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Gugak star Song So-hee: ‘Gugak is my destiny’

“Gugak is my destiny.”

Young singer Song So-hee confidently stated that she is meant to sing gugak, a genre of traditional Korean music. Gugak, which she first started singing at the request of her parents, has now become the all consuming element in the life of the 18-year-old starlet.

Traditional music star Song So-hee says that she was born to sing gugak. (photo: Jeon Han)

Traditional music star Song So-hee says that she was born to sing gugak. (photo: Jeon Han)


Born in 1997 in Yesan, Chungcheongnam-do (South Chungcheong Province), the young singer started performing gugak at the early age of five. Her first encounter with gugak was when she was brought by her parents to a gugak academy.

When she sang, “Gyeonggi Minyo,” a traditional folk song originating from Gyeonggi-do (Gyeonggi Province), she showed outstanding virtuosity, brilliant for her age, and she wowed the audience enough to make them believe that she had a real knack for gugak.

The parents’ beliefs proved true when Song won the National Sijo Contest in 2004. She then won the grand prize on the popular KBS show, "The National Singing Contest," in 2008.

The sweet-faced 11-year-old singer showed off such jaw-dropping singing ability that the audience was instantly captivated by her singing and got curious about who on earth was this young woman. Since then, she has been called a gugak prodigy.

In 2010, the government chose Song as "Best Korean of the Year," a yearly award, who graced and enriched the nation.

Gugak singer Song So-hee performs after being appointed honorary ambassador for the Presidential Committee for National Cohesion at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts on March 12. (photo: Jeon Han)

Gugak singer Song So-hee performs after being appointed honorary ambassador for the Presidential Committee for National Cohesion at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts on March 12. (photo: Jeon Han)


Song has also been active in promoting the nation's culture and arts, doing her obligation as an honorary ambassador both for the Korean National Commission for UNESCO and for the Presidential Committee for National Cohesion.

Recently, she has become something of a celebrity after she appeared in a series of commercials and TV shows.

Her mesmerizing gugak singing, coupled with her beautiful, now more mature, looks, has drawn attention from older fans, who have constituted most of her fan base until now. The young are slowly beginning to appreciate her as well. Recognition in the TV industry has earned her a new nickname, the "gugak idol."

Her popularity is now to go global, as the gugak star recently represented her nation at the closing ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia, on March 16. There, she sang the nation's popular folk song, "Arirang," in front of a global audience. With that song, she sent a message of hope to all participating athletes and also announced to the world that Pyeongchang will be the next host for the Winter Olympics.

On March 12, Korea.net sat down with Song, who was soon leaving for Sochi, to gain some insight into her talent and into her love for classical Korean music.

* Interview with Song So-hee

- In this day and age, gugak can be somewhat unfamiliar and sometimes difficult to properly appreciate. Tell us what got you into gugak and how you started.

It wasn't me that wanted to do gugak at first. My parents encouraged me to learn the genre when I was five. They thought I had some artistic and musical talent, so they took me to several private lessons where I learned how to play piano, how to draw and gugak techniques, all together.

I was quick to pick up gugak, amongst the other skills, and started focusing more on traditional music. Then I began to get more attracted to the music itself and started dreaming of becoming a traditional singer.

- When was the, "Yes, this is it. This is what I'm meant to be," moment?

I didn't have such an “ah-ha” moment. It just came naturally to me. The more gugak songs I sang, the more familiar I got with them all and the prouder I felt.

Gugak singer Song So-hee says that she feels proud whenever she sings what she calls, “the sound of Korea.” (photo: Jeon Han)

Gugak singer Song So-hee says that she feels proud whenever she sings what she calls, “the sound of Korea.” (photo: Jeon Han)


- How do you keep your voice as clear and as strong as it sounds?

I practice every day. If I go a day without practicing, my voice sounds clogged-up. I once skipped practice one day, and since that disaster I make sure to practice every single day.

To keep my voice in good condition, I sleep with a scarf wrapped around my neck. That’s why I have a whole pile of scarves, sent to me by my fans.

I also make a point of drinking pear juice. Friends ask me if the juice contains any herbal medicine, an invigorant or something. Yes, that’s true. It’s made of some restorative ingredients, which really help to keep my voice clear.

In addition, I always practice breathing from the abdomen. The method is a good way to strengthen my voice as well. As I have done this since I was little, I naturally have abdominal muscles. Doing situps is another good practice I often do to help me breathe out as long as possible.

- You have quite a large fan base of more than 6,000 and you have been active in many commercial commitments, appearing in many TV advertisements and entertainment shows. Is there any special reason you’ve chosen to be more exposed on TV?

When I first started in this career, I thought I would follow after other gugak performers, I mean, the usual path, where I would become a living cultural asset and do performances only for gugak aficionados or something like that.

Suddenly, I came to think that, ’If I do that, gugak will end up only being heard by a limited number of people and would be little-known in the wider audience, as it has always been.’

I believed that it was more important to get the public more exposed to gugak by performing in front of as many people as I could and appearing in as many programs as I could.

I decided to accept the offers in the hope that the idea and sound of gugak would cross the minds of viewers at least once, whenever they see me on screen.

I really appreciate all the many people for supporting me. I didn’t realize how popular gugak had become until I saw so many people, not just older gugak fans, but those who had no interest in gugak at all before, coming to my performances and wanting to know more about my music. I feel so grateful that gugak, in the end, has come under the spotlight.

- Even though your parents first encouraged you to learn gugak, had it not been for your passion and your love for it, you would not be doing this now. Tell us what has kept you focused?

It’s all because of the support from my parents, my family and my friends. They have always been, and will always be, a source of strength and motivation for me. They are genuine gugak lovers. They are really proud to have such a beautiful traditional musician with them. Thinking of them, I believe that, ’I can’t give up just because gugak isn’t popular and is a bit far from the mainstream.’ Seeing more people opening their mind to gugak is great encouragement.

Gugak star Song So-hee says that she cannot imagine her life without classical Korean music. (photo: Jeon Han)

Gugak star Song So-hee says that she cannot imagine her life without classical Korean music. (photo: Jeon Han)


- You will sing “Arirang” at the closing ceremonies for the 2014 Sochi Paralympics. The world will be watching you. How do you feel? What message do you want to send to the world with “Arirang?”

This is the first time for me to represent Korea at an international event. I am so curious and nervous at the same time about how the world will think about my music. I feel so honored to represent my country. I feel a bit burdened, though, as well, since I have to do a good job there.

I feel privileged to let the world know that Pyeongchang is the next host for the Winter Olympics. I am greatly thankful for this opportunity.

- What’s your favorite song and what about the song attracts you? We wonder what kind of music is on your playlist.

I often listen to K-pop songs as well as gugak.

I listen to classical Korean music because I need to keep studying the art. Also, it’s because I really enjoy listening to gugak. These days, I am addicted to one song: “Biikryeonri” by haegeum performer Ccotbyel. The haegeum is a violin-like traditional East Asian stringed instrument and the sounds created by the instrument in the song embrace so many emotions. I recommend all of you to definitely listen to the song. It’s really good.

- Have you ever reached the point where you feel like you want to give up?

I’ve never even had time to think about that. I have always believed that I can’t do anything except for gugak. I cannot imagine my life without traditional Korean music.

Of course, there was a moment when I once found it difficult to keep performing on stage. It was when I was less well-known than now. I was waiting for my time slot during a concert and when the host announced that the next performance was a gugak performance, some of the audience started to stand up and leave. I was really disappointed and didn’t want to sing any more, but the despair was short-lived. When I started singing, I felt happy again.

- Don’t you feel uncomfortable putting on makeup and wearing traditional attire all the time?

I’ve become accustomed to it. I’ve worn makeup and hanbok since I was a little girl. To be honest, I feel more comfortable in hanbok than in other Western clothes. I can do the required hand gestures more naturally in hanbok. Also, as my legs are hidden under the long hanbok skirt, I don’t care about where my arms or legs are. When I wear ordinary clothes, however, I don’t know where to put my hands.

I hate shopping. I usually wear clothes my mother herself chooses for me, but when it comes to hanbok, I choose all the designs and colors myself. I don’t wear just any old hanbok. I only wear exactly what I want, in terms of design and color.

I love girlish but elegant designs. I do have one favorite designer brand. Whenever I choose a set of hanbok, I talk to him a lot about the design and each of the colors. I draw a design and choose the colors all by myself, then I show them to my designer. He always creates exactly what I want.

- What are the characteristics of gugak that fascinate you the most?

There is an inexplicable, touching experience and a sense of great pride when I sing gugak, a feeling which cannot be found in other music.

- Is there anything you want to try with your gugak voice?

Well, I try to perform gugak in a manner that makes it more familiar for a younger audience. Music should change to match with the times, too. That’s why I’ve learned how to play piano and guitar, as well as the traditional drum-like janggu, the small, flat gong kkwaenggwari and the 12-stringed gayageum. It is to understand more about Western music, too.

I don’t want to be a singer whose musical range is restricted to just one tradition. I want to give some modern twists to my music. I hope I will perform more sophisticated, more modern, rich gugak, while keeping the traditions themselves alive.

I’m also interested in composing. I cannot afford to have time to do composing right now, as I juggle my schoolwork and gugak, but I hope to get deeper into composition someday, if I can.

Singer Song So-hee says that there’s something about gugak that cannot be found in other styles of music: a touching experience and a sense of pride. (photo: Jeon Han)

Singer Song So-hee says that there’s something about gugak that cannot be found in other styles of music: a touching experience and a sense of pride. (photo: Jeon Han)


- Finally, what does gugak mean to you?

I’ve received this question so many times. Every time, I think for a while and ask myself, ’What can I say so as to not sound too cliché?’ When I was younger, I always gave too formal an answer: ’Gugak is my destiny.’ Now, however, that is the exact answer I want to give. Yes, gugak is my destiny, I would say.

If I had not displayed a natural talent for music at such an young age, if my parents had not noticed that talent, if they had not encouraged me to give it a try singing at the National Singing Competition, or if I had given up halfway, I would never have come this far. All those things did happen, however. Given all these things, I think that gugak is my destiny and it is what I was born to do.

Gugak singer Song So-hee signs an autograph for Korean.net readers. It says, “Please give your support to gugak, the sound of Korea!”

Gugak singer Song So-hee signs an autograph for Korean.net readers. It says, “Please give your support to gugak, the sound of Korea!”


By Sohn JiAe
Korea.net Staff Writer
jiae5853@korea.kr  

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