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Round and round the nanjang they go, all of them stepping light on their feet to the beat of the gongs and drums in their arms. Suddenly, a change: the rhythm turns feverish; the drummers twirl, colourful sashes flying, heads bobbing as the long, white ribbons on their tassled hats whip the air in circles. The atmosphere in the communal space is suddenly electric. Someone whoops, and a cheer arises as the crowd of farmers and villagers joins in, clapping and sharing their joy of harvest with exuberance.
Such might have been a musical performance by the namsadang (a type of all-male wandering performing troupe) hundreds of years ago when Korea was still made up of largely agrarian communities. A centuries-old genre of percussive music, dance and theatre traditionally performed outdoors, the music of the namsadang is rooted in Korea’s age-old culture of ritual performance and itinerant entertainment.
The genre is sometimes referred to as “pungmul” as part of the namsadang’s percussive repertoire that is based on pungmul’s rhythms. However, “pungmul” refers to the music and dance of rural village bands in Korea’s farming communities. These village bands were made up of non-professional musicians who performed their style of percussive music with gongs and drums to celebrate a harvest, repel evil spirits, and ease the monotony and burden of daily hard labour.1
At the same time, pre-industrialised Korea also had an entrenched culture of multi-disciplinary entertainment by roving performing arts troupes which entertained for a living. Itinerant in nature, they roamed Korea’s countryside, bringing their genre of music, dance and theatre entertainment to villages across Korea as they travelled.2
While it is said that such travelling entertainment troupes existed as far back as Korea’s Shilla period (668-935), they truly proliferated and peaked in the 18th century. Two main types of troupes were Buddhist temple troupes whose members would sell charms and perform rituals for households and businesses to raise grain and funds, and shaman groups whose musical performances were comparatively more melodic, accompanied by wind, string and percussive instrumentation.3
A third main type of performing troupe was the (generally) all-male namsadang (“nam” meaning “male”) whose members were trained in their art forms from an early age, and who were (arguably) the most technically-proficient and professional of the roving arts troupes. Their repertoire encompassed six art forms—a musical and dance performance of pungmul, as well as acrobatics (or tumbling), puppetry, masks, bowl-spinning, and tightrope walking. All namsadang performances were held outdoors with all performers gathered together in a circular formation, with their instruments held in their hands or strapped to their bodies.4 Their acrobatic and puppetry performances were usually punctuated with impromptu jokes between performers and audience members.5
The namsadang performed mainly in farming and fishing villages across Korea’s countryside, and had to be given permission by village heads to enter and perform in those villages. More than half the time, they were denied entry because most people looked down on them for being interracial, liberal itinerants who sometimes had to resort to begging during winter’s hard months.6
It is largely from the namsadang’s performances, and perhaps to a lesser extent from the pungmul tradition, that the genre known as samulnori would many years later be born.
Fast forward to the late 1950s: thanks to Japanese colonisation in 1910 which had heavily suppressed the Korean arts, the devastation of the Korean War of 1950-1953, economic struggle, and aggressive urbanisation and modernisation,
Attempts were made by various academics, activists and musicians to revive traditional music and reintroduce it to the Korean public. Yet namsadang’s greatest champion was a sole academic named Professor Shim Usong.7 Through his writing and efforts to re-engage former surviving namsadang musicians, the genre was finally formally recognised as a national cultural asset after years of lobbying. It gained the recognition and resources it needed to survive, and, in 1960, Professor Shim set up the “Folk Theater Association Namsadang” or Minsokkukhoe Namsadang which organised namsadang training for a new generation of young people.
Among them was drummer Kim Yong-bae who grew up in a vastly different era from his musical predecessors. The 1970s in Korea was a period of internal conflict between North and South Korea, as well as one of rapid economic and social development. The decade saw agricultural traditions being overtaken by industrialisation, the rural population declining, landscapes becoming urbanised, and mindsets shifting to embrace more modern, global notions and tastes.
Together with another master drummer, Kim Duk Soo, who from childhood had played the janggu and danced with his father’s namsadang troupe8, as well as buk player, Yi Chongdae, and jing player, Choi Tae Hyun, Kim Yong-bae decided that they needed to shake things up in the namsadang world. Korea’s landscape was changing; new concert halls and theatre spaces were popping up in the cities. The four wanted to rework namsadang so it could be performed for new audiences onstage.9 Most of all, the four felt that namsadang needed to respond to its modern, urban context, and reflect the spirit of the times.
In 1978, the SamulNori quartet made its debut in a new, small, underground space named Gonggan Sarang (or “Space Theater”).10 The quartet was named (“sa” means “four”, "mul” means “objects” and “nori” means “play”) for the musicians’ decision to take up Professor Shim on his suggestion11 to use only four core namsadang percussive instruments—kwaenggwari (small gong), janggu (hourglass-shaped drum), jing (medium-sized gong) and buk (barrel drum) and play them while seated.12 This was in contrast to traditional pungmul bands which could be as large as 24-strong, and namsadang troupes which traditionally numbered 30-45 performers, always moving and dancing to create a visual spectacle. SamulNori’s new format—four musicians playing four instruments—was groundbreaking for it meant that traditional “farmers’ music” could now be performed indoors.
