“With their musical sensitivity and talents, blind musicians are by no means incapable of contributing to society,” King Sejong of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty reportedly said in 1431, when he decided to establish the national orchestra of the blind.
During the dynasty, which ruled from 14th to the 19th century, musically talented blind people received special instruction from the national department of music within the palace. The musicians, known as “blind Kwanhyun” (wind and string instruments), displayed their talent at many palace performances.
Six hundred years later, blind Kwanhyun was reinstated with the support of Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism in March 2011. “The ministry asked Siloam Welfare Center for the Visually Handicapped to launch the Korean Traditional Music Orchestra of the Blind as a model and revival of the Joseon Dynasty music,” Dongic Choi, director of the orchestra said in an interview with Voices of NY. The concert of the Korean Traditional Music Orchestra of the Blind drew more than 600 people to Carnegie Hall on May 3.
Although people usually think that it would be hard for the blind to play an instrument since they can’t even read music, Choi said that blind people naturally inherit a gift for it. “All sorts of emotions including, anger, sorrow, happiness, and joy are in the lives of challenged people. When those emotions are harmonized with technical skills of music, they are the utmost artistic souls,” Choi explained.
The concert included Jeongak, music played among the upper class, Minsokak, folk music, and traditional Korean songs updated with dynamic percussion and special solo performances, blending classical and popular music together. “Although Jeongak is traditional court music of a high level, many people rather like Minsokak as it is more rhythmic and fun to listen to,” said Choi.
After holding hands to get on stage safely, the musicians sat on cushions and started to play each instrument in harmony. From a well-known love song, Sarang-ga, to Man-pa-jung-sic-ji-gok, a military march, the sounds fascinated the audience.
After the duet percussion, Woolim, the audience broke into rapturous applause. The duo imitated the sound of rain, their communication and rhythm perfectly matched. The performers also showed the beauty of colorful Korean traditional costumes, hanbok, ranging from royal court clothes to modernized ones.
During a performance of Arirang, one of the most famous Korean traditional songs, some people wiped a tear from their eyes because Arirang embodies the sorrow and spirit of Koreans. The orchestra changed their last song to “Amazing Grace,” which they offered as a prayer for the victims of the Sewol ferry accident in Korea.
“We would like to give our prayers through our performance,” Garam Yoon, a performer, said. At the end of the concert, the audience rose as one in a standing ovation and started to sing a chorus of Arirang together.
“All of the performers have practiced hard to be on the stage. They have won many competitions with non-blind people,” said director Choi.
The orchestra plans to perform in several U.S. locations, especially at universities because there are many U.S. born-Korean students who don’t know much about Korean culture and traditional music. “We will introduce the beauty of Korean traditional music to Americans and make second-generation Koreans feel proud of their mother country, Korea,” Choi said.
Concerts are planned for May 6 at the Comfort Women memorial in Bergen County, New Jersey (at 12:30 p.m.) and in the evening at Columbia University. An online concert may be viewed at koreasociety.org. Click here for more information.