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(Yonhap Feature) Arirang under renewed light ahead of UNESCO application

All Headlines 09:00 May 11, 2012

By Kim Hyeh-won
Contributing writer

SEOUL, May 11 (Yonhap) -- A Korean woman, who had been forcefully taken to Southeast Asia for sex service for Japanese soldiers during World War II, was located in Cambodia in the late 1990s. After her turbulent life of some 50 years in Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam, as well as in Cambodia, the woman with the Korean name Lee Nam-i didn't remember her mother tongue but still murmured Arirang tunes.

The word Arirang may be more familiar to the people outside Korea as a name of Korean grocery stores or restaurants. Wherever ethnic Koreans are, from Japan, China, the United States and Europe to Russia, Africa and the Middle East, there are, without exception, grocery stores and restaurants with the name Arirang.

Arirang is a lyrical folk song often dubbed a "second national anthem" or an "unofficial national anthem" of Korea. For its easy melody and tunes, virtually all Koreans, even those living in North Korea and abroad, can sing at least part of it. The word Arirang stands for Koreans today and what it implies is more ethnical than political.

The South Korean government plans to submit in May an application to UNESCO to list the song, including all of its major versions, as an Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Timed with the move, a variety of events are underway or scheduled across South Korea. One of them is the "Arirang Special Exhibition" being held at the National Folk Museum of Korea, inside the complex of Gyeongbok Palace in central Seoul.

The Gyeonggi Provincial Government also plans to hold the "Arirang Arariyo Festival" on June 2, featuring thousands of performers of Arirang from across the country. The festival will be filmed as an ad to be featured on an electronic board at the Times Square in New York.

The exhibition at the National Folk Museum explores the meaning of the folk song in the life of Koreans, as well as its history and use. The exhibit displays over 2,000 items associated with the Arirang song and its name until May 21, divided into four sections -- general introduction, history, Arirang in everyday life of Koreans, and archive/media.

The museum also offers performances of various versions of the Arirang song originating from different regions, such as Seoul/Gyeonggi, Jeongseon, Mungyeong and Milyang, every Saturday during the exhibition period.

Visitors can also hear all major varieties of Arirang with earphones, including the song of Arirang sung by a North Korean refugee.

Despite many tales and theories regarding its origin, it is not clear when and where it started. But scholars generally agree that the song had become popular during the late 19th century.

Yi Seung-hun, a Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) scholar, mentioned about a song that is quite similar to Arirang in his writing, "Nongbuga," in 1790. Another scholar of Joseon, Hwang Hyeon, wrote in his 1894 book that King Gojong and his wife Queen Myeongseong enjoyed the performance of "Arirang".

But it was an American with the name Alice C. Fletcher who first recorded the verses and music scores of Arirang. The recording and music scores made in 1896 under the title "'Love Song: Ar-ra-rang" is on display in the exhibit.

Arirang has been a popular label for various products since the 1940s though its popularity seems to have dwindled a little recently.

Arirang was the name of the nation's first filtered cigarettes loved by Koreans for decades. Several packs of the cigarettes are being exhibited. Also on display are the items which bring back a touch of nostalgia for many visitors, like match boxes, stationery goods, a radio and a word-processing software. Some of them are from North Korea.

The song of Arirang has inspired many literary and art works.

Both the first full-scale Korean film and the first opera made by Koreans had the title Arirang. One of the most popular magazines in the 1960s was also called Arirang.

Arirang was played by numerous singers and musicians, including the Kim Sisters, the Korean female pop trio who worked mainly in the United States.

Foreign musicians also contributed much to the spread of the folk song in the international community.

Oscar Pettiford (1922-1960), the American jazz musician known for his pioneering work in bebop, visited Korea during the Korean War (1950-53) to perform for American soldiers. He heard a Korean interpreter whistling Arirang tunes and made it into the jazz number "Ah Dee Dong Blues." He recorded it on an SP album when he returned home. Arirang sounded like Ah Dee Dong to the ears of Pettiford. The music score and album are on show.

Another foreign musician who loved Arirang was Pete Seeger, an American folk singer known as author or co-author of the famous song "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" He visited Korea in 1953 and sang Arirang. He later recorded the song and listed it as an anti-war song.

The last section of the exhibition displays books themed around the song, including "Song of Ariran," a book written by U.S. journalist, and wife of Edgar Snow, Helen Foster Snow (1907-1997) under the penname Nym Wales. The book is based on interviews with the Korean communist and independence movement fighter Jang Ji-rak, who is called Kim San in the book. It was published by John Day in 1941, the company run by Richard Walsh, the second husband of Pearl S. Buck.

The exhibition also screens films of people who talk about the meaning of Arirang in their lives every weekday except Saturdays when performances of Arirang are held.


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