When talking about Korea, the word ‘Arirang’ comes to mind. It is both very well-known in Korea and outside. ‘Arirang’ (아리랑) is a famous Korean folk song and is sometimes referred to as the unofficial national anthem of Korea. It is a song that shows the different emotions of happiness, sadness, anger and joy, and is a symbol of the Korean people.
The exact origin and creator of Arirang is unknown, however it was sung by farmers in paddy fields showing all human emotions, especially of sorrow during hardships. It has now developed into a song that represents all Korean people of the Korean Peninsula. There were no strict lyrics as it was orally passed down through generations.
Although, the exact origin of Arirang is not known, Jeongseon Arirang has been sung for more than 600 years. Jeongseon is a county in Gangwon Province. Kim Young-un, from Hanyang University says that many people in Gangwon Province used to sing this song (Arari) whilst doing farming work or working alone. In the late 19th century, Gyeongbok Palace was being reconstructed with lumber. The source of lumber was in Gangwon, so workers had to transport it from there to Seoul and sang ‘Arirang’ as they worked. The people of Seoul heard this and made it their own.
Today, the most famous version of Arirang is that of Seoul. It is called Bonjo Arirang. Bonjo means ‘standard’ Arirang, but this ‘standard’ version is more widely known as just ‘Arirang’. It is also called Seoul Arirang or Gyeonggi Arirang. Gyeonggi is a province in South Korea, and Seoul is located in it.
The song ‘Arirang’ is based around the Arirang Pass (아리랑 고개) which is an imaginary place of meeting for lovers in the land of dreams. However, there is a real mountain pass, of the same name outside the small east Gate of Seoul. This particular pass was called Jeongneung Pass and was renamed as Arirang in 1926, to commemorate the release of the film “Arirang”.
The song is about a maid from Miryang, who sings about the unrequited love she experiences and complains about her lover. She hopes that her departing lover will have sore feet before he has gone ten li (approx. two and a half miles) and have to return to her.
The word ‘Arirang’ has no direct meaning, however it is thought to mean ‘beautiful dear’ or are words to show the feelings of sorrow of the singer. Overall, the song represents yearning, loneliness and overcoming hardships in daily life. Arirang’s emotions can be felt by anyone transcending time, politics, class, religion etc.
The many versions of the song describing the travails of the subjects encounters while crossing a mountain pass. Arirang Pass symbolises the history of Korean people’s frustration and hardships as well as their persistence in overcoming problems.
There are many variations of ‘Arirang’ which vary from region to region and generations. Also the lyrics vary from singer to singer. These variations of the song are called differently, with the name of the region being the prefix to the word, ‘Arirang’. The differences are based on the lyrics, the slight difference in melody, the timing of when the two-line refrain is sung and the emotional sound of the song. ‘Arirang’ can be sung in a happy way or in a sad way, although the song represents ‘Han’. ‘Han’ means the feelings of oppression and isolation in overwhelming odds. The tune is catchy and has a melody that can be remembered after one listen.
The standard version of Arirang (Seoul Arirang/Gyeonggi Arirang) has many verses, but most other verses are not as frequently sung as is the first verse.
아리랑, 아리랑, 아라리요…
아리랑 고개로 넘어간다.
나를 버리고 가시는 님은
십리도 못가서 발병난다.
Arirang, Arirang, Arariyo…
Arirang gogaero neomeoganda.
Nareul beorigo gasineun nimeun
Sibrido motgaseo balbyeongnanda.
Arirang, Arirang, Arariyo…
Crossing over Arirang Pass.
Dear who abandoned me here
Shall not walk even ten li before his/her feet hurt.
In the other verses, Baekdu Mountain is mentioned, as can be seen in this link (x). This mountain is currently located in North Korea. It is considered as the place of the Korean people’s ancestral origin and is sacred.
Heaven Lake, Baekdu Mountain
Kim Young Im performing Bonjo Arirang
The three most famous folk versions of Arirang, which are older than the standard version are:
- Jeongseon Arirang (정선 아리랑) from Jeongseon County in Gangwon Province;
- Jindo Arirang (진도 아리랑) from Jindo County in South Jeolla Province;
- Miryang Arirang(밀양 아리랑) from Miryang in South Gyeongsang Province.
All three of these versions of Arirang have a similar melody and represent Korean sentiment.
