Skip to main content
  • UNESCO Collection Week 64: Viet Nam and Korea at Moments of Transition

    Smithsonian Folkways staff member Meredith Holmgren gives an historical perspective on this week’s UNESCO releases, Korea and Viet Nam: Traditions of the South.


    by Meredith Holmgren

    It is a great pleasure to have an opportunity to blog about two distinguished releases in the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music:

    Both of these releases represent a fascinating moment in time (1971-1972), in which concerted nation-building efforts, fueled especially by regional conflicts, postcolonial transitions, and economic transformations, compelled many governments to engage musical documentation efforts and cultural heritage narratives in new ways. National representations of musical traditions in the UNESCO Collection—tellingly, organized and cataloged according to state territories—say much about the context in which these releases were produced. Overall, these releases give fascinating insight to the traditions, sounds, and cultural values of two countries with exceptionally rich histories that were in the midst of tremendous sociopolitical transformations in the mid-twentieth century.


    This album was originally released in 1972 on a single 12” LP as part of UNESCO's “Music from the Far East” series, part of the Musical Sources collection. It was compiled by the Republic of Korea's Ministry of Culture and Information, with performances by musicians who were associated with the National Classical Music Institute (now known as the National Gugak Center1). Perhaps the timing of this release and its stately origins help explain the composition of the album, which heavily privileges music of the courts and aristocrats. Tracks 1-6, comprising approximately 42 minutes of playing time, are devoted to court and military musics; while the final three tracks (7-9), comprising under 15 minutes in total, were chosen from other traditional genres.

    Although the listener should not expect the album to be an exhaustive representation of Korean music, the selections do offer a variety of stylistic elements that are altogether delightful. The opening track, said to evoke “the splendor of the rising sun,” is an instrumental piece that features slow, extended melodic intervals and elastic rhythm. The flourishing flute parts add to the enchantment with vibrating, ornate embellishments. The daegŭm (traverse flute) solo on track 5 is another bright spot. In fact, the strength of wind instruments overall, primarily the various flutes and p'iri (oboe), is evident throughout much of the album.

    While the early tracks on the album are more courtly and instrumental, in the later tracks, listeners are treated to vernacular songs, vocals, and improvised kayagŭm (12-stringed zither) instrumentation. The track titled “Chongson Arirang” is a lovely representation of the well-known arirang folk song tradition. Widely popularized through film as an expression of independence during the Japanese occupation, “Arirang” is today celebrated as a national folk tradition, with collective contributions to different variants of the song spanning numerous generations. In 2012, “Arirang, a lyrical folk song in the Republic of Korea” was inscribed by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage. In UNESCO's identification of arirang, it is noted that “experts estimate the total number of folk songs carrying the title ‘Arirang’ at some 3,600 variations belonging to about sixty versions... Everyone can create new lyrics, adding to the song’s regional, historical and genre variations, and cultural diversity.” Information about this album's particular version of “Arirang” is nearly absent from the liner notes, but at the very least, we can presume that it originates from Chongson, a town in the mountains of Gangwon Province. According to some scholars, the Chongson archetype of arirang is among the most prevalent in the tradition.

    The album closes with an excerpt of an improvised kayagŭm solo titled “Kayageum Sanjo”. The sanjo genre, literally meaning “freeform” or “scattered melodies,” is a popular vernacular music, said to have developed in the southern regions of Korea. Its popularity ballooned in the 20th century and today remains a staple of the repertoire of touring performers, both nationally and internationally. This particular recording, featuring a plucked kayagŭm with a single drum, begins playfully and captures the listener more deeply as it evolves. As it is an excerpt, however, one does not hear the beginning or ending of the song. In this way, the album gently leaves the listener wanting more—not just of the track, but of the entire repertoire of traditional Korean music.

    Viet Nam

    Viet Nam: Traditions of the South
    This album was originally published as a 12” LP in 1971 under the German record company Bärenreiter-Musicaphon as the second of two volumes on the music of Vietnam in UNESCO's Musical Anthology of the Orient series. Since its release, the volume has gone through several reissues, with different designs, titles, and record labels2, but the audio and annotation content has remained the same3.

    At present, there are a total of five albums of Vietnamese music in the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music, each one recorded, compiled, and/or annotated by Trần Văn Khê, a tremendously prolific and influential Vietnamese musician and musicologist. Trần Văn Khê reportedly recorded and compiled the tracks for Viet Nam: Traditions of the South with musician Nguyễn Hữu Ba in South Vietnam in 1963. Although you won't find any indication of it in the liner notes, this album was conceived to be officially complementary to Trần Văn Khê’s book Vietnam (Buchet/Chastel, 1967), which was published in French as part of the publication series Traditions Musicales.

