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A Symbol of Korean Cheerfulness & Festive Fun, Nongak

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Entered Last November on the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

 

K-Pop music is hot in overseas music markets. Lots of foreign people watch K-Pop music videos on YouTube (the world’s largest video sharing site) and say that it is exciting, speedy, and rhythmic. In other words, they think that K-Pop is fun. At the core of K-Pop there is nongak, a traditional Korean music genre performed by farmers. It is an important part of Korean culture and represents the cheerfulness of the Korean people.
Nongak has added amusement whether farmers are working in the fields, holding memorial services for their ancestors, or celebrating the holidays. Recently, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) inscribed the nongak custom on the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The decision was made at the 9th Meeting of the UNESCO Committee for the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, which was held in Paris last November. The UNESCO experts paid particular attention to the facts that nongak is a multifunctional and multiform element widely practiced in the Korean society; that it provides its performers and participants with a sense of identity; and that it strengthens the communal spirit and the sense of belonging between them.

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Performed with Percussion Instruments such as Kkwaenggwari and Jing…Characteristics Differ According to the Region


In general, 20 people are needed to perform nongak. This group of people is called nongak-pae. It consists of flag bearers, musicians, and dancers wearing masks. Nongak mainly uses Korean percussion instruments: kkwaenggwari (small gong), jing (gong), janggu (hourglass shaped double-headed drum), buk (drum), sogo (small drum), and others. Among them, kkaenggwari is the instrument leading the rhythm and melody of the music.
Nongak has been transmitted from generation to generation in different forms according to the region. The four major types are those of the Honam region (Jeolla Province), the Yeongnam region (Gyeongsang Province), the Gyeonggi region, and the Gangwon region. The nongak of the Honam region is characterized by a lilting melody and diverse rhythms. The nongak of Yeongnam is very speedy and features sangmo-nori (twirling of sangmo, a traditional cap used during the performance). The nongak of the Gyeonggi region has a dazzling display of dance, so it has a lot to show. Finally, a speedy kkaenggwari-oriented melody has developed in the Gangwon region in particular.

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Conveys the Unique Korean Values of Worshipping Nature and Ancestors


Since olden times, Korean people have believed in the harmony of yin and yang (negative and positive) and of the five elements (fire, wood, water, metal, and earth). They have also been worshipping nature and their ancestors. Each percussion instrument used in nongak signifies a different natural phenomenon. The high pitch of kkwaenggwari stands for thunder and lightning. The baritone of buk means earth and clouds. The sound of janggu signifies rain and that of jing means wind. In this way, Koreans incessantly communicate with nature through nongak and perform this music to pray for a good crop.
Nongak plays a major role in village events and festivals as well as in farm work. Members of a village dance and play the instruments together for their village to be peaceful. Villagers also communicate with each other and build up a greater community spirit through nongak. The tradition and its development to the present form are deeply linked to the seasonal customs of the Korean people.
Nongak was registered by the Korean government as Important Intangible Cultural Property Number 11. The system of Important Intangible Cultural Heritage designates the items of great historical, artistic, and scientific value. Some of the items on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage―the music of Korean royal ancestral rites, Arirang (the representative Korean folk song), and pansori (a kind of Korean folk play)―are also inscribed on the list of Korean Important Intangible Cultural Property.


Additional Information

What is the difference between nongak and samul-nori?

 


Samul-nori (a traditional Korean percussion quartet) is relatively well known to foreign people. Many confuse nongak and samul-nori. Samul-nori is a music genre derived from nongak. It is played on only four percussion instruments: kkwaenggwari, jing, buk, and janggu. Nongak is generally characterized by a variety of dance performances, but there is no special dance to accompany samul-nori. Nongak needs a large group of people to be performed, whereas samul-nori can be played with only four participants―one for each percussion instrument. Nongak is usually played outdoors and the players stand during the performance, but samul-nori is common indoors and the performers sit on the floor.

Park Sung Eun  parkse@agrinet.co.kr

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