Call me romantic (I’ve been called worse), but I have never met a folk music (or dance) I haven’t liked. For the closing, the students shared some of their music. Naturally, it needed to include the song Ahrirang, which is to Korea as Sakura is to Japan, La Cucuracha to Mexico and Frere Jacques to France, the tune most music teachers are likely to include in their “around the world” concert . They danced to a recorded pop version of it, complete with electric guitars, trap set and chord changes.
And why not? Korea has both feet planted in the 21st century and as in so many places these days, pop music is the soundtrack for the daily round. But when a lovely woman who joined the course yesterday danced a traditional fan dance to drums, cymbals and voice, I was mesmerized. What was the difference between this older folk form and the modernized dance and music?
Let’s just say that when this woman danced, she was not alone. You could feel the presence of the ancestors in her every gesture, the long centuries of that unique experience called Korean culture singing through each wave of the fan, the land itself somehow present in the women’s body. Pop has its place in the ecology of human culture, but its name betrays it— a short burst of energy, an evanescent bubble that quickly disappears, a present tense that is present only. Whereas the folk forms are the through-line that thickens the present moment by including the past and future. And brings the very landscape into the conversation. The music—and art—preserved in traditional cultures is born from the long conversation between the elements of weather, mountains, watersheds and fields (and all the winged and four-legged creatures that inhabit them) and the human beings living according to their graces and mercies.
Call me a hypocrite (I’ve been called worse) talking of the power of the land in the music, me whose most ambitious working of the earth has been growing cilantro in the planter box on my deck in San Francisco. But though it probably helps, one doesn’t have to farm the land to feel its presence in the arts of the people. Indeed, that’s one of the pleasures of art, allowing you to feel the power of presence without getting your hands too dirty or your feet too wet. Art as armchair travel.
The dance called up a small sadness that often visits me when I see such things—a sense of loss that I can’t find that ethnic identity that is wholly mine. As a Russian Jew by blood, Unitarian Christian by upbringing, Zen Buddhist by chosen practice, as a dabbler in West African drumming, Indonesian gamelan, Bulgarian bagpipe and jazz piano, as a lover of Whitman, Rumi, Basho, Rilke, as an enthusiastic eater of all cuisines, as an urban habitant who loves to backpack, to which and whom do I belong? Where is the song and dance that is wholly mine? I asked this question once to the poet David Whyte and he replied, “Your home is at the crossroads between them all.” Fair enough. But still I envied the dancer. And was grateful to witness something so essentially Korean.
More to say later about my short time in Korea, but now I’m off to Japan, winging from the world’s second largest city to the first by some ten million people—Tokyo.