Under The Spell of Pansori

Not everyone is lucky enough to know exactly what they want in life. Laure Mafo does. She only had to hear pansori once to know that she had found her vocation. Without hesitation, she decided to move to Seoul, where she now hones her skills in this genre of traditional Korean vocal music with the hope of performing it all over the world.

When Laure Mafo worked for Sam-sung Electronics in Paris, she dreamed of buying a house and turning it into a daycare center filled with children. Until she went to a performance of pansori. “It was amazing. It was like falling in love,” she recalls. Mesmerized by the traditional Korean narrative song, she found herself smiling through the performance and thinking, “This is good, really good. I think this is for me.”

After the performance, she approached the singer, Min Hye-sung, to ask her about learning pansori. Min, who had sung an excerpt from “Chunhyangga” (Song of Chunhyang), based on a famous love story between a noble boy and a commoner girl, said Korea was naturally the best place to start. Impulsively, Mafo, who had studied business administration in college, asked, “If I go to Korea, would you teach me?”

In 2017, after two years of preparations and convincing her family and friends that she wasn’t crazy, Mafo arrived in Seoul. Min had warned that 10 years would be the minimum time it would take to train. But to ease her mother’s worries, Mafo told her she’d “try it for just one year.” Although she was not particularly adventurous, Mafo had no apprehensions. “I just had this feeling,” she says.

As promised, Mafo began lessons under Min, a designated successor to the art of singing “Heungbuga” (Song of Heungbu), one of the five main pansori works and a designated piece of Korea’s Important Intangible Cultural Heritage. There was much to learn. Since storytelling is central to pansori, understanding the lyrics is crucial. That made learning Korean and written Chinese her first step.

Laure Mafo’s pursuit of becoming a pansori performer requires not only arduous hours of learning the techniques for the musical storytelling genre, but also intense Korean language study to understand the lyrics and sharpen her pronunciation to native level.

Practice, More Practice
Before COVID-19, lessons, practice and occasional concerts and television appearances filled Mafo’s days, usually from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
She feels that she has to work twice as hard as others; articulating lyrics can be a struggle, let alone understanding their meaning. For proper pronunciation, she once practiced a single phrase for a week with a pen stuck sideways in her mouth. “I may not be able to sing like native Koreans, but I want to be a professional,” says Mafo, 36, who possesses a deep, resonant voice.

In her fledgling career, a memorable moment came in 2018 when she sang at the Élysée Palace in Paris to mark the summit meeting between Korean President Moon Jae-in and French President Emmanuel Macron. But the Cameroonian-born French citizen regards another performance in 2019 as even more special: she performed at the Korean Embassy in Yaoundé, the capital city of Cameroon, with her teacher and other masters. The audience included her family members as well as local dignitaries.

“My mother didn’t really watch me perform,” Mafo says. “She watched the other people to see how they were reacting. She was really proud.”
The story of each song and the underlying messages entice Mafo. Her favorite is “Heungbuga,” which conveys a folk tale about a poor but good-hearted younger brother and his greedy older brother. “It’s about family. Every family has its own problems. Mine too.” She also believes in the message that being good brings its own rewards.

Her ultimate goal is not only to master “Heungbuga” but to perform the entire threehour-long piece, hopefully all over the world, and also to teach pansori to children. She wants to help children express themselves through this music in the way it has helped her. “In Paris, I was depressed a lot of the time. I don’t know why but I couldn’t express my feelings,” she says. “But when I sing pansori, I feel like my mind is really clear. One day, I also want to teach my own children this beautiful music.”

This takes Mafo back to thoughts of her mother. She speaks to her mother every day, and every time, her mother asks if she has found a good man. Each time she answers, “Not yet.”

As an honorary ambassador for the Korea-Africa Foundation, Mafo likes to wear a hanbok reflecting both her Cameroonian roots and her adopted Korean culture. She combines a jacket featuring a unique Cameroonian design with a red, traditionalstyle skirt for the formal Korean dress.

Pandemic Year
The year 2020 was especially difficult for Mafo.
No performances were allowed and her visa didn’t permit her to take another job outside the arts. She’s trying to reach out to audiences online through her own YouTube channel, “Laurerang Arirang” (meaning “Arirang with Laure”), and her teacher’s channel, “Bonjour Pansori,” where she translates her teacher’s lessons into French. But no performances means no income. Still, Mafo considers herself lucky. The landlady of her boarding house has been very supportive, waiving the rent and taking care of her needs. She even presented Mafo with a hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) for her stage costume. Mafo calls her “eonni,” meaning “big sister.”

She still finds Korea’s “polite” forms of language and relationships baffling from time to time, but otherwise says her experience in Korea has mostly been rewarding, thanks to good people. Her teacher is here and friends that she knew in Paris helped her with basic tasks such as finding a place to live and opening a bank account. She misses French delicacies like raclette cheese and éclairs, but has found her own Korean comfort food – ox bone broth soup, a popular hangover dish that she loves even though she doesn’t drink.

Not all was gloomy in 2020; Mafo realized her cherished goal of gaining admission to the prestigious Korean National University of Arts. She was overjoyed, though worried a bit about “being a student again and having to translate everything.” But her real concern is how to pay the tuition. For the first time in her life, she says, she finds herself financially strapped.

“When I perform on stage, I want my audience to see me as a pansori singer, not a foreigner singing pansori.”

No Looking Back
Still, Mafo says she has absolutely no regrets.
Only once did she question her choices. It was during the first of her twice-a-year intensive pansori training camps, the so-called san gongbu (literally “study in the mountains”). “I thought I would die. We started at 5 a.m. and practiced all day. Practice and eat, practice and eat,” she recalls. “I thought to myself, ‘What am I doing here?’ But afterwards it was like, ‘Wow, my pansori has really improved.’” She admits the mountain training camps have been crucial in acquiring the proper voice and intricate techniques.

For Mafo, singing pansori in French is another challenge. Sometimes she performs in a mixture of Korean and French, which she finds more difficult. “When you sing in Korean, the techniques are different,” she explains. “It’s like a story when I sing in Korean, but in French, it’s like a song. I’m working on the French side, so that it’s more like a story in French, too.” In whichever language, she seems to crystallize her hopes into the statement: “When I perform on stage, I want my audience to see me as a pansori singer, not a foreigner singing pansori.”

This year, she hopes to start performing again. She also aims to master “Heungbuga” and move on to a lesser known piece called “Sugyeong nangjaga” (Song of the Maiden Sugyeong). It’s a love story and is carried on today by only a handful of singers, one of them being Min Hye-sung.

“One day, if just one person has the same feeling I had when I first heard my teacher sing – if only one person would say, ‘Wow, I want to learn that too,’ then that would be amazing,” Mafo says.

Cho Yoon-jung Freelance Writer and Translator
Heo Dong-wuk Photographer
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