These three contestants have gained fame in Korea after appearing in "Tapgol Rhapsody: Can K-pop Be Interpreted?" a reality TV competition show on the cable E Channel. In the show, foreign contestants sing "Tapgol K-pop," or Korean hits from the 1980s to the early 2000s, with the first verse sung in Korean and the second in their respective mother tongues.
The trio did not live in Korea at the time, but their performances moved and gained a following with Korean audiences. Kim Gwang-seok's "Around the Age of Thirty" sung in French, Byeon Jin-seob's "To You Again" in Chinese and Baek Ji-young's "Don't Forget" in Spanish brought a different vibe from that of today's K-pop and earned global attention.
The show ran from May 2 to July 4 and attracted 20 million views on YouTube and comments in languages from across the world.
Korea.net on July 10 interviewed the three singers at E Channel's studio in Seoul's Jongno-gu District.
Musical sentiment via memories despite linguistic differences
Why are these contestants so attracted to Tapgol K-pop, a genre whose songs are now considered oldies? All three said memories of sentiments evoked by music are commonly felt despite language differences.
Lara Benito, a Korea-based TV personality, model and YouTuber from Spain, said, "Conveying the feelings is more important than clearly enunciating the lyrics."
"Singing old Korean pop songs reminds me of my youth, and I like feeling that nostalgia."
"The comment I get the most is from people saying they cannot speak Spanish at all but could fully understand the emotion," she added.
"I fell in love with the melodies of Tapgol K-pop back when I couldn't even properly understand the Korean lyrics," she said, emphasizing that melody is a global language that breaks down language barriers.
Jin Run Ji of China, who has gone back and forth between Korea and his homeland since 2005 and works as a singer in both countries, said, "The lyrics touched me as time passed. The meaning and emotions brought out by the songs of that time period are also different now."
Korean tales told via songs with translated lyrics
The contestants spoke Korean well enough to give the interview without translators, and they translated the lyrics of their songs from Korean to their respective native tongues. They said they translated the lyrics to promote Korean songs to more people.
"They weren't just text, they were lyrics. So translating them to convey emotions like a poem was the most difficult," Benito said.
She said she felt proud when seeing Spanish commenters on YouTube saying they felt moved when the lyrics shifted to Spanish.
French contestant Laure Mafo not only sings Korean oldies but also translates into French pansori (one-person lyrical opera), which is difficult for even Koreans. She quit her job in France in 2017 to move Korea, and now studies under pansori master Min Hye-seong, who mastered "Heungbuga," a song in the genre designated National Intangible Cultural Asset No. 5.
"The French are very interested in Korean culture, and I came to like Korean culture because of pansori. So I started translation because I wanted to express that," she said.
"I had to keep up with the song's beat and select the right words out of various vocabulary when translating from Korean to French," she added. "I got much support and gratitude from people thanking me for conveying stories from Korean tales to the French via translation, and that gave me much strength."
In 2018, Mafo gave a pansori performance at a state banquet hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron when President Moon Jae-in visited France.
The dream of the three contestants to share Korean oldies with the world is just the beginning. They said bringing Tapgol K-pop to the world stage is now their "top goal."
"I empathize more with songs than lyrics."