Jules Does

Jules Does K-Pop Academy Homework: Arirang

Posted on: November 19, 2014

The 2010 Arirang Festival in North Korea. The large Korean words in yellow spell ‘Arirang’.


Today, I’m really excited to be writing about ‘Arirang’, perhaps the most famous Korean folk song ever, because in discussing it I can also talk about a great number of aspects of Korean traditional music but also Korean life more broadly. In the years following the Korean War, Arirang has become something of an unofficial national anthem for South Korea. The word itself is also everywhere – there’s the Arirang TV network, Arirang rice, and the Arirang games in North Korea (see above), to name just a few. It’s also listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list for Intangible Cultural Properties.

On its surface, Arirang is a fairly straightforward folk song about the loss of a lover. The singer wishes that the lost lover will not be able to walk very far before their feet start to hurt. That’s the content of the chorus; the verses deal with largely unrelated observations and metaphors about flowers blooming in the winter on Mount Baekdu (which is currently located in North Korea). The verses and the tune vary from region to region, which might seem odd for an unofficial national anthem, but I think it preserves the regional feeling of the people of Korea while also being part of a nation-wide identity.  Various translations of the words can be found on the very detailed Wikipedia page for the song, so I won’t post them here. The song is not nationalist in itself, which might help to explain why it has transcended political divisions to unite Koreans everywhere, including in the North.

The word ‘Arirang’ doesn’t mean anything exactly, although in the context of the song it could refer to a particular mountain pass (indeed a pass in the vicinity of Seoul was re-named ‘Arirang Pass’ in the 1920s after the film Arirang).

But enough talk! Listen to one version of the song here:

The style of singing these women are employing is very traditional, as are their gestures and many of the instruments being used as accompaniment. The singing might take a moment to get used to – it’s very modulated, almost like a yodel or a really severe vibrato. This style of singing is called han, which means ‘sorrow’ but is also the word for the Korean people. The use of han in traditional singing ties into the long periods of suffering that the Koreans have had to undergo under various foreign powers and more recently, and using this sorrowful tone acts as both a reminder of suffering and as a catharsis. This fits nicely with one tradition regarding the song’s origin, which is that it was sung by conscripted labourers who were employed in rebuilding the country after the Japanese invasion in the late 16th century.

The song has been covered again and again, and as you might expect from the large amount of regional variation I mentioned earlier, each cover version has brought something different to the piece. Here’s Yoon Min Soo singing Arirang on the popular show ‘I Am a Singer’:

As you can hear, his version plays a bit more with the rhythm of the piece than the first video does and incorporates background singers as well, but it still uses many of the traditional instruments seen in the first video.

The K-Pop star IU also sang a version of Arirang. Her version feels quite modern, with little improvisations and repetitions, as well as a very atypical ending!

In the beginning of this clip, you can see the child prodigy Song So Hee singing a version of Arirang from Gangwon, which varies from the previous versions quite clearly in terms of lyrics and tempo:

Arirang has also had an active life outside of the Korean peninsula. John Barnes Chance, an American composer, heard Arirang while stationed in Korea after the Korean War, and wrote a piece consisting of four variations on the song called ‘Variations on a Korean Folk Song’. The composition won the American Bandmasters Association’s Sousa/Ostwald Award in 1966. It’s not a very long meditation on the piece, but in the four movements you can hear four very different takes on the central melody – the first movement might be identified as more ‘typically’ Asian (or at least, Asian as understood by the West), while the third movement especially reminds me of typical American music, particularly the kind you might hear in a patriotic movie. The final movement is definitely the grandest and possibly the most stirring, and sounds as though all of the different ways of perceiving the song can be shared, no matter where you come from. It’s certainly worth a listen:

Just as Arirang can be a way of creating and sustaining Korean identity within Korea, it’s also a powerful cultural touchstone for Koreans living abroad. This video shows a really impressive flashmob in Paraguay joining to perform Arirang in a shopping mall. Not everyone singing the song is obviously Korean, and nor should they have to be, but it is clear that that there are many ways of being Korean which are all united by this one beautiful song:

You can see a similar flashmob taking place in Insa-dong in Seoul here.

Since the song is shared between North Korea and South Korea, it can also be a powerful tool for reaching out to the North, as you can see clearly from this video of the New York Philharmonic’s performance of it in Pyongyang.

Personally, my favourite version of the song is this one by jazz artist Nah Youn Sun. Her voice retains a lot of the emotion of the original words, and the stripped-down backing makes the piece seem less monumental and established, and much more intimate.

I absolutely have to close this post with this video by Topp Dogg, which I also posted in my homework on traditional dance. The lyrics and the images are a feast of traditional Korean cultural features (samulnori! masks! hanbok! references to hats!) married with the hip-hop image of the band. Turn on the subtitles for an extra element of strangeness. Of course they called the song ‘Arario’, how better to get across the idea that they were locking into their Korean heritage in a way both traditional and modern?


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