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The music genre Korean elders 'trot' to

Episode Summary

“Trot” is a Korean music genre that has been around for decades. But in recent years, it has exploded in popularity in Southern California. The biggest fans? Immigrant seniors.

Episode Notes

“Trot” is a Korean music genre that has been around for decades. But in recent years, it has exploded in popularity in Southern California. The biggest fans? Immigrant seniors.

Today, we talk about trot’s history, staying power and role in the Korean American community. Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times Asian American communities reporter Jeong Park

More reading:

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Koreatown’s elderly immigrants find the lure of the casino bus a blessing and a curse

Club helps older Korean immigrants find their political voice

Episode Transcription

Gustavo Arellano: On a Friday afternoon in Koreatown, a group of elderly women gather at the local community center. They’re excited for dance class. 

They're dancing to a genre of music called trot. It's been popular in Korea since the 1940s, but there's been a recent surge in trot concerts and shows in Southern California. And the biggest trot fans of all are Koreans in their golden years 

I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to “The Times: Essential News From the L.A. Times.” It's Friday, April 21st, 2023. Today, how Korean elders have forged a community around trot, and why you should get in on this trend.

Here to talk to me about all this is L.A. Times Asian American communities reporter Jeong Park. Jeong, welcome to “The Times.”

Jeong Park: Thank you so much.

Gustavo Arellano: So, Jeong, at the senior center in Koreatown, what was the vibe like there?

Jeong Park: There's a big ballroom where you had 30, 40 elders lining up and waving their arms, thrusting their hips, just dancing to this really upbeat music that was playing over the loudspeaker. I mean, it was quite something to see.

And there we had a dance teacher who was on the front of the stage and she was basically the DJ. She played the remix, more upbeat remixes of the trot music on her computer that was played over the loudspeaker. And she told me that, you know, she wanted to make this upbeat because some of the songs are a little bit sadder, a little bit downbeat, and she obviously wants her students to dance to those songs.

She found some of the choreography from YouTube and she was instructing her students to do this dance.

Gustavo Arellano: Yeah, it’s really cool to see the aunties and uncles do their Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, you know. But you also wrote about attending two concerts recently of trot. Who were the artists and what was your experience like?

Jeong Park: It was quite something else. I went to two concerts, one by Lim Young Woong, another by Kim Ho Joong. One by Lim was at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, one by Kim was at the Greek Theatre, also in the Hollywood area.

Gustavo Arellano: These are big venues.

Jeong Park: These are huge venues, you know, three-, four-, five-thousand seats. And you'd see what you typically see at a BTS concert or K-pop concert where you have flashing light sticks, banners, signs, matching T-shirts or matching sweatshirts. 

You'd see all of that, but the difference between the BTS concert and those two concerts is that the demographic is a lot older for those two concerts. You have people in their 50s and 60s and even 70s doing all of this that people in their teens and 20s would do for a BTS concert.

At the concert of Kim at the Greek Theatre, pretty much everyone wore purple, which is a signature color for Kim. So that was really something to see: your mother, your grandmother, people of that age doing the things that, I, a 28-year-old, would do at a K-pop concert.

And a lot of them gather to watch livestreams of concerts in Korea. They also coordinate both on KaKaoTalk, which is a Korean social media app. Um, you know, some of them came all the way from Korea to watch this concert, uh, in L.A., but all of them really came to hear this genre called trot, which has made a comeback within the last couple years.

Gustavo Arellano: What exactly then defines trot? You mentioned the people who like it, but what's the music like?

Jeong Park: It's an interesting question and I think we struggle to define it when now it's writing the story. The simplest way to put it is that the trot is a Korean oldies or Korean country music in its theme and in its sound. In its theme, they talk a lot about nostalgia and longing for home, longing for the loved one they lost, longing for family, which I think sounds similar to country music and the theme of the country music. In terms of the music itself, trot is actually a shortened form of foxtrot. The dance, right. And it was the music popular during the 1950s to 1980s. It was known for repetitive rhythm called ppongjjak. It's a two-beat rhythm, um, as well as spoken inflection called kkeok-kki. And it developed as a genre during the Japanese colonial era in the early 20th century.

So when I think about trot, I think of an artist, Na Hoon-a, really rose to prominence in the 1970s and is known as the Emperor of Trot. A lot of his songs about the sense of sadness, the sense of nostalgia, um, and there's one song called ”Empty,” which basically talks about how we've lived the life and how everything that you had fought for, everything that you pushed to get, it's all meaningless at the end, which, um, and he talks about how his longing for the youth, his longing for the sense of growing up. 

Gustavo Arellano: It's really cool music, Jeong, and I had never heard of it before, and I think most Americans haven't. I mean we at this point know what K-pop is, BTS, it's a worldwide phenomenon. So is trot like the musical grandparent of K-pop or is it just a completely different genre?

Jeong Park: So in K-pop there's a thing called ppongkki, which comes from ppongjjak, that's a rhythm that's so prevalent in trot. So in that sense, yes, trot is like the grandparent of K-pop. It's what distinguishes a lot of K-pop from the Western music. Um, but even a member of BTS did a trot song called “Super Tuna.”

