Why you should care

Because this is one way to rock in Korea.

Samulnori could be described as the pulse of the Korean people. Over the years, this drumming art form has evolved from humble agrarian roots into a modern — and increasingly global — expression of natural movement and rhythms.

“It’s related to the Korean concept for beauty, or ‘rough beauty,’ ” Dong-Won Kim, associate professor of traditional Korean music at Wonkwang Digital University and composer of The Tale of Samulnori, tells OZY. The form, which is entirely percussive, employs four instruments: the janggo, a drum shaped like an hourglass, which Kim says is “the most expressive” of the bunch; the kkwaenggwari and the jing, a smaller and larger gong, respectively; and the buk, or barrel drum. While the instruments can be played in duos or trios, Kim believes “perfect harmony” is only achieved when all four instruments “sing together.”

The Tale of Samulnori is the story of an ash monster who comes to block out the sun, and four children who try to save the world.

Samulnori’s connection to rural traditions, rice farming (played at festivals to guarantee robust harvests) and even the Korean people’s struggles against the government are mirrored in Kim’s own relationship with this evolving, percussive genre. Kim had the opportunity to catch a “lousy” (his word) performance of traditional dancing and drumming while at university. Despite the less-than-stellar quality of what he saw, his heart screamed, “This is it,” and he was hooked.

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A samulnori performer in Seoul, South Korea, last year.

Source SeongJoon Cho / Getty

Kim listened to samulnori cassette recordings hundreds of times. After his compulsory military service had ended, he devoted himself to Korean drumming. While locked up in solitary confinement after being arrested for playing drums at a funeral, he decided to make music his life. Playing and teaching samulnori would be his way of giving back to the community. Kim wrote The Tale of Samulnori for his children, to help them understand his passion for the music. It’s the story of an ash monster who comes to block out the sun, and four children who try to save the world. The story, published in 2001 (with illustrations), got picked up by the Australian acrobatic theater company Legs on the Wall in 2012, and was transformed into a Korean and Australian collaboration of drumming, singing (pansori) and acrobatic theater, which premiered in Seoul and at the Sydney Opera House.

The future of samulnori may lie in its “deconstruction,” Kim says. “I believe in the DNA of samulnori, not the style or form of it. By dismantling its structure, I could reach the DNA level, and from there, create, communicate and collaborate with others,” which is made evident by his inclusion in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble.

This thunderous music, born from the Korean countryside, has burst past the borders of its inception, and become part of a worldwide musical collective.

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