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A Haegeum class before the pandemic. Photo: Sosun Suh.

Reviving traditional Korean music (virtually) at the Korean Cultural Centre

By Gloria Song on June 18, 2020

The Korean Cultural Centre (KCC) in Ottawa has been able to keep some of its traditional music lessons music going during the COVID-19 pandemic by teaching them virtually on Zoom. They even held a music recital in the form of a concert video to showcase student performances.

Last year, the KCC launched K-Academy, a series of semester-long, hands-on classes that allow Canadians to experience various aspects of traditional Korean culture, including cooking (Hansik), painting (Minhwa), martial arts (Taekwondo), paper crafts (Hanji), and board games (Baduk). Using donated traditional instruments from the National Gugak Center in Korea, the KCC also offers group lessons in traditional Korean dance, a type of Korean flute called the danso, and the haegeum, a two-stringed instrument played with a bow that is somewhat akin to the violin and the Chinese erhu.

As a second-generation Korean-Canadian living in Ottawa, I was really excited to sign up for a unique chance to learn more about my Korean heritage. I first signed up for the danso classes last year, and then the haegeum classes this year. Both are led by instructor and musician Sosun Suh, who played the haegeum professionally as part of the Gangwon Provincial Music Orchestra in South Korea before immigrating to Canada in 2003.

Haegeum lessons on Zoom. Photo: Sosun Suh.

I was pleasantly surprised to see many non-Korean Canadians enrolled. “I am super interested in Korean culture and I think traditional music is a fantastic way to learn more about a country,” explained one of my classmates, Caycee Price. Another classmate, Jenny Yee, agreed. “It’s been fun to learn about the Korean culture and history through traditional music and instruments. I really appreciate all the classes that the KCC organizes, giving us a chance to learn and experience various aspects of the Korean culture here in Canada,” she told me. “When I found out that they were making a haegeum class, I was signing up right away. I have a Chinese erhu, so I thought learning the haegeum can also help with learning the principles of the erhu.”

Like many civilizations, Korea has a history of music performance that dates back thousands of years. The original form of the haegeum came from Mongolian nomads who spread their instruments to other surrounding regions, arriving in Korea over a thousand years ago during the Go Dynasty.

Unfortunately, when Japan occupied Korea under colonial rule during the first half of the 20th century, Japanese authorities made extensive efforts to suppress and erase traditional Korean music and other forms of Korean culture, including by expelling Korea’s Joseon Dynasty court musicians. As a result, instructor Sosun Suh explained to me, the generations that grew up under and after the forced occupation may have been socialized to be ashamed of their culture and to see Korean music as inferior to other forms of music, such as Western music, and did not have as much interest in traditional Korean music.

A haegeum class before the pandemic. Photo: Sosun Suh.

“They had a very negative image,” Sosun said. “But now that K-pop is more popular, Korean people think maybe Korean music might be good. Now they want more traditional Korean music.” She noted that the popularity of Korean drama television shows all over the world has also sparked international interest in the country’s music.

One of Sosun’s goals is to feed that interest through teaching haegeum classes as well as through her K-Fiddle YouTube channel: “I want to show people this traditional Korean instrument, and that there are so many different kinds of instruments in the world. When people think of instruments, they only think of Western instruments. I want to show more of Korea through my music.

“The Korean community here in Ottawa is very small. I want to show my instrument to Korean people and also Canadians. Canada is a multicultural country! Music is a very good tool to show a culture.”

Sosun’s efforts through the Korean Cultural Centre’s music classes seem to have been successful in broadening that exposure. “I like that it’s quite easy to learn the basics and to start playing songs. Sosun has also taught us traditional and western songs, making it interesting and fun to learn,” said Jenny.

“I like playing Arirang most, because it’s a well-loved Korean folk song that all Koreans instantly recognize and I feel closest to Korean culture when I play it,” Caycee told me when I asked her what she liked to play. “I also love playing the old songs because it’s fun to imagine being part of a King’s court music ensemble.”

Sosun is delighted at her students’ enthusiasm. When I asked her what her favourite part of teaching the class was, her answer was unequivocal: “When you ask me for more songs, more questions, more scales, new things. I love teaching it. I want to teach more…When they [non-Korean students] want to learn more about the haegeum, I feel proud of myself, and proud of Korea.”

Unfortunately, when the pandemic forced the KCC to close its premises, the in-person lessons had to stop. However, students’ keen interest continued. “After discussing with the instructor and the students, we have decided to try moving Haegeum class on-line via Zoom live-interact time and YouTube video lessons and thankfully, they have been a success,” explained You Lim Kim, Program Coordinator for the Korean Cultural Centre, who also goes by Chloe. “It was our first time trying an online cultural class. Without Instructor Sosun Suh’s passion and enthusiasm for teaching and the students’ participation and patience, it would not have been such a smooth experience.”

Although K-Academy classes usually conclude with a recital to showcase students’ performances, this year the haegeum class opted to produce a concert video instead, with each student recording their part individually at home. Sosun then edited the video to show the whole class playing together at the same time, performing diverse pieces such as the traditional folk song Arirang, the famous court music Sooyeonjang, and more popular tunes such as Love Me Tender and even Baby Shark.

For the other K-Academy classes that weren’t able to go virtual, the KCC launched “Virtual K-Culture” which offers a variety of cultural content online, including performances, visual arts, cinema, a K-pop relay dance, webtoon stories, and Hansik recipes. You Lim hopes to be able to resume the fall semester of K-Academy, but that will depend on whether they are allowed to reopen. For now, the Korean Cultural Centre is working to increase its online content for people to enjoy at home.


Watch the Korean Cultural Centre’s Virtual Haegeum Concert on YouTube. 

Virtual K-Culture at the Korean Cultural Centre

Sosun Suh’s K-Fiddle YouTube channel