And I think a lot of the K-pop stars did the covers of trot because it's showing homage to the origin of the music and to the senior artists that some of their parents grew up listening to. But obviously there is some generational difference in how people appreciate the music. Uh, the younger folks are probably looking at it more in the sense of curiosity, while the older folks are looking at this in the sense of, oh, like I grew up listening to this music and now it's cool to listen to this music and say that I listen to this music again. 

Gustavo Arellano: How did it become so popular again in recent years? ’Cause you mentioned this is the music of Korean elders when they were young, but you weren't seeing these big concerts in the United States the way you're seeing now.

Jeong Park: Right, a lot of the artists performed in casinos, and not to say anything bad about casinos, but those are smaller. And also the places that are more limited, I think, in its appeal. But, right, why are we seeing so many of those concerts in those big, big venues? It really came from a variety show called “Mr. Trot” … basically like an “American Idol,” but for Korean trot music. You had singers audition the covers of trot songs, but a lot of them were millennial and Gen Z singers. There was even, uh, somebody in their 13, 14 year old who came to audition for this show.

That's how people like Kim Ho Joong and Lim Young Woong found their audience, in “Mr. Trot.” 

Gustavo Arellano: Coming up after the break, the history of trot, and how elderly Korean immigrants connect with it here in the United States.

Jeong, what's the history behind trot? Like, what were the circumstances that created the genre in the first place? 

Jeong Park: So this music came about during the Japanese colonization in the early 20th century, and this really became a way for Korea to adopt some of the quote-unquote Western music and make it theirs. So to understand the history, I talked to professor Jung-Min Mina Lee, who works at the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University and specializes in the intersection of post-colonial and national cultural identity with modern Korean music. 

Jung-Min Mina Lee: Music that was sung in the 1920s is really the beginning of trot. So early 20th century, during that time, Korea was under Japanese colonial rule. So it was really the merge of American music and the Westernized Japanese popular music, and then some of the other like European popular songs that came into Korea through all these channels, Japanese channel and the American channel. And then out of that emerged this new genre of music that can be called as popular music. 

So on the surface they sound a lot more cheery and happy, right? But what's also notable is, when you think about the 1940s Korea, it has just been liberated in 1945, right? And then went into the American military government rule between 1945 and 1948, so a lot of political confusion, just identity crisis, cultural identity crisis.

And then, between 1950 and 1953, the Korean War just kind of completely shattered the country. And then a lot of people went through these, I mean, not just lots of death, but families being parted and then extreme poverty following that. So how trot reflects these social circumstances was major songs that are superficially cheerful, but when you listen to the lyrics, they are still reflecting the sentiments of regret, sadness, sorrow that we heard a lot during the colonial era.

There's a song called [Korean] that comes from 1948. So that's three years after Korea's liberation. So that's in a major scale, but when you listen to the lyrics, it's really about the sorrow of being forcefully parted. 

’Cause it really reflects the experience of Koreans, many Koreans having to leave their country and their homeland to participate in the Pacific War.

Gustavo Arellano: Jeong, trot to me sounds like ranchera music in Mexico. It’s also a genre of longing and love and desire, nostalgia, leaving the motherland, all of that stuff. And you see that around the world like lmost all countries and cultures. You know you have different styles of genres, but there’s always going to be that one genre specifically dedicated to nostalgia, kind of like, you know, what trot is.  

Jeong Park: So when producer Helen Lee and I went to this concert, we heard a lot of songs from Kim about the sense of nostalgia and about the sense of longing for the homeland. So we heard this song called “Tragic Love” by Cho Yong Pil. And when Kim sang [Korean], which is to pray, everyone basically screamed out loud. It's like a 10, like call and response, that happens. But the song is basically like how we are separating and we were asked of sorrows about how to recover, how to shoulder this wave that's coming at me, that's coming at us.

It's seen as the genre that theme of nostalgia for your home, for your bygone time, bygone youth, for your family, for your loved one, umm. There's a song called [Korean], which I grew up listening to in Korea. My grandparents would sing this to me. 

The singer would basically talk about how in the southbound train, you know, she's thinking about what she's lost and what she's longing for, this longing for the loved one that has gone by this time. So those are some of the themes that are very prevalent in trot and some of the more prominent music of Trot.

Gustavo Arellano: Oh, man. Train songs going away. That's like universal, like I'm thinking. “Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight and the Pips. And again, longing. Really powerful. So these themes of struggle and nostalgia, OK, they've been around for a while, these songs. But what do you think about this music resonates with older Koreans in Southern California right now?

Jeong Park: Yeah, I mean, a lot of those older Koreans have been here for 30, 40, 50 years. They started immigrating to the U.S. in the 1970s, 1980s. And obviously they have gone through a lot in those times that they were in the United States. They’ve gone through the 1992 Sa-I-Gu, or L.A. civil unrest, which destroyed a lot of their businesses.

