Yodeling in Korea

A Story of the Yodel

A few weeks ago I stumbled across a hidden musical gem. His name is Jang Seungil, born in South Korea and speaks a little English. We were on our way to Jeonju and missed the bus, so whilst waiting for another we decided to pop into a hoff where we met the owner, Seungil, who offered to play us music and whilst doing so he began to yodel.

As one can imagine, yodeling was the last thing we expected to hear. He first sang whilst playing the piano and his voice was almost operatic. Captured by his performance we were immediately intrigued about his background and he said he only played Swiss music and one of his instruments was a saw strummed with a violin bow. After meeting him, I wanted to know more.

SDOD: How long have you been a musician for?
JANG: I have been performing for 33-40 years with all different kinds of musical instruments.

SDOD: Is this your only occupation? If not, what else do you do?
JANG: As well as performing around the country as a musician I am the owner of a bar. My job is also a chorus master, music professor of headquarters of Saemaeul Movement running music academy and kindergarten.

SDOD: What instruments do you play and how long for?
JANG: I play the piano, guitar, accordion, oergeli, hand harmonica, banjo, mandolin, contrabass, cowbell, musical saw, wooden spoon, alphorn, dalen schwingen. The musical saw for 40 years, Guitar, Chromaharp for 33 years, Piano for 40 years, Oergeli (Swiss accordion) for 3 years, Cowbell for 24 years, Banjo for 30 years and an accordion for 30 years.

SDOD: How did you learn how to play music with a saw?
JANG: I learned how to perform the musical saw from my second oldest brother when he visited the American Army base and performed it 40 years ago.

SDOD: Do you or have you ever performed in a band?
JANG: I have played in a bluegrass band for 5 years. Now, I play in a working group called Jang Seungil with friends who yodel. We yodel and play unusual instruments.

SDOD: What are your influences?
JANG: My older sister and brother have influenced me. My family enjoys singing and music. My second brother lives in U.S.A now and the country is his stage for performing the musical saw. My older sister also gives piano lessons.

SDOD:Where did the idea to play Swiss music come from?
JANG: There is yodel in the area of the Alps and Western-yodel of American style. My parents were the owners of a stock farm when I was young. I began to like yodel since I was a middle school student when turning on the radio I’d accidentally listen to the father of yodel in Korea, Kim Hongchul. The Song of Shepherd yodel attracted me naturally because I was a shepherd boy in my home. I began yodel since I took Kim Hongchel’s yodel workshop when I was in the third grade of high school in 1977.

SDOD: How did your relationship with the yodel progress from there?
JANG: I began to play the guitar and accordion accompanied by singing yodel, then I performed various instruments. My job is also a chorus master, music professor of headquarters of Saemaeul Movement running music academy and kindergarten. At last, I could run Live Café with a dream of live music.

SDOD: Have you ever performed internationally?
JANG: Yes, I have visited Japan 5 times and performed throughout the country from 1994 to 2005. In 2005 I was invited and performed at the Aichi World Expo in Japan. I appeared on Swiss state TV at Luzern Yodel Festival in Switzerland in 2008.

SDOD: Do you perform on a regular basis?
JANG: I perform from 9 to 11 p.m. every evening at C&B. The telephone number is 062-365-8881 and the address is: 177-2, Hwajeong 2-dong, Seo-gu, Gwangju.

SDOD: Where can people get more information about you?
JANG: The Internet café and club doesn’t run well because I’m not good at managing the Internet but my café address is: Yodeller Jang Seungil. There is a yodel club in Gwangju that has been running since in 1977.

Thank you Jang Seung Il.

After this I researched into yodeling and saw that there is a large yodeling community in South Korea. There are an estimated over 3,000 amateur yodelers in Korea, making it one of the more enthusiastic yodel nations. The amateur clubs seem to do well but there are few professionals. This may mean that Korea has many fans and practitioners but few who want to spend their wons on yodel CDs or concerts.

Below is an article I found, “Korea’s Swiss World of Yodeling” from www.heidiland.kr which provides an insightful read into the history of yodeling in Korea.