    The album is divided into two sections: “Ritual and Religious Musics” and “Entertainment Music and Music of the 'Modernized' Theatre.” While this might at first glance seem like a peculiar pairing of musics, the sheer diversity of materials keeps the listener engaged throughout the entire album. While not every track is heard in its entirety, these recordings offer a unique glimpse of mid-twentieth-century Vietnamese musical and cultural practices. The compilers clearly gave great care to representing a range of instrumentation, genres, modes, stylistic elements, and traditions throughout the recordings.

    The ritual and religious musics presented in the first part of the album serve specific functions, ranging from spirit honor and funeral prayers to ceremony and spirit possession. Sonically, the recordings are quite compelling. The opening track, which hails from the Cao Đài tradition, begins with a percussive prelude before entrancing the listener with multi-instrumental rhythms and freeform ken trung (medium-sized oboe). On track 2, I found myself humming along with the instrumentation and solo melodic chanting of Buddhist prayer, even without knowledge of the Sino-Vietnamese texts.

    The second half of the album consists of chamber compositions and theater music. The recordings present both larger and smaller numbers of musicians, ranging from “Roa Nam, Hoi Ai-Oan” with its solo unaccompanied đàn tranh (16-string zither), to tracks like “Vong Co / Longing for the Past” with three distinct stringed instruments and female vocals. Although the album's annotations offer minimal insight into genre or instrument identification, they do offer staff notation transcriptions of a few phrases, scales, and modal nuances.  

    “Tu Dai Oan / The Four Generations” (Track 9) is a canonical song of the Đờn ca tài tử chamber music genre. Đờn ca tài tử (lit. “talented amateurs' music”) is said to “evoke the people’s life and work on the land and rivers of the Mekong Delta region,” and is yet another musical form designated by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage. It is described as a “light and flavorful form of music” that is represented here through female vocals, đàn tranh, lute, and end-blown flute.

    More than half a century after these recordings were made, their sounds and stories remain highly relevant to our understanding of musical cultures. In 2008, ethnomusicologist Phong T. Nguyn wrote that “the crucial issue today is how Vietnam can modernize without losing its identity.” Perhaps these recordings can offer us some insight to a past and future of Vietnamese music in a changing world.

    Meredith Holmgren is a staff member of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, where she edits, produces, and coordinates programs in education and cultural heritage research.


    Adriaansz, W. 1972. “rev. of The Music of Viet-Nam, Record I: The Tradition of Hue, Record II: The Music of South Viet-Nam.” Ethnomusicology 16, no. 2 (May): 308–10. 

    ________. 1968. Review: Vietnam by Tran Van Khe. Ethnomusicology 12, no. 3: 449–451.

    Byung-ki, Hwang. "Sanjo.” In The Concise Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Vol. 2.

    Hai, Tran Quang. “Đặng Hoành Loan: Don ca tai tu, the 'late traditional' music of the southern residents.” (personal website)

    Howard, Keith. 2008. Korean Kayagum Sanjo: A Traditional Instrumental Genre. London: Ashgate.

    _________. 2006. Preserving Korean Music: Intangible Cultural Properties as Icons of Identity. Burlington, UK: Ashgate.

    Heyman, C. Alan. 2009. Choi In-Suh and the Tae-Ch’wi-t’a. Royal Asiatic Society, Korean Branch, vol. 84: 91–96.

    Khe, Tran Van. 1967. Vietnam. Paris: Buchet/Chastel.

    _________. 1962. La musique Vietnamienne traditionnelle. Paris.

    Kim, Eun-Sil. 2008. A Study of Arirang and Its Influence on Contemporary Korean Choral Works. Doctoral dissertation, University of Southern California.

    Kim, Hee-Sun. 2009. “Music of Sanjo.InYong-Shik Lee, editor, Sanjo, 11–44. Seoul: The National Center for Korean Performing Arts.

    Nguyn, Phong T. 2008. “Vietnam.” In Terry E. Miller and Sean Williams, editors, Garland Handbook of Southeast Asian Music. New York: Routledge.

    Provine, Robert. 1976.  Ethnomusicology.

    Sullivan, Michael. 2004. “Vietnam's Music for the Dead.” December. NPR.

    UNESCO, Inscription for "Arirang, lyrical folk song in the Republic of Korea".

    UNESCO, Inscription for "Art of Đờn ca tài tử music and song in southern Viet Nam".

    1 The liner notes attribute the performances to the Imperial Court orchestra, but reviewers such as Robert Provine have pointed this out as an inaccuracy.

    2 Including a 1992 reissue by Ocora Radio France, a 1996 repackaging and re-issue by Auvidis/UNESCO, and a 1999 reissued by Rounder titled Anthology of World Music: The music of Vietnam.

    3 The first volume of the original two-volume release, Viet Nam: The Tradition of Hue, is currently not included in this collection.

    UNESCO Collection Week 64: Viet Nam and Korea at Moments of Transition | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings