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[INTERVIEW] 'Samulnori' master reflects on 63 years of tradition

Kim Duk-soo, traditional percussion master and founder of SamulNori, a percussion music group, practices for an upcoming gig on his biographical musical
Kim Duk-soo, traditional percussion master and founder of SamulNori, a percussion music group, practices for an upcoming gig on his biographical musical "The Story of Kim Duk-soo" with his crew at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, Seoul, March 14. The musical will run from May 28 to 31 at the theater. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk

By Park Ji-won

In ancient times, every society had their own rituals in which all community members, including the rulers, gathered and prayed for the betterment of their circumstances. Their collective rituals came in the event of drought, epidemic or other types of disasters of which the solutions were thought to be beyond human ability.

Kim Duk-soo, the founder and master of Korea's traditional percussion instruments-based indoor performance style samulnori, said such superstitious beliefs are the underlying tenet of every art performance; art is a form of performance which is supposed to give people hope and thus overcome difficulties like the coronavirus pandemic. And traditional performing arts like nongak, also known as pungmul, the basis of samulnori, as carried out by traditional performing artists like Kim are no exception, he said.

"As a performing artist, or a clown, I considered myself a worshiper praying for overcoming such pandemic-like circumstances like the one we are now going through," he said in a recent interview with The Korea Times. He sat down with The Korea Times weeks before he is to perform in his biographical musical "The Story of Kim Duk-soo" at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts on May 28 to 31.

"Epidemics have been part of human history. They can happen to anybody. In the event of an epidemic or other natural disaster, we pray for the end of the disaster. Performances and rituals are part of our endeavor to overcome them," he said.




Kim, who also serves as the artistic director of SamulNori Hanullim, a group to encourage the popularity of samulnori performance, called himself a lifetime clown. It's an expression he uses to humble himself, as he devotes his life to traditional music and performance to entertain people.

"All my life, I have been a clown… Being a clown is simple. I am here to do my best to give people the courage to overcome such difficulties through my performance," Kim said.
Five-year-old Kim Duk-soo poses during a show by a namsadang troupe in this undated photo. Courtesy of SamulNori Hanullim
Five-year-old Kim Duk-soo poses during a show by a namsadang troupe in this undated photo. Courtesy of SamulNori Hanullim

Born in 1952, Kim was a member of one of the most famous namsadang troupes at a young age. He is now known as a samulnori master, but he began his artistic career at age 5 as a dancer in the traditional performing arts group, introduced by his father who was also a member. He traveled villages to villages to put on traditional performances and play music called nongak (farmers' music) for farming communities, which accounted for most of the population, to give them an entertaining break from hard labor. Nongak is a dynamic performing art combining a percussion ensemble and wind instruments, who parade around dancing, acting and performing acrobatic feats.

"When I was little, Korea was pretty much an agricultural society with over 70 percent of the population being farmers. Some exaggerated that almost all people were farmers… Nongak, the early form of samulnori, was created by farmers for after a harvest or hard labor in the fields. It entertained them. Performers were welcomed."

"When I was in elementary school, 70% of people in Korea said they were farmers. Almost 99% of people who didn't farm struggled to survive, so it's not farmers' music but the only music of the common people who used it as a tool out of complete necessity."

His first overseas performance was back in 1965 in Japan. He was only 13 years old. Since then, he has spent almost half of every year outside the country. He also went to Pyongyang in the 1990s as a member of a private performing group, which is a very rare opportunity for anyone from the South.

"I also traveled to the United States and Europe. At that time Asians were rare in those countries. Also, few Koreans had passports because foreign travel was rare."

As a janggu (hourglass-shaped drum) player and dancer, he played nongak for years in the troupe, learning how to refine his performance and studying musical techniques from the best performers in the troupe.

Internal and external challenges

When he started out, shortly after the Korean War ended in an armistice, the country was torn apart. Poverty was everywhere. The vast majority of Koreans had a hard time making ends meet.

The performers made their living out of such difficulties as people flocked to see their performances. At that time, entertainment was scarce.

But following changes to Korea's industrial and political systems, it became tough, especially for those who make a living from traditional art performances.

After Park Chung-hee took power through a military coup in the early 1960s, his government implemented a slew of repressive measures against freedom of expression and freedom of association. Street performers like Kim became targets because their performances generated public gatherings. Street performances were banned, pushing performing artists out of a job.

Kim also said urbanization and economic growth greatly set back his profession. In the name of urbanization, traditional culture and arts were removed from rural communities. Traditional statues and sculptures were destroyed in the pursuit modernization.

"We had every form of traditional culture such as food, clothes and so on. They were about to go extinct…. Removing them was justified in the name of economic growth. After the government launched the Saemaul Undong, a nationwide push to reform rural areas and the agricultural sector in the 1970s, (the government) treated traditional culture as a sort of superstition. Traditional cultural assets like jangseung (village totem poles) were burnt down. If somebody performed a mask dance, the very next day, their costumes were also set on fire."

Those performers also had to compete with Western performers.

"A German circus came to Seoul in 1964. A motorbike drove across a high wire, which was an eye-opening performance for Koreans. It was different from our traditional jultagi, a Korean form of tightrope dancing. (New and sophisticated Western) puppets were also introduced by national broadcasters. People started to lose interest in traditional puppet shows," he said.

A performance is given by SamulNori, the first samulnori performance group which founded the musical genre in 1978, in this undated photo. From left are Lee Kwang-soo, Kim Duk-soo, Choi Jong-sil and Kim Yong-bae. Courtesy of SamulNori Hanullim
A performance is given by SamulNori, the first samulnori performance group which founded the musical genre in 1978, in this undated photo. From left are Lee Kwang-soo, Kim Duk-soo, Choi Jong-sil and Kim Yong-bae. Courtesy of SamulNori Hanullim

With the traditional performances hit hard by challenges on all fronts, Kim and his colleagues, including the late Kim Yong-bae, Lee Kwang-soo and Choi Jong-sil, made a bold but desperate decision to survive on traditional music. They decided to twist the art form that had been stuck in tradition, so that it could be performed on indoor stages in the cities.

They formed the music ensemble group SamulNori in 1978 and came up with the current sit-in performance style which would later also come to be known as "samulnori" after the band, based on the rhythms and instruments of nongak so that performers could fit inside indoor theaters.

They also decided to only use four core rhythmic instruments, which they thought could represent the basis of the nongak rhythm. They used four main instruments: kkwaenggwari (small gong), jing (medium-sized gong), janggu and buk (barrel drum). Kim stressed the genre transformed formerly visual entertainment into sound art.

Backed by renowned architect Kim Swoo-geun, SamulNori was able to hold its first performance in Gonggan Sarang, an underground theater that had just opened in Daehangno, a university district in Seoul.

Kim and his colleagues provided a breath of fresh air in the music scene. But for years, they faced opposition from the more orthodox nongak performers due to their innovative format. Sometimes they were criticized for "hurting" the country's tradition.

Interest from abroad

But an enthusiastic response came from overseas.

When the team performed in the U.S. for the first time, at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) in Dallas in 1982, the people there were reportedly stunned by their music's uniqueness and rhythms.

More and more people learned of the existence of their musical style and asked them to perform in their local communities. The 1982 performance soon opened a gateway for never-ending performances in the U.S. and other countries all over the world, playing a pivotal role to spread samulnori.

His team started to travel all over the world, performing in key international events such as the Olympic Games to represent Korea.

Samulnori has been enjoying unprecedented success since then. Now it is considered traditional despite its comparably short 43-year history.

Local communities and ethnic Korean communities overseas eagerly learn the music as a way to learn Korean culture. There are reportedly more than 200 university samulnori clubs in the U.S., and more than 50 samulnori teams throughout the world.

Kim Duk-soo, second from right, and Stevie Wonder, center, pose before they perform together in Seoul on Aug. 11, 2010. Courtesy of SamulNori Hanullim
Kim Duk-soo, second from right, and Stevie Wonder, center, pose before they perform together in Seoul on Aug. 11, 2010. Courtesy of SamulNori Hanullim
Kim Duk-soo performs during the 2002 World Cup in Seoul. Courtesy of SamulNori Hanullim
Kim Duk-soo performs during the 2002 World Cup in Seoul. Courtesy of SamulNori Hanullim

Even popular musicians flocked to collaborate with Kim and his crew. Seo Tai-ji, one of Korea's most popular pop stars, and internationally renowned musician Stevie Wonder collaborated with Kim.

The percussion master stressed that the reason behind the popularity lies in "shinmyeong," or its unique vibe, energy and rhythm which can only be created by Korean people.

"Anyone who doesn't understand the Korean language can get the energy from samulnori and be moved by its rhythm that they don't have…. The original rhythm of the Korean people created its own voice language and drums as well. And it includes its own philosophy…In Korea, it is Hongik Ingan, or living for the betterment of all humanity. Rhythm is deeply rooted in each culture. If you know a culture's own beat, you can learn its language easily as well," Kim said.

"Ethnic rhythms are the basis of popular performing arts. For example, hip-hop music was created based on African rhythm and reggae music is based on Jamaican culture. Korea's sinmyeong is the ethnic rhythm we have. People entertain themselves with original beats."