Here are some links to more information:


The Father of yodel in Korea, Kim Hongchul and friends: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TEoDtxjlctA

Korea’s Swiss World of Yodeling

by Lim Choon Hyon & Bart Plantenga

• Dawn of the Korean Yodel

The yodel came to Korea via Japan [or Manchuria] after the demise of the Joseon Dynasty [1392~1910], and Japan annexed Korea in 1910. The renowned Korean pop singer, Chae KyuYeop (Ch’ae Kyu-yo’p 1906~1949) rose to fame during the period of Japanese annexation with a jazzy (code for western-style) popular song. The title of one of his songs sounds something like “Yoo-rei-ti of love,” which was very similar to “Star of the Mountain,” as sung by Japanese singer Nakano Tadaharu (1909~1970).

The songs had similar melodies and lyrics but one was in Korean and the other in Japanese. In any case, they were both released in 1934. More interestingly, they were both Asian versions of “Alpine Milkman,” composed by UK songwriter Leslie Sarony (1897~1985), which later became a minor hit for yodeler Montana Slim.

After WWII, Korea experienced a period of great hardship and, in 1950, the invasion by the United States, which led to three years of war and the partition of the country into North and South Korea. Chae Kyu-Yeop had meanwhile crossed over into North Korea in 1949, where he died that same year and became largely forgotten.

That is, until the 1990s anyway, when his “Yoo-rei-ti of love” was rediscovered. Although, the song is not terribly relevant to today’s yodeling according to Korean yodeler Lim ChoongHyon [“Peter”] of web site Heidiland <www.heidiland.kr / yodel@heidiland.kr>, it remains a significant if weird footnote in Korean pop music history.

Most agree that yodeling really only became popular after 1950. The apocryphal story goes that a mountain climber sang the famous Austrian yodel song “Erzherzog Johan Jodeler” (Archduke Johan Yodel Song], which was translated into Korean but no one knows by whom. The best guess is that it was popular among old mountaineers [Korean or foreign?]. Since then, this song has been a very popular one among Korean [one version] and Japanese yodelers [three different translations].

The cold war introduced American culture via US military personnel stationed in South Korea. Korean singers came into contact with Americans and learned to sing and yodel in the American and European styles, often in Korean translation.

Rotation Blues (Lt. Stewart Powell)
“I got the ro-oo-oh-ta-a-tion blu-ues. / I’m a lonely soldier sittin’ in Korea… / I’m a lonely soldier sittin’ in Ko-rea / But rotation’s comin’ so I shouldn’t have no fear.”

With its yodel chorus and Hank Williams-style voice-breaking on the “ro-oo-oh-ta-a-tion,” the song is about the loneliness of being stationed far from home [1951 Cowboy Songs Copyright 1951 by Tannen Music, Inc.]. It was covered by Elton Britt, Bill Monroe, Ken Marvin and Hoagy Carmichael, some with and some without yodeling.

Americans stationed in Korea had their own country-western bands to entertain the troops on the bases. But they often featured (South) Korean singers and musicians.  Korean musicians quickly learned the pop standards, mostly C&W (Hank Williams), which was popular among American troops at that time.

Chun-Hang is remembered as the first country yodel singer in Korea to sing “Chime Bells” – in English, which either charmed, impressed or spooked mixed audiences. He may have been pretty well-known at the time, but he has sadly drifted into obscurity with no one certain whether he is alive or dead.

Then along came SeoSuNam who performed “Mule Skinner Blues,” “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” and “Mountain Song” (origin: “Trizem Yodel,” performed by Grandpa Jones) for US troops. His Korean yodel versions of these hits – although drifting ever further from the originals – soon eclipsed the originals in popularity in Korea especially “Men of the Men” which included his own Korean lyrics to the melody of “Long Gone Lonesome Blues.” By the 1960s, he was reasonably renowned, having produced some 10 albums. But today he is largely forgotten.

One day singer Kim HongChul heard something totally enchanting on the radio – Swiss yodeling. He looked into it at the library, discovering it was a Swiss and Austrian style of singing. He compelled his high school teacher to compose a letter in English to Zurich’s daily newspaper, the Tages Anzeiger. They responded by sending him tapes of Swiss yodels including “Vo Luzern uf Weggis zue,” and “Min Vater isch en Appenzeller” [which he eventually learned and made famous].

