[ZOOM KOREA] Kim Kwan-sik marches to the beat of his own drum
The drum is an instrument considered to have been handed down since the early days of human civilization and has been used in various cultural aspects of Korea, including folk games, dance and shamanism. It also had a significant role of signaling orders in rituals and wars in the past.
Kim Kwan-sik, 67, is a master of bukmaeugi, or the craft of producing drums, and he does so using only traditional methods.
Born in Daejeon in 1955, Kim’s family has been making drums for three generations, starting with his grandfather, who’s done the art for some 30 years in Nonsan, South Chungcheong, and later his father in Daejeon for around 50 years. When Kim was a child, his house was nicknamed “janggujip,” which translates to “janggu house.” Janggu is a traditional hourglass-shaped drum.
Kim, who was born the sixth child of 12, grew up watching his family make drums, learning the skills himself from an early age. His family struggled financially, so Kim focused on helping his father make drums rather than studying. He woke up around 4 a.m., which was when the church’s bells rang, and was immersed in crafting drums until evening time. Kim recalled experiencing many physical sufferings at a young age, but as time went by he realized that he was destined to continue making drums.
Kim finally mastered the entire process of producing drums in his early 20s. In 1983, he founded a workshop for making drums and began independently producing them. Around this time, cultural heritage became popular among the public, leading Kim to work on many different types of traditional drums. When a Buddhist temple commissioned him to make a beopgo, which is a type of drum used in Buddhist rituals, Kim said that he started becoming interested in creating larger drums.
The 1988 Summer Olympics, which were held in Seoul, was the main reason Kim started investing in creating big drums. Kim said that his lifelong dream was to make the world’s largest drum. So when he heard that Seoul would be hosting the Olympics, Kim immediately began working on drums. Two years and six months later Kim completed the mega-sized drum. It was 210 centimeters (6.8 feet) in diameter, the body 230 centimeters and weighed a whopping 480 kilograms (1,058 pounds). He donated it to the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee. To make this ginormous drum required the leather from two cows that weighed one ton each.
This drum was called the “88 Seoul Olympic Dragon Drum” and made a grand entrance during the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Since then, Kim has made drums and donated them to many important venues, including the Blue House, the Odusan Unification Observatory in Paju, Gyeonggi and the Taejeon Expo ’93 in Daejeon.
Bukmaeugi usually refers to the process of covering a drum frame with leather, but it can also mean the entire craft of making drums. The process involves selecting wood (for the drum’s body), processing the leather and finally putting it all together. There are specific tools that are necessary for bukmaeugi, which Kim often makes himself.
A drum frame can be made from wood from a type of tree called litsea japonica. Kim says he has some check points when it comes to finding which tree to use: the type of wood, the tree ring and overall shape. Kim usually uses royal foxglove trees, linden trees, birch or pine.
The type of leather used is cowhide, which must be created with a very strict process in order to achieve a high quality. In terms of seasons, cows that are butchered in the winter are said to have a thicker hide. This is regarded as better leather. The leather is dipped in salt water to prevent decomposition, and after removing the fat, it is soaked in water for an additional one to two days to get rid of the salt. The final step is crucial because if the salt isn’t properly removed from the leather, it has a bad effect on the sound of the drum later on.
Among the bukmaeugi techniques, Kim considers slicing the leather to be the most important. Kim has created a slicing tool that cuts the leather to a certain thickness. This wooden machine, made with his father’s “secret,” has a blade measuring 1 to 1.5 millimeters which does the job. This process is the most difficult, Kim says.
Most drum makers buy leather in bulk from leather factories, which has been processed using chemicals. Although this is convenient to the craftsperson, it is detrimental to the environment and strays from traditional methods. Kim remains firm when it comes to sticking to tradition and is involved in every step of the drum-making process to find ways to create better sounds, no matter how troublesome it may be.
For 60 years, Kim has devoted his life to the art of producing drums. He is living proof of cultural heritage, thanks to his small-sized to enormous drums. His children are also continuing the family business, leading to 140 years of drum-making in the Kim family history.
BY PARK SANG-MOON [email@example.com]