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SamulNori drums rural sounds into concert halls

SamulNori with Kim Duk Soo, March 15, 2014

The Georgia Straight

by Alexander Varty

In ages past, the Korean art of samul nori played a key part in agricultural life, energizing the soil at planting time and thanking the earth once fall’s bounty had been gathered in. Part ritual and part recreational activity, banging on the drums and gongs known as the buk, janggu, jing, and kkwaenggwari also brought farm folk together at times of crisis and celebration, serving much the same purpose as brass bands in English mining villages or gamelan ensembles in Java.

“Percussion music was a kind of community entertainment,” confirms Joo Jay-Youn, executive director of SamulNori, the Seoul-based ensemble named for the music it plays. “All the community members could play percussion at that time. They played between hard work, to ease the physical pains, and for seasonal community festivals. At weddings and funeral ceremonies, all the community members played.”

Now, of course, Korea is one of the world’s most technologically advanced societies, with younger urbanites far more likely to download K-pop from the cloud than practice an ancient musical form inspired by the sounds of rain, wind, and thunder. Both samul nori and SamulNori, whose members serve as unofficial cultural ambassadors, remain a source of national pride for Koreans, however. And a possible source of international contention, too, if any Japanese readers take offence at what Joo has to say when asked about the links between the Korean style and the superficially similar pulse of taiko drumming.

“I think for western people, they’re very similar forms,” he allows. “The two musics are quite similar to western ears, but each has a very different form and style. For example, when it comes to the way of hitting the instrument, the Japanese performer plays in a quite direct way. Koreans, they play in more of a circular form. Also, Korean music has a variety of rhythms. Japanese percussionists, they play just taka-taka-taka, but we have many, many polyrhythms.”

Joo might be selling his Japanese counterparts short. In recent years, at least, taiko has grown in complexity, attracting the attention of performers worldwide and drawing composers who might otherwise write for chamber ensembles or symphony orchestras. Samul nori, in comparison, remains staunchly traditional and resolutely Korean, with only a handful of mostly university-based troupes performing outside its homeland.

As for the idea that new compositions might be written for SamulNori, the band, Joo says that’s not quite the case. The ensemble’s founder, Kim Duk Soo, arranges most of its music, but he’s apparently more a scholar of the form than an innovator.

“We don’t say ‘to compose a piece’,” Joo explains. “It is appropriate that we do variations, reconstructions, and re-creations based on the traditional rhythms, in which each instrument has a different musical job. We arrange rhythm patterns from ancient times.

“Sometimes we use dance or computer-crafted images to enhance our performances,” he continues, “but the audience can also feel the sound of nature from our percussion music.”

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, given that SamulNori performs in concert halls around the world rather than in rural village squares.

“As society moves towards technological development, people are looking for the other side,” Joo says. “I mean ecological values, analogue sound. So when we combine this music with theatrical elements, we create a whole, complete poem. We might lose the value of community, but we find unity in the spirit of the music.”

Thu Mar 13, 2014