Imagine a party. You have two gongs of different sizes and two drums, one shaped like an hourglass and the other a barrel. Add a lot of energy and showmanship, sometimes a wind that’s a hybrid flute and recorder. What do you think it sounds like?
If it was my party, you’d call the police and I’d get arrested for disturbing the peace. With SamulNori, you get taken for an amazing ride.
The ensemble takes its name from samul nori, which literally comes from the Korean describing dancers playing the four percussion instruments. Taking its roots from folk music, it combines many of the animist and shamanistic traditions of village culture as well as the regional cultures that comprise Korea, resulting in a mishmash of music, dance and acrobatics that is simply breathtaking. Given that the music originally centered around prayers for good harvests, it follows that the instruments themselves represent various elements. Rain, wind and the clouds are represented in the ensemble, as well as the idea of yin and yang, of the harmony between the heavens and the earth.
Originally a four-man band, SamulNori has grown into a company of thirty artists and students led by Kim Duk Soo. Mr. Kim is a lifelong devotee of the craft otherwise known as a wandering artist, a part of Korea’s troupe of traditional performing arts. Over the past five decades, he has been one of Korea’s most influential figures, helping to bring samul nori back to the forefront of the nation’s cultural consciousness. At the same time, he has also helped SamulNori grow by touring around the world to impart knowledge of traditional Korean arts, collaborating with jazz, pop and classical performers. This has helped to increase the prominence of Korean culture around the world, and has also resulted in commercial success, evidenced by SamulNori having recorded fifteen records to date.
Saturday, they stepped into the Chan Centre. It was the first time at the Centre where I saw the artists literally introduce themselves, as they made their presence known outside the hall and walked through the seating area. Performing a binari, or a prayer song sung at the beginning of a stay at the village, they made their way to the stage where they prayed for a blessing to their audience and the ground. At least, I think that’s what it was – my Korean’s not up to snuff but I could make out “UBC” and “Chan Centre”, and the audience’s good-natured laughter and applause was another hint that what they were saying was something positive. Loud and warm, it felt very much like a greeting, with a large presence of gongs that made me think of lion dances and other joyous celebrations in Chinese culture.
From there, they stepped into an instrumental solo. Using only the changgo (the hourglass-shaped drum), four performers sat on the ground, using a great sense of syncopation and polyrhythm to give us an aural experience. Varying between slow and fast rhythms, light tapping to full out thrumming and banging, the sheer coordination and aerobic skill of the performers was on full display as they effortlessly moved through the patterns of three provinces in South Korea. This was then followed up with a garak, an incantation to the moon for protection. In this case, drums accented the slow, deliberate movements of two auspiciously dressed dancers, who looked to have donned shaman’s garbs in order to give this part of the performance more of a spiritual, naturalistic feel.
The performance was closed out by a pan gut, a play in which thunderous percussion solos was accented with dancing. This impressive display evoked both the gregarious nature of a farming festival and the organized, officious nature of a military march, evidenced by a very strong adherence to a regular beat. Wearing either hats with ribbons or feathers attached, the performers managed to not only beat out a solo but also to dance and perform acrobatics. They moved in time with the beat, their heads jerking in sync so that their headgear moved perfectly in rhythm with the music. Having a somewhat military feel as well as that of a random street party, this one performance drove the audience to their feet not one but six times, recognizing each drummer who beat and danced to his own solo.
SamulNori was more than merely interesting. They absorbed us, as we felt the troupe invite us into their experience, the crowd spontaneously starting to clap in sync at various instances. Led by Mr. Kim, we were riveted not just by the sound, but by the sheer enjoyment on their faces. Typically, when observing a classical performance, we expect the stoic, calm front that is the unspoken norm for Western music. However, these men (the whole SamulNori troup is male) were yelling and smiling as they proceeded through the thunderous rumble. Mr. Kim actually had his eyes closed as he gyrated to the music – his arms flowing sinuously, his whole body acting as a physical conduit for the sound, a rapturous expression with his mouth agape. I’ll never know if it was pure ecstasy or him just needing to take deep breaths while doing the upper body equivalent of tae bo, but through the four drummers on stage we could not only sense, but feel the wave of joy they were riding.
So, what was samul nori? To me, it was a noisy repartee, but the kind that makes up families, villages and community. It is that sense of togetherness which we all seek out, whether we know it or not, and when it beckons us, we respond.
A tip: if they come back to do an encore, just go. It’s absolutely worth doing. You’ll know what I’m talking about if it happens.
The following is an excerpt of Kim Duk Soo performing with SamulNori:
SamulNori’s Facebook page can be found at https://www.facebook.com/hanullim.samulnori (you may need to use a translator).