Education of tradition

While spreading samulnori, Kim made a lot of effort to educate his students, aiming to help the genre live longer.

Given that it is a living performing art form, traditional performance has been transmitted orally or shared among a small number of people, which Kim thought was problematic because it supports a negative hierarchy between the master and apprentices, creating a discrepancy.

Based on the ideas, he criticized the country's designation of traditional performing arts as intangible cultural heritage for making artists feel complacent and failing to seek innovation in arts, which is not at all beneficial to the true meaning of tradition.

"Tradition, even though its core features rarely change, should be changing as time goes by along with the change of the era. It is different from the definition of transmission. But the country's system to designate intangible heritages is urging people to transmit the original art form. There is no change and vitality in it. To preserve tradition, you should face challenges, which is why my colleagues and I made samulnori."

Kim stated the importance of standardizing the traditional art to pursue the true meaning of tradition so that people can learn it under a certain universal syllabus and teaching techniques, just like how taekwondo is transmitted. That's why he didn't accept a professor job at Washington State University and happily took the post as the founding professor of the School of Korean Traditional Arts at the Korea National University of Arts in 1993 to establish a standardized form to teach to students, he added.

"There is a limitation in creating tradition just by doing art on our own. We need to standardize and industrialize our traditional instruments and clothes to share it with global citizens and send it to classes all over the world, like taekwondo has been doing…. I believe explaining our rhythm, which is our asset, is also beneficial to the world. It will make something new and innovative in the long term… That's is what I call tradition."

He stressed the importance of creating art and tradition for all while pledging to keep working to pursue tradition through his entire life.

"The true meaning of performing arts for human beings is to make them happy. As an artist, I have faith and confidence that our own energy and tastes can help bring happiness to people…. That is the reason I live and my driving force to overcome hunger and difficulties to give this asset to future generations. At the exact moment when samulnori was born, I decided to dedicate the rest of my life to creating tradition. That's my role in life."

Kim Duk-soo, center, the traditional percussion master and founder of
Kim Duk-soo, center, the traditional percussion master and founder of "samulnori," a percussion-based music performance genre, poses with puppets during a practice for an upcoming gig on his biographical musical "The Story of Kim Duk-soo" at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in Seoul, March 14. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk



Kim Duk-soo, traditional percussion master and founder of SamulNori, a percussion music group, practices for an upcoming gig on his biographical musical
Kim Duk-soo, traditional percussion master and founder of SamulNori, a percussion music group, practices for an upcoming gig on his biographical musical "The Story of Kim Duk-soo" with his crew at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, Seoul, March 14. The musical will run from May 28 to 31 at the theater. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk

By Park Ji-won

In ancient times, every society had their own rituals in which all community members, including the rulers, gathered and prayed for the betterment of their circumstances. Their collective rituals came in the event of drought, epidemic or other types of disasters of which the solutions were thought to be beyond human ability.

Kim Duk-soo, the founder and master of Korea's traditional percussion instruments-based indoor performance style samulnori, said such superstitious beliefs are the underlying tenet of every art performance; art is a form of performance which is supposed to give people hope and thus overcome difficulties like the coronavirus pandemic. And traditional performing arts like nongak, also known as pungmul, the basis of samulnori, as carried out by traditional performing artists like Kim are no exception, he said.

"As a performing artist, or a clown, I considered myself a worshiper praying for overcoming such pandemic-like circumstances like the one we are now going through," he said in a recent interview with The Korea Times. He sat down with The Korea Times weeks before he is to perform in his biographical musical "The Story of Kim Duk-soo" at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts on May 28 to 31.

"Epidemics have been part of human history. They can happen to anybody. In the event of an epidemic or other natural disaster, we pray for the end of the disaster. Performances and rituals are part of our endeavor to overcome them," he said.




Kim, who also serves as the artistic director of SamulNori Hanullim, a group to encourage the popularity of samulnori performance, called himself a lifetime clown. It's an expression he uses to humble himself, as he devotes his life to traditional music and performance to entertain people.

"All my life, I have been a clown… Being a clown is simple. I am here to do my best to give people the courage to overcome such difficulties through my performance," Kim said.
Five-year-old Kim Duk-soo poses during a show by a namsadang troupe in this undated photo. Courtesy of SamulNori Hanullim
Five-year-old Kim Duk-soo poses during a show by a namsadang troupe in this undated photo. Courtesy of SamulNori Hanullim

Born in 1952, Kim was a member of one of the most famous namsadang troupes at a young age. He is now known as a samulnori master, but he began his artistic career at age 5 as a dancer in the traditional performing arts group, introduced by his father who was also a member. He traveled villages to villages to put on traditional performances and play music called nongak (farmers' music) for farming communities, which accounted for most of the population, to give them an entertaining break from hard labor. Nongak is a dynamic performing art combining a percussion ensemble and wind instruments, who parade around dancing, acting and performing acrobatic feats.

