After 4 Decades of Teaching Traditional Music, the Beat Goes OnThe Seoul Traditional Art Middle School located in Geumcheon-gu, southern Seoul, is the cradle of Korean traditional music. And with the school's 40th anniversary approaching, some alumni master artists gathered at the school's memorial hall. Kim Young-jae, Park Bum-hoon, Kim Duk-soo and Choi Jong-sil, four of Korea's greatest modern masters of traditional music, returned to the middle school where their auspicious careers began.
Although they were busy rehearsing for an anniversary performance, they took the time to recall their school days.
"The first song that I learned at the school was 'Jukjangmanghae' ('A Bamboo Stick and Straw Sandals'), a song with short, quick notes," said Kim Young-jae, a master of the Korean lute and professor at the Korean National University of the Arts.
"We also learned classical songs, folk ballads (gyeonggi minyo), three-verse Korean odes (sijo), the Korean lute (geomungo), Korean fiddle (haegeum) and zither (gayageum). I eventually became fascinated with the beating of the gong and the sangmo, the string with a feathered tail on the traditional Korean dancer's hat. Our neighbors nicknamed us 'Night Monsters' because of all the noise we made."
"During our days at Namsan, we studied while managing the instrument storehouses," recalled Park Bum-hoon, a samulnori composer and vice president of Chung Ang University. "The storehouses were located at what used to be a crypt. The darkness scared us at first, but we gradually got used to the place. When we became hungry, we went to Namdaemun market for a quick snack of porridge to satisfy our bellies."
"Most of us were in extreme poverty," said Kim Duk-soo, the founder of the Samulnori percussion ensemble and of the Nanjang Cultures, Inc. "But we were honored to learn from the contemporary masters in fields such as masked dances and courtyard dances. The recently deceased Kim Hyee-cho taught Western music classes. In other words, not only did we learn music the traditional way, orally, we also learned the Western musical tradition, with written sheet music."
Finally, Choi Jong-sil spoke: "Along with my older alumni Mr. Park and Mr. Kim, we lived in the school's night watchman's room for six years. There was a time when we were the laughingstock of the town, as people looked at us lugging harps and other instruments on our backs and they said we were going to a geisha school. Now, the public's perception of Korean classical music has changed."
In 1969, five high school kids formed Sinawi, the first small ensemble for Korean traditional classic. Sinawi is sort of a shamanic music used for relieving grievances by dead spirits, but the group used the expression for their own purposes. These young men devoted themselves to excavating traditional Korean music, and were instrumental in slowly reviving interest in and respect for Korean traditional music. For 10 years, they continually performed with great exuberance.
By the late 1970s, they developed the separate samulnori, four-person, style of music. And in 1981, Kim Duk-soo formed the band Samulnori. Samulnori has played all over the world and is Korea's best-known traditional music troupe.
The Seoul Metropolitan Traditional Korean Music Orchestra began nearly three decades ago. In 1964, Ji Yeong-hee, then the first conductor and a haegeum master, brought together over 50 students to form a traditional Korean music orchestra. Their group caught on, and were soon performing all over the city. Kim Yeong-jae was a paid performer in only his second year of high school. Currently there are 30 or so traditional Korean music orchestras performing around the Peninsula.
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