansori, pansori performers and trainees often receive generous government assistance, including grants to sponsor performances and other events which promote the pansori tradition.

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