SamulNori also removed from the traditional namsadang repertoire the elements of puppetry, masks, acrobatics, bowl-spinning and tightrope-walking. The result was a stripped-down, (sometimes) sit-down performance14 which, at the time, was a bold, history-making departure from tradition.
The SamulNori quartet’s debut in 1978, as part of a varied lineup, received a mixed domestic reception. Many found themselves charmed, confused and intrigued by this first experience of sitting down to enjoy pungmul/namsadang music.15 Young audiences steeped in minjung (“people’s”) nationalistic sentiment were electrified. The performance became a matter of debate.
A 1982 performance at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) in Dallas, USA, however, was the quartet’s big international breakthrough. It enthralled its global audience, and kicked off what would be a continuous stream of invitations to perform in the USA and around the world. Within Korea, samulnori—as the quartet’s style of music came to be known—soon picked up steam, gaining new audiences and practitioners.
Things became even more tricky for samulnori in the 1980s when pungmul itself underwent a revival as a tool of political protest. At the time, South Korea was going through a transition to democracy, and activists opposing democratisation seized on pungmul to represent their grassroots affiliation.17 Samulnori was unjustly criticised as being inauthentic and “Western”-influenced18 by protestors demanding more “peasanthood”.19
Samulnori’s critics, however, failed to see the point of samulnori—that it was in fact more authentic because, in evolving, it had stayed true to the spirit of its predecessor. Namsadang, while an age-old art form, had itself been a cross-cultural genre that embraced influences from other cultures’ disciplines such as those of Chinese wandering performing troupes. The original SamulNori quartet had founded their group based on the belief that namsadang needed to continue evolving with its people while maintaining its heart.
The beating heart of samulnori has always been its rhythms. Even though there are diverse forms of samulnori found in different regions, they are, like namsadang music, adapted from old pungmul rhythmic cycles. At the same time, the experimental nature of samulnori enables practitioners to integrate other influences in their repertoires. For example, from 1980, SamulNori started adding Buddhist blessings and ritual performance to the beginning of their repertoire as well as dancing and acrobatics at the end in a “relaxing to rousing” sequence.
It is the performers’ musical expression of the symbolic ties between humanity, heaven and earth, communicating the relationship between farmer-performer, music and natural environment. Kim Duk Soo, in a 2020 interview with journalist Park Ji-won for The Korea Times, explained this rhythm as Korea’s own “shinmyeong”, its “ethnic rhythm” reflecting the culture’s unique voice, spirit and energy.20
The SamulNori quartet might have disbanded in 1993, but samulnori is alive and thriving today within Korea and abroad. Since the 1990s, it has been taught in schools and institutes, featured on television and radio, and performed on stage frequently. Local and overseas amateur and professional ensembles—in particular, Kim Duk Soo’s global outreach organisation, SamulNori Hanullim—have kept the genre fresh with coherent staged performances shaped by contemporary formats and production values.
Katherine In-Young Lee states in “Encounters with Samulnori: The Cultural Politics of South Korea’s Dynamic Percussion Genre” (p.1) that: “the samulnori genre can be deemed Korea’s first global cultural export, and it has been lauded in the national media as the most representative genre of “traditional” Korean music.” Indeed, regular local performances aside, samulnori has made many appearances on international stages, particularly as part of world music festivals, and has also come to represent Korea on global platforms including the United Nations Headquarters and 2002 FIFA World Cup whose anthem, written by Vangelis, featured Kim Duk Soo’s Hanullin troupe.21
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Samulnori today: Quartets like Variety E-SEO specialise in and perform the samulnori repertoire.
Clearly, samulnori has come a long way from its humble origins. Heritage art forms in general can serve as a grounding reminder of the value of connection between self and community, as well as between the external and the intuitive. For that reason, samulnori will undoubtedly be valued by generations of Koreans to come for its ability to both express and rouse shinmyeong, an energy that can only come from the community’s unique collective ethos.
For the rest of us non-Korean audiences, samulnori may perhaps work a different magic. When we listen to it, we might find ourselves transported to a place and time beyond our imagination. We might find its rhythms awaken something deep within—a primal need to revel in the beating heart of life.
1Hesselink, Nathan. 2012. Samulnori: Contemporary Korean Drumming and the Rebirth of Itinerant Performance Culture. USA: The University of Chicago Press. p.19
5Lim, Jeong-jin. “”Reviving the Times of Namsadang, Korea’s Traditional Folk Performance Troupe, through Children’s Stories”. https://www.ibby.org/fileadmin/user_upload/3-_Lim_Jeong_Jin-Reviving_the_Times_of_Namsadang.pdf. Retrieved 6 April 2023. p.4
8Park, Ji-won. “’Samulnori’ master reflects on 63 years of tradition”, The Korea Times. 21 May 2020. Retrieved 3 April 2023.
10Lee, Katherine In-Young. 2012. Encounters with Samulnori: The Cultural Politics of South Korea's Dynamic Percussion Genre. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:10288955. p.30
Natalie Foo Mei-Yi is an arts research writer and ghostwriter. Previously a police intel analyst, a film journalist, a literary reviewer, a creative copywriter, an architectural magazine editor, and the writer-editor of publications at Esplanade – Theatres by the Bay, she is currently devoted to spinning research and words into essays, articles, historical narratives and creative non-fiction.