When Koreans think of ‘music’, they usually think of Western classical or pop.
Likewise, most Korean Catholics think of religious music as Gregorian chants, masses from classical composers such as Bach, Handel and Mozart, or hymns imported from the West.
However, Passionist Father Paul Mary Kang Su-gun, 54, thinks otherwise.
As a teenager, Fr Kang attended Gukak National Middle and High School, a school for Korean traditional music (gukak, or national music), where he began to wonder why, if traditional Korean music is noble, people in the Church sang only Western hymns. He had a vision to one day compose Church hymns using gukak.
His first Korean Mass songs, including “Kyrie,” “Gloria,” “Alleluia,” and “Lamb of God,” were recorded by Pauline sisters in 1987 when Fr Kang was a novice.
According to Fr Kang, Korean traditional music was despised by the Japanese colonialists and was a prime target in their "annihilation" policy against Korean culture in the early 20th century.
“During that time, Korean musicians were belittled. Moreover, after independence, the flood of Western culture made Koreans think that Western music was best. There wasn’t even any Korean music in music textbooks,” Fr Kang said.
“Now, it’s changing. More people are becoming aware of their Korean identity, and music is not an exception. Music textbooks are 50 percent Korean music,” he said.
But parish priests’ indifference is a big barrier.
“We once used Korean hymns during a special Mass and the faithful liked it very much, but our parish priest didn’t. He preferred the Gregorian chant,” a parish choir head told ucanews.com. “In my opinion, Korean hymns are better because at least the faithful know what we are singing.
“The priest told us to sing Gregorians again during this Christmas Mass. Frankly speaking, Gregorian chant is boring. It takes more time, and even we don’t understand when they are in Latin,” he said.
It has been 25 years since Fr Kang's first album came out. After Vatican Council II, there were some attempts to incorporate traditional Korean rhythm and melody into Church music, but he says there was no "real Korean hymn" before him.
After his ordination in 1992, he began a class for sacred songs in Korean traditional music and published a record with the rosary.
But to be a professional Korean musician, he felt he needed to learn more about Western music, so he went to the United States and to the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome to study sacred music. He returned to Korea in 2009.
That year he set up the Institute of Korean Hymns in Seoul to teach Korean hymns, incorporating the janggu, a double-headed drum with a narrow waist in the middle, which is mainly used for Korean hymn accompaniment and traditional dances for liturturgy.
He also founded Korean hymn choirs in Seoul and Gwangju archdioceses, as well as Suwon and Uijeongbu dioceses.
Now his dreams are starting to be realized, with the selection of some 70 Korean hymns, mostly his, for a new Catholic hymn book, which will be published by the Korean bishops' conference in 2015 for nationwide use.
“Seventy songs in a multi-hundred song hymn book seem not so many. But, with this start, they will penetrate Korean Catholics’ hearts. In 50 or 100 years, a high proportion of sacred songs in the Korean Catholic Church will be Korean hymns,” he said.
“It’s like a mustard seed. One of the smallest seeds becomes one of the largest trees. If we produce good quality Korean hymns continuously, the day will come when we naturally sing Korean hymns.”