They also had to navigate this in foreign land without the support system that exists now. But I came from Korea when I was 11 in 2006. By then, there was the support structure in Koreatown that you could go to. But when the elders came to L.A., to the U.S., in the 1980s, they didn't really have any support structure. There was no H-Mart. There really wasn't a community center. So they had to build all of this themselves. And I think, for them, that also created that lot of struggle. and the sense of struggle. They've been away from family and they're in a sense playing catch-up with what's happening in the homeland, because back then, in the ’80s and ’90s, really the only way that you get exposed to your culture in the homeland is through those videotapes, those VHS tapes that you'd rent, that'll come a month or two late after what's aired in Korea. And nowadays with YouTube, with smartphones, with everything, those are a lot more accessible.

Also, another factor in all of this is the fact that the pandemic had shut down a lot of those community institutions and organizations and the spaces where elders were going to have fun and the sense of community. Pandemic obviously had hit Koreatown really hard because of the population, and in the pandemic, “Mr. Trot” was becoming more popular in the diaspora around the time, around February, March of 2020, and a lot of the elders watched that audition program, saw and heard the music and saw the stars, and that's how they found the community.

Gustavo Arellano: Yeah, and everything that you're telling me just really resonates with myself as a Mexican American, like the Mexican community, our elders love to dance. It's mostly at family parties and some senior centers, yeah, and then we do take our parents to a concert, although I don't really see something the way trot, where you have all of our elders all together at once, which I think that's just so cool. But, yeah, they love the music, but they also want to be active, they want to dance and they want to talk to each other. So it's really cool to see the same thing happening with Koreans.

Jeong Park: Yeah, this is something that I've been thinking a lot about following the mass shooting in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay. After those two tragedies, there's been a lot of discussion within the community about the senior population and mental health, and in my stories I try to think about how they find a way to live their lives and be mentally healthy.

We also heard from some of the community leaders about the prescription drug abuse that exists in some of the elderly Korean American men. So those issues are prevalent issues in the American community, in the Asian American community, and I think a lot of the community is talking about how do you find ways for them to have fun and to build this community. I think this is where the music and the dance class comes into play.

At the Kim Ho Joong concert at the Greek Theatre, I spoke with two elderly Korean Americans who had talked about after attending this concert how they will go to this line dance class in the Koreatown Senior Center, and how they will prepare to dance for this big Korean American festival that will be happening in Koreatown in the fall.

Gustavo Arellano: Coming up after the break, how trot has sparked more community engagement in Koreatown. 

How has this resurgence in trot helped these elders connect to their families, the younger people in their families, or even across the sea?

Jeong Park: It's really funny because I'm 28, like I am part of the generation that grew up on K-pop fandom, right? And my parents, for instance, did not get it, right? Like, why are you spending so much money on buying this album? Why are you, you know, asking me $20, $30 to buy this new album from whatever artist there is, right? But now, like, they get it, right? Like, my parents, they get me because they are the one who's spending all this money on buying album, buying merchandise, buying all the goodies of the artist. And a lot of the parents and elders talked to me about that, right? They said, oh, five, 10 years ago we were chiding our kids, like, not to do this. But now, like, you know, I get why our kids did this because I'm getting the same amount of fandom, same amount of that love, that intensity for my artist. So I, it was finding interesting. It helped build that sympathy between generations, I think.

Gustavo Arellano: Understanding. That's so cool. Have these classes also helped people go to them at the senior center, get more involved in their overall local community?

Jeong Park: Yeah, um. So outside the ballroom, there is a little frame that you can see all the classes that happen at the senior center. It is packed, the schedule is packed with dozens of classes, five days a week. There is a class about writing your own autobiography. There's a class about what planning out your life. There's a class about learning Korean American immigration history. So all of those are a way for the seniors to be more engaged with the Korean American community and other communities at large.

When we went to the senior center, there was a chat after class about getting people more involved in local Koreatown neighborhood council elections. We don't want to go too far into it, but there has been some it's just with the neighborhood council because of a lot of vacancies and there's the general sense of Korean Americans not really being involved in shaping Koreatown.

So there is a lot of push in the senior center and beyond to get Korean Americans more involved in shaping the neighborhood of Koreatown amid gentrification and other issues that are going on. So this class, how people register and to cast a vote for these local elections, and that can lead to Korean Americans having a bigger voice in civic engagement.

Gustavo Arellano: That is really cool. Finally, Jeong, we cannot do an episode about music without someone singing. I sadly did not know my trot as much as I should. So you get to sing whatever song you want to sing, just a little bit, who the artist is, what's the title, and then sing.

Jeong Park: OK. Let me do the, let me do “Southbound Train.” Oh, God, this is the most nervous part of the day. [Sings]

Gustavo Arellano: Oh, man, Jeong, you, you brought it. Thank you so much for this conversation.

Jeong Park: Thank you. Thank you.

Gustavo Arellano: And that's it for this episode of “The Times: Essential News From the L.A. Times.” Helen Li and Ashley Brown were the jefas on this episode. It was edited by Heba Elorbany. Jazmin Aguilera and Mario Diaz mixed and mastered it. Our show is produced by Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown. Our editorial assistants are Roberto Reyes and Nicolas Perez. Our fellow is Helen Li. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our executive producers are Jazmin Aguilera, Shani Hilton and Heba Elorbany. And our theme music is by Andrew Eban.

I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back Monday with all the news and desmadre.