Samulnori is a genre of traditional music performed with four percussion instruments referred to as “pungmul풍물” – a small gong called kkwanggwari꽹과리, a drum, a larger gong called jing징, and a double-ended drum called janggu장구.
This folk music is well-known around the world as traditional music that originated in Korea. But it is not as traditional as is conventionally believed. Indeed, the history of samulnori is rather short. It was first introduced to the public just about four decades ago, in 1978.
You might think that samulnori was created around that time, but in fact this folk music draws on centuries-old pungmul pieces specific to each region of the country. Why then did samulnori come to be in the 1970s?
It was at this time that rural villages and old traditions in Korea were disappearing due to industrialization and urbanization. Young students of namsadang남사당, or a traveling music troupe, began to learn how to play pungmul pieces and adapted them into songs suitable for stage performances.
Pungmul instruments used to be played by several musicians in large spaces, so it was initially perplexing to see just four percussionists playing together on a small stage. It was not unlike compressing an epic novel into a short poem.
But audiences reacted wildly to the intense beats and melodies, applauding the audacious musical experiment of the young, innovative musicians. Now let’s listen to the four samulnori musicians, Kim Duk-soo and the SamulNori Band, performing “Yeongnam Farm Music.”
Music 1: Yeongnam Farm Music/ Performed by Kim Duk-soo and SamulNori Band
When Kim Duk-soo and his fellow musicians perform overseas, only four pungmul instruments are placed on stage, causing incredulity among an international audience wondering what kind of sound the Korean musicians could possibly generate with only those instruments. But once the musicians began to play, the explosive sound and overwhelming energy left no one in doubt of what the instruments were capable of.
Rhythm, melody, and chord are generally considered the three foundations of western music. Music in many other places around the world, however, are without chords, and Korean traditional music is one of them. Korean traditional music is comprised of only two elements – rhythm and melody. What makes melodies in Korean music different from other countries’ music is that melodies are applied to solo performances of percussion instruments like janggu or jing. This implies that “melody” or “garak가락” in Korean music has a broader interpretation than is conventionally applied in music forms from other parts of the world.
In that sense, rhythm or “jangdan장단” indicates not only how fast the music is played, but also how its dodeuri jangdan도드리장단, or patterns and accents such as bars and beats are transcribed. There are several types of “jangdan” in Korean music and mixing and matching those jangdan would complete an exciting samulnori piece. Let’s listen to a solo janggu performance by janggu virtuoso Kim Jeong-hee.
Music 2: Ghut Janggo/ Janggu by Kim Jeong-hee
Kim Jeong-hee describes himself as a “hwaraengi화랭이,” or a musician that plays an instrument at shamanistic rituals called “ghut굿.” Traditionally, there are two kinds of shamans in Korea: hereditary shamans, whose family has been involved in the occupation for generations, and shamans who become so after being suddenly overtaken by spirits. When a girl is born in a hereditary shaman family, she becomes a shaman priestess, known for her artistry of music and dance. A boy in the family becomes a hwaraengi, a player of music at rituals.
There was a time when shamanism was persecuted for being superstitious and harmful to traditional customs, but nowadays shamans are regarded by many as a unique conduit of Korean culture. Indeed, Sounds of Korea hopes that appreciation will grow for the contribution today’s modern shamans make to keeping traditional Korean music alive and well.
Today’s episode of Sounds of Korea concludes with “Noreummachi Sinawi” performed by percussion group Noreum Machi.
Music 3: Noreummachi Sinawi/ Performed by Noreum Machi