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Songs about islands

#Sounds of Korea l 2023-06-22

Sounds of Korea

Songs about islands

Ramie and hemp fabrics were popular summer textiles in Korea. Both were woven with fibers extracted from a plant called cannabis, better known as the ingredient of marijuana, but ramie fabric or ‘mosi’ in Korean is whiter and finer than hemp fabric. Ramie fabric made with the finest thread is called ‘semosi세모시.” The best among the semosi fabrics produced in Korea is Hansan semosi, a local specialty of the Hansan region in Chungcheongnam-do Province. The semosi fabric is so thin and delicate that a set of hanbok made with Hansan semosi can be rolled into a small ball when wetted with water. The fabric is perfect for summer since starching and ironing makes the fabric light and airy, resembling, in old people’s words, a pair of dragonfly wings. Wearing hanbok made with Hansan semosi was a luxury only the most affluent ladies could afford in the old days. There is a song entitled “Hansan Semosi” passed down in Goheung, Jeollanam-do Province. Its lyrics describe well-made semosi clothes in detail.

Pleats are fine and hems are broad. 

Hansan semosi is like the wings of a cicada or a dragonfly. 

Brush off the skirt and let’s go see a band play. 

Here the band means a sadangpae or a traveling band of musicians. Although he didn’t specify in the song, the writer of the song probably hoped to find a love interest during the outing as well. Here’s Jeong Yeong-yeob, a resident of Goheung in southwest Korea, singing “Hasan Semosi.”

Hansan Semosi/ Sung by Jeong Yeong-yeob

In the old days, there were ordinary residents who sang just as well as professional singers in almost every village. Perhaps their talents were naturally cultivated because Koreans used to sing all the time, like when they weeded the fields, wove fabric on a loom, or took a break from work. Jindo in Jeollanam-do Province, in particular, was an area famous for ordinary folks who loved music and were good at singing. Even today, grab anyone at a market and ask him or her to sing, he or she will be more than glad to belt out a song. It is said that when a stranger comes to town, village women working out in the fields would stop him and ask him to sing to judge his musical talent. 

Jindo’s iconic song is “Jindo Arirang,” which almost every Korean knows. More often than not, get-togethers in Korea would include people singing “Jindo Arirang.” But surprisingly, “Jindo Arirang” doesn’t have a long history. “Sanaji Taryeong산아지 타령” was the most well-known folksong in the southern region, but daegeum 대금virtuoso Park Jong-ki박종기, famous for creating the genre of daegeum sanjo산조 or daegeum freestyle solo, arranged the folksong to compose “Jindo Arirang.” Let’s listen to “Jindo Arirang” sung by Jindo residents and traditional singer Kim Yong-woo. 

Jindo Arirang/ Sung by Kim Yong-woo and Jindo residents

Singing a song together like this helps to bond people and to open up their hearts to one another. Eventually, people would tell each other’s joys and sorrows, such as badmouthing their mean mothers-in-law behind their backs or brag about their well-to-do sons and daughters. Such chats would have given ordinary folks some energy to live another day. 

Coming up next is “Island Arirang” by Noh Ol-ryang노올량. This song is a part of Noh Ol-ryang’s project of writing songs based on the lives of islanders. Today’s song is about Nabaldo Island located near Yeosu여수 on the southern coast of Korea. Its lyrics go like the following:

My name is Kim Won-ja. I’m the prettiest Chunhyang춘향 on the island.

I live happily, playing cards with my friends and watching TV.

My legs hurt sometimes, but I’m happy with my husband Bangja방자.

Is that so, is that so. I really didn’t know. 

I had no idea. Let’s give each other a hug, my love. 

It’s lovely to hear the island’s old ladies sing the song. Let’s wrap up this week’s episode with No Ol-ryang and island residents singing “Island Arirang – Nabaldo Island.” 

Island Arirang – Nabaldo Island/ Sung by No Ol-ryang and island residents 

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