Much of Asia recently celebrated the start of the new lunar year, and here in Korea I attended another kind of annual celebration – a sort of reunion of old friends. As I understand it (and my level of understanding here in Korea isn’t high) there was a small village located on an island (밤섬) in the Han River in Seoul. This community was known for their repairing of ships, and it was here that boats in need of maintenance would port. In the late 1960s, though, the government forced the community off the island, and today the island is empty. The villagers moved their shrine to Mapo, a neighborhood not far from the island, rebuilding it piece by piece. Today it is surrounded by the tall apartment buildings which are ubiquitous in this city,  and there’s more than a little contrast between the small traditional structure and the modern concrete monoliths encircling it. The villagers don’t actually live in these buildings,  but each year they return for one day of ritual and celebration with a group of shamans and musicians.

The shrine itself isn’t big at all,  and once it’s filled with musicians, villagers, onlookers, and hordes of cameramen it feels cramped. And it was cold. Very cold. So this wasn’t the most comfortable way to spend a day. Nearly everyone there (including me) had some big camera hanging from their neck, looking the part of a photojournalist. And acting it.  The way some members of the crowd managed to push their way to the front to get their photos reminded me more of a Seoul subway ride than of a shaman ritual. Not feeling cut out for the role of paparazzi photog, I opted to hang out in the back for the first half of the day. Once the music and ceremony began, the mood of the place warmed even if the temperature didn’t.

Even with so many spectators, it seemed the musicians, shamans and villagers were unaware of our presence. The ritual began with the lead shaman (there were other shamans there as well) chanting and playing the janggu – the Korean hourglass-shaped drum. This incantation (if that’s what it was: I didn’t understand the words, nor did the Korean woman sitting beside me) lasted a long time. I couldn’t say how long, just as I can’t ever say how long a classic Philip Glass piece lasts. Highly-repetitive music always seems to make quantifying the passing of time difficult, and that’s why I don’t even know how long anything lasted throughout the day. I know that the whole ceremony must have been 6 or 7 hours long, with a break for lunch. There was a smooth progression of mood and emotion throughout the ceremony: it began quietly and somberly, but as it went it became more raucous and festive. The music was played  by a small ensemble of musicians with incredible stamina: taegeum (a Korean flute), piri (Korean oboe), haegeum (fiddle), janggu and buk (a small drum).  There was dancing and drinking not unlike one might find at the local noraebang (Karaoke parlor), and a lot of money changed hands (all of it from the villagers’ hands to the shamans’). The villagers would often step out to eat, drink, or chat throughout the day, and it made me wonder if perhaps more people might enjoy the Ring Cycle if they knew they could enjoy a 10-minute escape from the concert to drink a glass of wine.

I, with the other onlookers, got the feeling that we were watching something which might soon become extinct. I overheard that the shamans were disappointed with the small number of villagers that had come out, and it seems that each year fewer are returning to the shrine. I felt fortunate to be there to take part in this ceremony, and to meet some of the villagers. Thanks to Prof. Yong Shik Lee, who literally wrote the book on this subject, for bringing me along. Some pictures of the event are below.