Trot – Korea’s Lesser Known Music of Suffering

If you’ve ever been in a Korean taxicab, chances are you’ve heard trot

How do you know when you’ve heard it? 

Your foot starts tapping, religiously, to a melancholy two-step. Your heart crunches and your stomach churns as you feel a certain sadness. This isn’t entirely painful; rather, it’s comforting – like hearing the voice of an old friend.

You’re not crazy, and you’re most certainly not alone. 

The name trot originates from foxtrot, a style of two-beat ballroom dance – like the kind you hear at the end of The Shining. The genre has an addictive rhythm, and a familiar sound reminiscent of a past life you’ve since forgotten.

Trot is that kind of music, the kind that can take any number of shapes and forms.

Bouncy and uplifting one moment; tragic and sorrowful the next. Inspired at times by Elvis; at other times fused with 80s-style pop; sometimes, even, retaining chilling notes of traditional Korean pansori and Japanese enka, conveying sounds of a hauntingly distant, yet parallel world. 

Trot can be almost anything. It always sports the same character, though. One of surviving, amidst a world of suffering – an ongoing theme in Korea’s past and present.

One could argue that trot can be interpreted as a cultural parallel to America’s blues. The blues, too, was created from the fusion of traditional music and contemporary instruments. The blues, too, was born from a level of misery few of us can truly comprehend. Take a listen to the songs Traces of Castle Ruins (황성옛터) or Tears of Mokpo (목포의 눈물). Are these songs not the very expression of suffering itself?

The earliest trot took form during the Japanese colonization period. Elements of traditional Japanese enka were fused with existing traditional Korean music (notably, Gyeonggi-Minyo) to create a distinct sound, one where traditional singing methods blended with melancholy ballads. 

Unsurprisingly, things get messy when it comes to early trot; Korean and Japanese variations can be remarkably similar – try compare Traces of Castle Ruins (황성옛터) with Koiwa Umiba De (恋は海辺て).

In the 60s, concerns over trot being a legacy of Japanese imperialism led to several restrictive measures. In 1965, broadcasters refused to play ‘Japanese-tinged’ songs; in 1968 the Art and Cultural Ethics Commission banned 108 songs deemed ‘inappropriate’.

Yet politics and art are an unpopular mix. Art is an innately universal expression, and policing the origins as to every creative endeavour can be difficult, if not entirely impossible. Unsurprisingly, such policies faced significant opposition. By 1987, bans were mostly lifted. 

As with the blues, though, trot has since developed well beyond its humble origins. Following the end of the Korean War, varieties based on major keys as opposed to traditional pentatonic minor began to take shape. By the 70s and 80s, pop-trot and dance-trot variations emerged. Much as the blues has evolved to encompass far more than the twelve-bar structure, trot has since weaved itself into almost infinite subgenres and variations.

Attitudes towards the genre differ. Older generations love the stuff. Younger generations? Not so much. For many, trot can sound distinctly old-school. Sometimes even cringey. Perhaps as a barbershop quartet might sound to a Western audience. 

Yet despite trot’s decline in the 90s amidst a rise in pop music, the genre has never truly disappeared. It’s a spirit and a mindset – how could it? Trends change with the seasons. Songs for the withered heart and the battered soul? They stick around.

Since the 2000s there has been a steady revival of interest, with younger artists such as Lim Young-woong taking to the stage. As has been evident with the recent attention towards other older tunes – such as pansori – the information age is undoubtedly a valuable environment for the preservation and reignition of past sounds and ideas.

Brianna in Seoul/ image provided by Brianna Salisbury

The appeal of trot is felt by locals and foreigners alike. Brianna Salisbury is an Australian singer and musician who has spent some time working in the Korean music industry. She was even taught by the same teacher who propelled Lim Young-woong to stardom – and watched the singer go from ‘relatively unknown’ to ‘has-his-face-on-milk-cartons’. 

Brianna notes there has been growing interest in the genre amongst younger generations, especially with the popularity of shows such as Mr. Trot. These programs have become popular for reviving the trot-craze in combination with the thrill of fierce survivor-style competition. It helps, of course, that a lot of these artists tend to be good-looking.

Trot, like any music genre, has its share of age-old legends. “A master became a master when he could sing louder than the waterfall”, remarks Brianna. A darker story might be that of trot singers deliberately damaging their vocal chords to create ‘vocal nodes’ – a nuisance in most contemporary genres, but a revered attribute in older trot and pansori.

Brianna represents a rising trend of foreign interest in Korean culture. The once isolated country now seems to many a unique treasure trove of culture. Yet for musicians looking to enter the Korean industry, things aren’t all easy. 

The language barrier is one obstacle. The industry itself is another.

Brianna outside a hidden cafe entrance – somewhat akin to the hidden “ins” needed to enter the Korean music industry/ image provided by Brianna Salisbury

According to Brianna, the Korean music industry can be incredibly competitive, and notoriously difficult to infiltrate. You need to have an ‘in’, whether that be an agency or simply a good connection – if you don’t have either of these, it can be hard doing anything more than busking. 

Regardless, for the lover of Korean music, checking out the scene may well be worth the effort. The Korean music industry has an unparalleled ability to touch on a wide range of genres, whilst pumping out tunes with factory-like efficiency. Arguably, it’s both the musician’s greatest dream and nightmare. Either way, it makes for a fascinating experience.

Brianna aims to bring elements of Korean music into her own set of tunes. Make sure to check out her upcoming projects – you can follow her here.

Trot is an incredibly gripping barrel of tunes. Certainly, any listener of such an obscure and intriguing genre is bound to be themselves filled with obscure and intriguing stories.

You will almost certainly notice trot when you next visit Korea, whether it be from a taxi-driver’s radio or the TV at an old flower market. When you do, perhaps stop for a moment. 

Take the time to bask in the sounds of the past. Hop aboard that metaphorical ghost carriage – like that one in Midnight in Paris. Let the listeners around you know that you, too, listen with them. Before you know it, you may be mourning the loss of a lover you never knew; longing to return to a home you will never live in.

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Juno Robertson

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