Usually marketed to foreigners as “Korean opera”, pansori (판소리) performances are a modern-day derivative of the country’s shamanist past. Songs and incantations chanted to fend off evil spirits or ensure a good harvest slowly mutated over the years into ritualized presentations; the themes evolved, too, with tales of love and despair replacing requests to spirits unseen.
A good pansori may go on for hours, but each segment will be performed by a cast of just two – a female singer (소리꾼; sorikkun) and a male percussionist (고수; gosu). The sorikkun holds aloft a paper fan, which she folds, unfolds and waves about to emphasize lyrics or a change of scene. While the gosu drums out his minimalist finger taps on the janggo, he gives his singer words – or, more commonly, grunts – of encouragement known as chuimsae, to which the audience are expected to add their own. The most common are “chalhanda!” and “olshi-gu!”, which are roughly equivalent to “you’re doing good!” and “hm!”, a grunt acknowledging appreciation, usually delivered with a refined nod. Just follow the Korean lead, and enjoy the show.