He practiced yodeling along to the tapes. One day the newspaper asked him to send some samples of his yodeling.  He sent a recording and the newspaper eventually invited him to Switzerland. So, for three months he yodeled for the Swiss in Switzerland. He learned a lot about yodeling during his stay and returned to Korea to much media fanfare – and a recording contract. In the period 1970 to 1986, he developed into a unique yodeler-singer in Korea, transforming the Swiss style into something Korean and that is why he is called the father of Korean yodeling today. He remains the only Korean yodeler to ever be able to make a career out of yodeling.He was also heard by Japanese audiences. In 1993, he emigrated to Vancouver and his activities and whereabouts remained unkown until 2003. Despite his breakthrough, there have been very few Korean yodel records since his heyday.

During the period 1970~1980, he released seven yodel records and had some 80 hits and other commercial recordings. He established yodel clubs all over Korea, and helped repopularize Korean yodeling, which is another reason why he is the father of Korean yodeling.

In 2003, he returned as a yodel singer and currently leads his own band, Kim HongChul & his Friends. When asked who his mentor was, he mentioned the great Swiss speed/pop yodeler Peter Hinnen, although his own style is more C&W than Alpine (but then again, Hinnen also translated a number of C&W songs into Swiss versions that combined elements of both styles.)

Part of the commercial problem may be that Koreans (like the Japanese) prefer C&W, with only the Korean yodel fanatics preferring the Alpine-style yodel.

Three of his most popular songs were:

• “A Beautiful Berner Valley” (1970) is a Korean adaptation of the Swiss folk song “Das Berner Oberland,” which was the first alpine-style yodel to be sung in its native Swiss-German. It placed second in the Heidiland yodel popularity poll.

• “A Beautiful Chalet” (1975) is a Korean version of the famous Austrian-style yodel, “Das Kufsteiner Lied” (composed by Karl Ganzer).

• “A Less Beautiful Switzerland” (1972) was an adaptation of “She Taught Me How to Yodel” [voted most popular yodel in Korea in the Heidiland poll. It was already popular in 1950s as sung by prominent Japanese yodeler Willy Okiyama [ウィリ-沖山]. Kim Hong Chul popularised another version by Japanese-style Yodeler Oono Yoshio [大野義夫] (1931), a friend of Kim’s who played banjo on his second album.

Recently, this song gained an entire new life, when Korean megapop star Rain (Chung Chi Hoon / Korean 비(bee/雨) / made his Hollywood debut in Speed Racer)  yodeled it in Kim’s style in the video trailer from the Park Chan Wook film I’m a Cyborg, But It’s OK. Rain is seen secretly communicating with a woman (LimSuJung) via an old-fashioned play telephone [cups linked by string] between their rooms in a decidedly chic-looking insane asylum. When she hears his yodeling, she begins rubbing her feet together and her bed goes airborne, courtesy of a large fly and suddenly she is transported or teleported to the realm of flying ecstasy – all because of the yodeling. Impressive visually and yodelingly, indeed. He has made this already popular yodel song in Korea mega-popular.

Other Korean films with yodeling:

Bad Conduct ( 2002) director: ChoGuenSik  Leading actor & actress: LimEunKyung, RyuSeungBum. Includes a short yodel interlude.

Show Me ( 2003) Omnibus independent and unreleased movie, director: Lim Phil Sung starring Park Heail. just yodel fork wear and musical instruments and dubbing yodeling.

Secret Charity of a Female Professor (2006) director: Lee Ha Main, starring: Moon Sori and JiJIn Hee, who yodels a few bars of “Dorf Jodler” by Rudi Meixner.

Dasepo Girl (2006) director: Lee Jea Yong,  starring: Kim Ok Bin and Park Jin Woo. The Korean Basel Yodel Club sings two yodel songs: “The Chicken Yodel” and “Yodel Sweet Molly.” Lead actor Kim Ok Bin also yodels.

One Response to “YODELING IN KOREA”
  1. Maria Lisak says:

    He is my new hero. I absolutely have to hear him! Thanks so much for sharing!

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