As tradition takes centre stage during the new year celebrations, here are 7 K-pop songs that incorporate traditional Korean elements. 

In case you missed it, a lot of countries across Asia are celebrating the Lunar New Year, which marks the official beginning of the lunar calendar and – this year – the Year of the Tiger. 

In South Korea, the Lunar New Year is called Seollal, and is considered one of the most important days of the year. This year, however, is more special than most, considering the immense importance that tigers hold in South Korean culture. One of the two animals found in the country’s founding mythology, tigers are sacred to South Koreans and revered as harbingers of good luck and protectors against evil spirits. 

As tradition takes centre stage, here are some K-pop songs who have created an excellent fusion of tradition and modernity, whether through sonic arrangements or visual elements. 

VIXX – ‘Shangri-La’

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VIXX are often known as ‘concept-dols’ in K-pop, thanks to their superbly immersive concepts. From voodoo to mad scientists, they’ve tried and conquered it all – but the soft, hypnotic ‘Shangri La’ holds a special place inside our hearts. 

With a title inspired by poet Tao Yuan Ming’s Peach Blossom Spring Poems, ‘Shangri-La’ binds us in a beautiful story held together by classic eastern motifs and a beautifully woven gayageum, a stringed instrument that lends the song an air of mystery. 

BTS – ‘Idol’

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Ah, who doesn’t remember the ‘Idol’ era? As BTS made their way beyond South Korean borders, the group claimed their Korean identity with pride and flair through the booming, vibrant ‘Idol’. Sporting traditional Hanboks and visual motifs – including a majestic tiger – ‘Idol’ was BTS’ answer to those who were wondering whether they would compromise their identity to fit a global stage. As they quite literally put it, however, ‘You can’t stop me loving myself!’ 

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August D – ‘Daechwita’

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You didn’t think we’d leave this one off the list, did you? If there was anyone who could have given us a perfect rendition of cultural pride and a hard-hitting diss track, it was BTS’ Suga – or Agust D, as the man is known solo.

A song fit for a king – he’s even dressed like one in the music video – the sounds on ‘Daechwita’ are inspired by traditional military music, which uses instruments like Nabal (brass horn), Nagak (Seashell horn), Taepyeongso (shawm), jing (gong), and more. Also, give Jin and Jungkook their historical K-drama already! 

Mino – ‘Fiancé’

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Scandal meets debauchery meets glorious luxury and tradition on Mino’s ‘Fiancé,’ which sees the man seduce another man’s wife – the Korean title for the song, in fact, is anaknae, a term specifically used for betrothed women. Dressed lavishly in a Hanbok, Mino combines his seamless rapping with samples of the 1969 Korean classic ‘Soyangang Maiden’ – if this were a man, you’d best believe we’re dropping everything for him. 

Min Kyung-hoon and Heechul ft. BIBI – ‘Hanryang’

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While not a track from a K-pop group, this one deserves a mention simply for how excellent it is. With some truly spectacular rapping by Super Junior’s Heechul, vocal work from Min Kyung-hoon, and the powerful charm of BIBI – perhaps South Korea’s most exciting rising star – the song takes us back to the Joseon dynasty and features Heechul and Kyung-hoon as “hanryang”. 

Meaning “hedonist”, the track follows the two men as they shun the rules of society and claim that they’ll live the way they want – if you missed this one, what were you even doing? 

ToppDogg – ‘Arario’

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From the moment the gayageum kicks in, you know you are in for a truly wonderful ride on ToppDogg’s ‘Arario’, which references the popular Korean folk song ‘Arirang’, considered one of the most important songs in South Korean history. 

On ‘Arario’, ToppDogg combines modern hip-hop with cultural pride. From traditional folk dances such as pungmul, to instruments such as the aforementioned gayageum and piri (bamboo flute), ‘Arario’ is a delightful medley of the old and the new. 

G-Dragon – ‘Niliria’

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Any list such as this will be incomplete without mentioning one of K-pop’s greatest. While not a title track, G-Dragon’s ‘Niliria’ – from his album Coup d’etat – remains an iconic moment in his discography, and not just because of the Missy Elliot collab (yep, that’s right). The song samples a Korean folk song of the same name, bringing it into hip-hop territory thanks to powerful beats and GD’s choppy vocal delivery. One of the best songs of 2013, the song also made it to Complex’s List of the 50 Best Songs of 2013

You can read more about this topic over at the Asia Pop Observer.

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