Styles & Forms | East Asia | World
The recent history of East Asia is one of conflict: hostilities have broken out over whether a Korean tune sounds Japanese or not. While musicians in other countries talk about crossing borders, music here has strategic uses.
The communist North Korea is dominated by patriotic work songs; South Korea celebrates history; mainland Japanese musicians absorb Western influences and reinvent them, but different rules apply on Okinawa. And China? How do you sum up the musical tastes of more than a billion people?
Although religious music still has an important place in Korean society, other traditional music survives only through government support. Traditional instruments are still common, however, with chimes, bells, gongs, zithers, flutes and double-headed drums used in folk music. The country’s most famous group, Samul Nori, plays a variety of folk known as nongak, which involves barrel drums, hourglass drums, gongs and a spectacular whirling dance. The group are so famous that, thanks to exposure during the 2002 World Cup and the Seoul Olympics, an entire genre has sprung up bearing its name.
Partly as a result of overseas influence, popular music on the peninsula has been dominant since the second half of the twentieth century. The Japanese occupation saw the arrival of ppongtchak, a deliberate attempt to spread the imperialists’ culture into its satellites. From 1950, American influence was strongest in the south, and Ch’oe Hi-jun became a star because he sounded like America’s greatest asset in the early years of the Cold War, Nat King Cole.
The following decades saw pop developing in ways similar to the West: the 1970s introduced tong guitar, corresponding to American protest folk; pap, a variation on hippy singer-songwriters; and eventually indigenous rock, dance and rap, each using Korean idioms to retain a unique flavour.
North Korea, in contrast, has been locked in a communist time warp since 1953. Music is rigorously controlled there, with military bands, factory choirs and faux pop all singing the praises of the party, the state and the joys of work rather than celebrating imperialist fripperies such as love.
It is the world’s second-biggest market for music, but to outsiders Japan is a stronghold of bubblegum pop, with teen singers queuing up for their 15 seconds of fame. The view from inside is very different. Classical music – orchestral, theatrical and Buddhist – all retain strong followings, and the three paradigm instruments are the shakuhachi flute, koto zither and the shamisen lute, all of which have centuries of history and feature in contemporary music.
Folk music (minyo) differs from the Western form, in that it is regulated by guilds and requires extensive apprenticeships – you cannot just stand up, stick your finger in your ear and sing. As a result, professional performers, such as Asano Sanae, are all of an extremely high standard.
Until 1868, Japan had been isolated from outside influences, thus protecting its indigenous musics. When the walls...
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