The Yeo Woo Rak Festival, hosted by the National Theater of Korea, is a joyous feast of music. Launched on the premise of popularizing traditional Korean music through modern interpretations, the annual celebration arouses the imaginative spirit of musicians from a variety of genres, inspiring them to experiment with bold creations.
GongMyoung, a first-generation world music group, performs at the Yeo Woo Rak Festival held at the National Theater of Korea in July 2017. In celebration of its 20th anniversary, the group presented a broad repertoire. The annual festival interprets and blends traditional Korean music with other genres.
Courtesy of National Theater of Korea
Every July, the month-long Yeo Woo Rak Festival occupies the National Theater of Korea in the heart of Seoul. The name is an acronym; the literal meaning is “It is our music,” implying “traditional music that can be enjoyed by modern audiences.” Now in its 13th year, this festival at the foot of Mt. Nam is where artists from different fields freely exhibit bold experiments with traditional music.
Yeo Woo Rak has enjoyed remarkable success compared to other traditional Korean music concerts. Tickets sell out regularly, and as of the end of 2021, attendees totaled 66,098 (viewers of online performances during 2020 not included). On average, they filled 93 percent of the seats. Considering that traditional music has been a largely marginalized genre accounting for an insignificant share of the music market, the festival’s success is both unprecedented and encouraging.
But the significance of the festival doesn’t lie in its strong ticket sales alone; it deserves credit for spurring a renaissance of traditional Korean music. Pushing beyond the boundaries of a musical heritage that needs government support to survive, it assembles musicians and ignites their creative prowess. The result is a modern spin on tradition, and a way of reaching out to global audiences.
Prominent artists have served as the festival’s artistic director in previous iterations. Among them were pianist-cum-composer Yang Bang Ean (aka Kunihiko Ryo), jazz musician Youn Sun Nah, composer-cum-conductor Won Il and cheol-hyeongeum (steel-stringed zither) player Yu Kyung-hwa. Heading the festival since 2020 as creative director is geomungo (sixstringed zither) player Park Woo Jae. Yang and Nah have carved out successful careers in jazz and popular music, while Won and Yu are renowned artists acclaimed for their experimental and creative collaborations based on distinctive styles that are rooted in traditional music. This impressive lineup of artists crossing multiple genres truly embodies the three key concepts that define the festival: experimentation, collaboration and popular appeal.
The featured performers can be broadly classified into three groups. The first group includes virtuosos – certified holders of National Intangible Cultural Heritage or the equivalents, such as master pansori (narrative song) singer Ahn Sook-sun and shaman Lee Hae-kyung, who leads the communal rite handed down in Hwanghae Province. Their role is to preserve and uphold musical heritage.
Posters for the Yeo Woo Rak Festival, which was founded in 2010. Every July, musicians from various genres stage creative works at the National Theater of Korea. Their concerts regularly sell out.
Courtesy of National Theater of Korea
The second group consists of young musicians who have studied traditional music. These are the festival’s central acts. They collaborate, working with many different genres, from jazz, avant-garde and popular music to Western classical, and their work combines artistry, experimentation and mass appeal. The group has included artists such as gayageum (12-stringed zither) player Kyungso Park and world music bands GongMyoung and Sinnoi.
The third group is populated with jazz and pop musicians known for their creative endeavors. These are veterans of collaborative projects that fuse contemporary and traditional musical elements. Some notable musicians in this group are pianist Lim Dong-chang, composer Jung Jae-il and rapper Tiger JK.
The festival also features many artists from other fields, such as photographers and visual designers, offering audiences a richer, more profound experience.