|Laure Mafo poses during an interview with The Korea Times in Seoul, Monday. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk|
By Kwon Mee-yoo
These days most people are exposed to Korean culture through the global phenomenon of K-pop or addictive Korean dramas. However, for Cameroonian-born French citizen Laure Mafo, it was pansori, a traditional style of narrative music. Mafo quit her job to fly to Korea to learn it.
The 36-year-old appeared for the interview in a custom-made hanbok which combined the traditional Korean clothing with a traditional Cameroonian pattern.
"After being named an honorary ambassador of the Korea-Africa Foundation, I thought of ways to bridge Africa and Korea and came up with this hanbok with traditional fabric used by my grandmother. I will mix and match more African patterns with hanbok," Mafo said.
Mafo was born in Cameroon and was adopted by her aunt in France when she was about 10 years old. Her first exposure to Korea was a documentary about the work culture here.
"Back then, I thought if I work in Korea for about three years, the experience would help me find a better job. So before going to Korea, I got a job at Samsung Electronics in Paris. I originally planned to work there for six months, but I ended up working there for three years and made Korean friends," Mafo said.
A friend took her to the Korean Cultural Center in Paris to learn Korean and the visit changed Mafo's life after she joined a pansori workshop there.
"That's when I met my teacher, Min Hye-sung. I was fascinated by pansori as well as her voice. After her performance, I asked her how to learn pansori and she told me the best place to learn it is in Korea," Mafo recalled.
She said she would go to Korea to learn pansori over and over and when she finally decided to go to Korea, her friends from Samsung Electronics raised money to buy her a plane ticket in 2017.
|Laure Mafo, left, sings during a street performance of pansori. Courtesy of Laure Mafo|
In just three years, Mafo made rapid progress as an aspiring sorikkun (pansori performer) despite her late start.
"At first I started learning highlights such as Ssukdaemeori and Sarang-ga and I have now progressed into learning the entire episode of Heungbo-ga, my favorite among the five surviving stories of Korean pansori," she said.
Due to the language barrier, learning pansori is more difficult for Mafo than for her Korean colleagues.
"The teacher explains the content before we start learning, since understanding the story is the first step. Then I translate it by myself to understand it more thoroughly. Chinese characters used in lyrics are the most difficult for me ― I can't even draw them," she said.
However, the message of pansori resonates deep with her.
"I really like the story of Heungbo-ga. My favorite scene is where Heungbu splits the first treasure gourd. After so many difficulties, Heungbu is finally rewarded with treasure and shares the joy with his family. He even cares about his greedy brother Nolbu despite him being a bully."
Mafo performed in front of two heads of state at the Elysee Palace when President Moon Jae-in visited France in 2018. However, her most memorable experience was to perform in her birth country Cameroon in 2019.
"Cameroonians know nothing about Korea and I was worried about how my family would react to pansori. At first they seemed bewildered but they soon discovered its charm. I remember how they responded to my French version of Sarang-ga as they were able to understand without subtitles," she said.
|Laure Mafo, center, takes a picture with French President Emmanuel Macron and Korean President Moon Jae-in after performing pansori at the Elysee Palace in 2018. Courtesy of Laure Mafo|
Mafo devised a Korean name for herself ― So Yul. So comes from Soeul Soripan, where she learns pansori, as well as the surname of her favorite actor So Ji-sub, while Yul comes from the Korean traditional music note.
"Even though I have a Korean name now, most people still call me Laure. I hope more people will start to call me Yul," Mafo said.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mafo suffered cancellations of scheduled performances. Instead, she tried to meet audiences through online performances and uploads videos on her YouTube channel.
"The biggest difference is lack of 'chuimsae,' or exclamation, from audiences. A pansori performance is complete when there is a sorikkun, a gosu (drummer) and an audience. I love communicating with audiences while singing pansori and without the audience making exclamations, pansori can never be perfect," Mafo said.
"However, I can reach out much further online and audiences can watch pansori performances no matter where they are in the world. Once a French person from Bordeaux asked me where they could learn pansori since workshops are only available in Paris. But people can watch online pansori performances anywhere in the world. I teach chuimsae to online audiences as well, wishing that I could listen to their exclamations."
While learning pansori, Mafo hopes to tell her own story and dreams of her future through the medium.
"When I started pansori, I gave up what I already had in France and moved to a new country. It was very hard at first, but I have no regrets," Mafo said. "I think you have to think outside the box to pursue your dreams. Typically, you think of what you can do with what you have ― what job can I get with my business administration degree? However, I wanted to do pansori, so I asked what I had to do to pursue pansori. I hope I can communicate this message in my pansori someday."