Kim Duk-soo is seen in the video
Kim Young Im performing Jeongseon Arirang
Song So Hee performing Jindo Arirang
A little bit about Miryang Arirang
The words in the first line of the refrain are sounds of bitter sorrow at parting. This song was composed by Kim Dong Jin. Miryang Arirang is a love song about a girl from Miryang, who was left behind by her lover from Hanyang, Seoul. She calls to him to take her with him to Hanyang. She believed that her own beauty was above all flowers in Hanyang.
Song So Hee performing Miryang Arirang
Miryang Arirang Performance
Unlike other versions of ‘Arirang’ that have been orally passed down from generation to generation with no specific composers, “Bonjo Arirang” is an exception, as it was composed for the theme song of film, “Arirang” which was written, acted, and directed by Na Woon-Gyu. In an interview, he explains, “I produced the song. When I was in elementary school, I could hear the labourers from south who were constructing the railway continually singing the verse ‘Arirang, Arirang.’ Then after years, I came up to the capital [Seoul] and looked for the original song, but unfortunately I couldn’t find any clues. So there was no other way, but to remember back the melody as much as I could and write lyrics by myself.”
The film was released October 1st 1926 and became very popular across the country. People started to sing the theme song, “Bonjo Arirang” as a way of expressing their sorrow. Since then, it has been recognized as a piece of music that embodies the spirit of the nation, not only reflecting grief, but also joy Korea’s freedom and independence.
Arirang has been performed by many foreign bands and orchestras, with their own lyrics but which are similar to the original Korean version. These include the American composer, John Barnes Chance, who based his 1965 concert band composition: Variations on a Korean Folk Song on a version of Arirang, which he heard in Korea in the late 1950s, Pete Seeger, who was an American Folk Singer and anti-war musician and many more people and groups.
It has also been mentioned in some K-Pop songs, such as ToppDogg’s Arario. They mention Arirang Gogae or Arirang Pass.
On most TV boxes, there is the channel called ‘Arirang’ which broadcasts different aspects of Korea, from Pop Culture to documentaries about the history of Korea.
There have been two films, named ‘Arirang’, released in 1926 and 2011.
Kim Yuna skated to Arirang at the 2011 World Figure Skating Championships.
At the 2013 Universiade Closing Ceremony in Kazan, Russia, there was a cultural performance introducing the culture of Korea. The performance consisted of K-pop and Korean traditional performances. The performers were Park Aeri, ,EXO, Gwangju Municipal troupe, and local Korean people residing in Kazan. A traditional Korean folk song ‘Kejina chingching nanae’ was performed at the end with all the acts.
EXO and Park Aeri backstage at 2013 Universiade Closing Ceremony in Kazan
The performance starts from 1:49:23. The next Universiade will be held in Gwangju, South Korea in 2015.
Park Aeri is a Pansori singer. Pansori is a genre of musical storytelling performed by a singer and a drummer playing the barrel drum, Buk. Pansori is derived from pan, which means place where many people gather and sori meaning sound.
The different versions of Arirang have been sung by many K-Pop singers, including Kim Jaejoong of JYJ, who sang Bonjo Arirang at KBS1’s Arirang Concert at the Blue House in December 2013.
Song So Hee is a young, talented folk singer/Gugak singer, who has been recognised for her great voice and talent in folk singing. She has performed in many shows, showcasing her skills in performing different variations of folk songs from different regions of Korea.
Minyo is traditional folk singing and Gugak is traditional Korean music.
She has performed different versions of Arirang:
She was also on ‘Immortal Song 2’, where she did a traditional take on Cho Young Nam’s ‘Can’t Live Without Love’.
About Song So Hee: http://www.korea.net/NewsFocus/People/view?articleId=118215
Arirang Festival or the Mass Games, is a festival which takes place in capital city of North Korea, Pyeongyang.
On December 5th 2012, Arirang was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. UNESCO introduced this traditional song as “an evocative hymn with the power to enhance communication and unity among the Korean people, whether at home or abroad.”
Arirang and Me
In June 2012, I had the chance to see a traditional Korean performance, with Pungmul dancers and a group performing an upbeat/modern version of Arirang. This happened at the MBC Korean Culture Festival in London 2012. The performance was very enjoyable to watch and listen to.
On Friday 10th October 2014, the London Korean Drama Club’s Daehan Drama Awards 2014 took place at Bulgari Hotel, South Kensington.I saw KAYA perform. KAYA is a duo formed of the Kayagum player, Jung Ji-eun and acoustic guitarist, Jeon Sung-min. They performed four compositions, including the drama OST The Flower Day from Hwang Jini and their own take of Arirang, to show the various emotions of the Korean people.
Arirang Flashmob in Insadong, Korea
Learn more about Arirang: