Samulnori evolves as form of survival

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Samulnori evolves as form of survival

Adding modern touches to a tradition seems like an unlikely way of saving it, but that’s what a group of Korean percussionists is trying to do with samulnori, a musical genre that originated with farmers’ music.
“Keeping the tradition is not just preserving it,” said Kim Duk-soo, a founder of Kim Duk-soo SamulNori, which is celebrating its 25th year with a series of concerts at Hoam Art Hall next month.
“While we should keep the essence and spirit of the tradition intact, the creative elements of our times should be added,” he said. “Excessive attachment to tradition does us good, not to mention the tradition itself.” Mr. Kim pointed out that samulnori itself began as a hybrid of traditional and contemporary music.
Samulnori involves four musicians who also dance, each with a different Korean traditional percussion instrument, janggo (hourglass drum), k’kwaenggwari (small gong), ching (large gong) and buk (barrel drum). The word “samul” means “four things,” and “nori” means “to play.”
In 1978, four Korean percussionists formed a performance group called Kim Duk-soo SamulNori. Samulnori comes from what is known as “farmers’ band music,” Nong-ak, combining the traditional rhythms in Nong-ak and musical elements from shamanic ceremonies with modern compositions. However, Kim Duk-soo SamulNori added complexity and speed. Slow tempos gave way to rapid thuds on instruments and powerful dances.
“When we first started, we were treated as heretics in traditional musical circles. But what we wanted to achieve was a creative succession of the traditional music, not its destruction,” said Mr. Kim, who plays the janggo.
Even though he doesn’t shy away from modern music, he’s saddened at the current emphasis on Western classical music over Korean traditional music. “Korean traditional music is like hangul. It should not be forgotten or destroyed by us,” he said.
While most Koreans have overlooked samulnori, it has been enthusiastically received overseas. Kim Duk-soo SamulNori has performed at the Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Over the years, the group has held 1,800 overseas performances.
It also has collaborated with many highly acclaimed musicians from around the world, ranging from jazz to pop. Next month, SamulNori will perform with Red Sun, an Austrian group consisting of a female vocalist, a saxophonist and two guitarists. Red Sun, which mixes contemporary music with folk music around the world, has performed with SamulNori since 1987.
After the Red Sun concerts, SamulNori will celebrate its 25 years of performances with Hanullim Art Troupe, which Mr. Kim founded in 1993.

by Kim Hae-young

“SamulNori & Red Sun” will run from Dec. 2-4, and “SamulNori 1978-2003” from Dec. 5-7 at Hoam Art Hall. Tickets range from 20,000 won to 50,000 won. For more information, call (02) 762-7300 or visit
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