A love affair with Salmunori

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A love affair with Salmunori

A couple of weeks ago, the stimulating rhythms of samulnori, a form of Korean traditional music, were echoing through a traditional cafe in Insa-dong, Seoul. Patrons stopped drinking tea and gathered in a room to listen to the music. They found a blue-eyed lady playing a janggu, or hourglass drum. She is the leader of the samulnori band Jap-Tang. The performance ended and big bursts of applause followed.
“Thank you. I am American and a samulnori lady,” said Mary Jo Presley, 72, who is the leader of the band. A Hawaiian native, she spoke slowly, in Korean. The band came to Korea to attend the 15th World Samulnori Competition & Festival in Buyeo, South Jeolla province, which was held between Sept. 30 and Oct. 3.
Ms. Presley formed the band earlier this year in Hawaii. Its name, Jap-Tang, means hodgepodge in Korean. She chose the name because the band combined Korean traditional samulnori with other ethnic rhythms.
It has been 23 years since she fell in love with samulnori. She studied dancing in college and worked as a physical education teacher in an elementary school in the 1960s. She was introduced to Korean traditional dancing after she met Bae Han-ra (1922-1994) in a special lecture at the University of Hawaii. She then learned Korean-style fan and Buddhist dance as well as Korean folk music.
However, it was samulnori that made her fall in love with Korean culture. In 1983, when she first visited Korea, she watched a samulnori performance by Kim Deok-su. “My life changed when I listened to Kim Deok-su’s Samdo Sul Changgo Karak,” Ms. Presley said. “I felt that I would sell my soul for that music.”
Since then, her life has revolved around samulnori. Visiting Korea every two to three years, she became a student of sul changgo master Kim Byeong-seop (1921-1987) and learned janggu rhythms. When she was his student, she had difficulties understanding him, which was probably a blessing: “I was scolded everyday, but I did not know what he was saying. He kept saying ‘dasi’ (again) all the time.”
In the early 1990s, when Kim Deok-su performed in Hawaii, she asked him to teach her samulnori. “Samulnori emphasizes harmony rather than individual performance. I learned that it has a perfect connection to the essential value of music, which is peace,” Ms. Presley said.
In 1995, she formed a band called Aloha Sanggonori in Hawaii. Since then, the band has performed in Hawaii at least 10 times a year. Ms. Presley quit her job as teacher in early 1990s. Now she owns a Korean style dancing school in Hawaii.
“I want to let the world know the new sounds that combine Korean traditional samulnori and other ethnic rhythms,” Ms. Presley said.

by Chung Kang-hyun
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