Adaption and reinvention – The new relevance of Korea, Portugal, and Spain’s traditional music.

SsingSsing band ⓒ Nanoï Lauwaert

The goal of safeguarding intangible cultural heritage is to keep traditions alive and not to freeze them in time. Ideally, they can be part of people’s lives in a natural way. Without the acceptance of change and adaption this is very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

Korea, Spain, and Portugal share remarkable similarities when it comes to traditional music. Pansori, fado, and flamenco are inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. And all three are still very much alive, not only in the “heritage context.”

Fado, flamenco, and Pansori are said to express what it is to be Portuguese, Spanish, or Korean. They originated in very specific situations and happenings in history, which is why they are sometimes seen as the respectful representation of the Korean, Spanish, and Portuguese essence.
But I believe it is not this but the universal human emotions they convey that are key to their lasting success, both national and international. They are powerful, full of sadness and longing. Through storytelling they move and engage the public. Bringing people to tears can almost be seen as the ultimate success. All of them center around the thoughts and history of common people. Generally, it is music about everyday life.

The performance time of these three forms can range from a short 4–5 minutes to around 8 hours. The instrumental accompaniment is rather minimalistic. Fado’s traditional accompaniment consists only of one or two guitarras portuguesas, one or two violas (another type of Portuguese guitar), and sometimes a viola baixo (a small bass guitar). Pansori is supported by drums and flamenco has both guitars and drums providing the appropriate backing for the voice. The singers’ gestures play a big role in pansori, fado, and flamenco performances. Shouts of encouragements from the audience and the accompanying musicians are also part of all of the them.

The younger generation of artists who are reinventing traditional music are important. This reinvention, whether it is of Korean classic folk, fado, or flamenco, inspires the younger generations to sing the traditional songs again, and keeps the singing styles and techniques alive. Traditional forms can be freshened up not only with the incorporation of other styles and different instruments, but also by including modern-day subjects.

The members of SsingSsing define themselves as “authentic Korean traditional vocals with rock band music, combined with an extravagant visual style and stage manners.” In contrast to what one might at first expect, the visual show they put on is not beholden to modern influences only: most of it is actually inspired by old Korean traditions. The gender-bending look that SsingSsing and also Lee Hee-moon as a solo artists often take on is also seen in Korean male shamans channeling both male and female spirits.

Close interaction with the audience is a big part of all three music styles. This is not always the case with modern popular artists. It is quite surprising to see that Lee Hee-moon specifically asked to limit the number of people in the audience for one of his recent concerts, even though the hall could accommodate a much bigger crowd. It is not about exclusiveness but about giving the audience an authentic experience. In all three music styles the audience is part of the performance; no two performances are supposed to be the same.

Fado too owes its current popularity to a great degree to modern artists like Madredeus, Cristina Branco, Carlos do Carmo, and Mariza, for not being afraid of mixing styles, adding personal touches and finding inspiration in different musical genres. This is also the case for flamenco: composers and musicians created a style called “new flamenco.” They incorporate elements from different music genres like jazz, classical music, rock, blues, etc.

This evolution, though not liked by everyone, is necessary. Traditional songs are kept alive by mixing them with more contemporary and different music styles and adapting them to modern tastes. Being bold and at the same time not losing authenticity and soul in the process is crucial.