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What is Minyo?

1. Introduction

Minyo, a group of common people's songs, was transmitted from mouth to mouth and was created either by a group of people or by a single person. Minyo is an art. Rooted in life, it directly expresses the way of common people's life, emotions, and thoughts. Minyo was sung as people worked, performed rituals, or played. Minyo existed largely out of the necessity of life. It was sung in order to aide the work. In singing, the rhythm of labor emerges; and the rhythmic movement eases the labor physically and mentally. Singing together furthermore produces unified physical movements and synchronizes the workers' motions. Thus rooted in and created from the rhythms of work, Minyo emerged for the purpose of labor and gradually developed into several different directions. Furthermore, closely related to common people's life, in the case of ritual songs, Minyo contained a magical quality and was used as a means of communication between people and the spirits or souls. Examples are: the earth spirit consolation songs and dance, the funeral march songs, and the tomb building songs. There are songs to aide recreational plays such as women's song of circular play, the seesaw songs, and the gate play songs.

Accordingly, Minyo expresses the joy of life sustained in work, the joy of unleashing the life force from the mother earth through one's labor, and the pleasure of common folk's life in work. However, our current life and culture are undergoing a state of confusion by the influences of commercialism and decadence of the western culture. The songs that we hear nowadays--the melodies that are easy to listen to and to sing along--are the products of the mass medias. They do not express the folk life of common people and may misrepresent our authentic way of life. To overcome the current trends, it is desirable to cultivate our own Minyo that expresses our life, stands in tune with our work, and promotes the well-being of workers.

2. Types of Minyo

  1. Traditional Minyo

    The traditional Minyo is created by people as a whole, is widely sung and perpetuated by common people. It is a musical art wholly reflecting their life, thoughts, and emotions.

    Common songs are called Gayo, where Ga refers to a song determined by a fixed compositional form accompanied by the string or woodwind instruments, and Yo refers to a song not determined by a form and is sung without instrumental accompaniment. Before the name Minyo was used, these songs have been referred to as PungyoSokyoSoreeTaryung, and others. Pungyo means songs that float around as if in the wind; Sokyo means secular songs or songs that are sung by secular people; Soree means songs that are directly connected to labor; and Taryung means songs that are sung with rattling of bells and refers to the emotional songs that spontaneously express the various aesthetic experiences of labor. The latter belongs to a sub- and fringe category of Minyo and is a product of the declining period of the 17th century's feudal society. In the 19th century these various names were unified into one as Minyo. Nowadays, the term Minyo is commonly refers to as old songs. In order to promote and develop Minyo, we need to look into its social values.

    1. Ideological values -- Minyo was sung by the oppressed people.
    2. Artistic values -- in the selection of themes and in the capture of poetic moments Minyo contains the subtlety and concreteness of emotional analysis.
    3. Academic values -- Minyo is a good reference material expressing the history and the rich experiences of Korean folks' labor and struggle.

  2. Contemporary/Modern Minyo

    Based on the traditional Minyo, the modern Minyo arose as a result of the rise of the modern civic consciousness caused by the 19th century's continuous foreign invasions, its rapid collapse of the feudal society, and Japan's severe oppression; and provided a means of accommodating the corresponding changes in the life styles of laborers, farmers, and of fishermen; and has developed into a so-called modern or a new Minyo.

    In the new Minyo, the traditional lyrics (poems) are changed and sung; and the western rhythms are partially or wholly adopted for its structure. The new Minyo satirizes the money oriented society, contains the courageous opposition to the mother-in-law's dominance, encourages Korea's independence from Japanese occupation, expresses country maids' joy and sorrow as being sent to the city in marriage, depicts the laborers leaving for work to Japan, South America, Manchuria, or to Russia. The new Minyo exhibits the life of our people at the time. The essence of the new (modern) Minyo--the ever renewed approach to the changing times and circumstances--can be understood as functioning as a bridge to one of the post 1980's Minyo renaissance phenomena, i.e., the creative Minyo movement.

  3. Creative Minyo

    Continuing the spirit of Minyo already mentioned, the creative Minyo adapts to the present time. As in the traditional Minyo, in the analysis of the creative Minyo, too, the problem of identifying the structure (form) that contains the essence of our people's folk life is most important. Although it is difficult to assess it accurately in the absence of active contemporary discussions, it can be done by examining the current trends.

    The creative Minyo can be divided into two kinds, depending on the subject matter and the creative process: the first, the songs evolving around the lyrical poems; the second, the songs created by the authentic laborers who are directly connected to the production in their work places.

    One of the criticisms about the creative Minyo is that it rides mostly on the contemporary western rhythms and melodies often related to the drug culture, and thus not adhering to the method of the traditional Minyo. Although the creative Minyo in its contents deals with common people's joy and sorrow and their will to live, its forms are rudimentary and individualistic. The reason for this disparity might be that in the post Industrial Revolution music is separated from labor; and we are accustomed to the disco or rap music, which does not fit the rhythms of labor and which goes faster than Minyo, in the midst of the overwhelming mass media.

    The phenomena of the contemporary Minyo illustrate that the musical form of Korean people does not remain merely traditional and that it must be contextualized in the present reality of the people in a way that can be easily transmitted and enjoyed. Such a form is possible only if its content is full of folk spirit. The creation of Minyo thus far has been individualistic and was driven by manual work and labor. Based on its development, Minyo has now reached a stage where it must be systematically and scientifically defined and established; and the burden of such a task must be borne by many.

3. Ways of Singing Minyo

More than others, the reason for expansive use of minyo in the lives of the people in the past was that it played a significant role in harmonizing and unifying their daily lives. These minyos were sometimes sung by an individual, but mostly sung by groups of singers participating in "call and response." An individual or a group of singers will respond with a duitsori (refrain), which is usually agreed upon and is known by others, to a apsori (call) from an individual or a group of singers. Unlike the refrain, a call may be changed or improvised by a singer depending on the mood and atmosphere.

  1. Singing Together

    Minyo is usually sung in this manner when there is a group of people. However, this format can become rather dull if there is no conscious effort to remind oneself of the meaning of "singing together" or to encourage each other by raising the singing to "shouting". Holding hands and shaking them back and forth may help increase enjoyment. Singing would also be interesting with matching rhythmic movements.

  2. Alternating

    Singers are divided into two groups such as male and female or some other division, and they sing in turn. It best shows the pleasure of exchanging turns during singing. This format is most often used in the field songs among traditional minyo.

  3. Calling and Responsing

    Songs, such as Kwaejina Chingchingnahneh, whose refrains are fixed, are lead with a call and then responded to with a refrain. Call and Response may take on various forms: an individual might call with many responding, many might call together with many responding, or an individual or a group of singers might call with other individuals or groups of singers taking turns with a response. The act of give and take represented by this call and response method creates exhilaration during singing.

  4. Singing a Round

    Another fun way of singing is to sing a round. In a small gathering, sing one at a time. In a large gathering, divide into small groups to sing one group at a time.

  5. Singing in Sinawi

    Sinawi is an impromptu symphonic ensemble. Each person sings his/her own songs freely with impromptu melody after listening to others and by being aware of the overall rhythm and frame of the whole song. A few individuals can undermine the harmony of the entire group by ignoring the overall rhythm. One must avoid being self-absorbed in their singing. He or she must respect and must be aware of each other's hoheup (breathing) and rhythm. Sinawi is a way to strengthen the unity of the group and to reach a summit by finding harmony within one another. A choral song like dontaryung can be improvised and sung in the way of sinawi.