"When I was little, Korea was pretty much an agricultural society with over 70 percent of the population being farmers. Some exaggerated that almost all people were farmers… Nongak, the early form of samulnori, was created by farmers for after a harvest or hard labor in the fields. It entertained them. Performers were welcomed."

"When I was in elementary school, 70% of people in Korea said they were farmers. Almost 99% of people who didn't farm struggled to survive, so it's not farmers' music but the only music of the common people who used it as a tool out of complete necessity."

His first overseas performance was back in 1965 in Japan. He was only 13 years old. Since then, he has spent almost half of every year outside the country. He also went to Pyongyang in the 1990s as a member of a private performing group, which is a very rare opportunity for anyone from the South.

"I also traveled to the United States and Europe. At that time Asians were rare in those countries. Also, few Koreans had passports because foreign travel was rare."

As a janggu (hourglass-shaped drum) player and dancer, he played nongak for years in the troupe, learning how to refine his performance and studying musical techniques from the best performers in the troupe.

Internal and external challenges

When he started out, shortly after the Korean War ended in an armistice, the country was torn apart. Poverty was everywhere. The vast majority of Koreans had a hard time making ends meet.

The performers made their living out of such difficulties as people flocked to see their performances. At that time, entertainment was scarce.

But following changes to Korea's industrial and political systems, it became tough, especially for those who make a living from traditional art performances.

After Park Chung-hee took power through a military coup in the early 1960s, his government implemented a slew of repressive measures against freedom of expression and freedom of association. Street performers like Kim became targets because their performances generated public gatherings. Street performances were banned, pushing performing artists out of a job.

Kim also said urbanization and economic growth greatly set back his profession. In the name of urbanization, traditional culture and arts were removed from rural communities. Traditional statues and sculptures were destroyed in the pursuit modernization.

"We had every form of traditional culture such as food, clothes and so on. They were about to go extinct…. Removing them was justified in the name of economic growth. After the government launched the Saemaul Undong, a nationwide push to reform rural areas and the agricultural sector in the 1970s, (the government) treated traditional culture as a sort of superstition. Traditional cultural assets like jangseung (village totem poles) were burnt down. If somebody performed a mask dance, the very next day, their costumes were also set on fire."

Those performers also had to compete with Western performers.

"A German circus came to Seoul in 1964. A motorbike drove across a high wire, which was an eye-opening performance for Koreans. It was different from our traditional jultagi, a Korean form of tightrope dancing. (New and sophisticated Western) puppets were also introduced by national broadcasters. People started to lose interest in traditional puppet shows," he said.

A performance is given by SamulNori, the first samulnori performance group which founded the musical genre in 1978, in this undated photo. From left are Lee Kwang-soo, Kim Duk-soo, Choi Jong-sil and Kim Yong-bae. Courtesy of SamulNori Hanullim
A performance is given by SamulNori, the first samulnori performance group which founded the musical genre in 1978, in this undated photo. From left are Lee Kwang-soo, Kim Duk-soo, Choi Jong-sil and Kim Yong-bae. Courtesy of SamulNori Hanullim

With the traditional performances hit hard by challenges on all fronts, Kim and his colleagues, including the late Kim Yong-bae, Lee Kwang-soo and Choi Jong-sil, made a bold but desperate decision to survive on traditional music. They decided to twist the art form that had been stuck in tradition, so that it could be performed on indoor stages in the cities.

They formed the music ensemble group SamulNori in 1978 and came up with the current sit-in performance style which would later also come to be known as "samulnori" after the band, based on the rhythms and instruments of nongak so that performers could fit inside indoor theaters.

They also decided to only use four core rhythmic instruments, which they thought could represent the basis of the nongak rhythm. They used four main instruments: kkwaenggwari (small gong), jing (medium-sized gong), janggu and buk (barrel drum). Kim stressed the genre transformed formerly visual entertainment into sound art.

Backed by renowned architect Kim Swoo-geun, SamulNori was able to hold its first performance in Gonggan Sarang, an underground theater that had just opened in Daehangno, a university district in Seoul.

Kim and his colleagues provided a breath of fresh air in the music scene. But for years, they faced opposition from the more orthodox nongak performers due to their innovative format. Sometimes they were criticized for "hurting" the country's tradition.

Interest from abroad

But an enthusiastic response came from overseas.

When the team performed in the U.S. for the first time, at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) in Dallas in 1982, the people there were reportedly stunned by their music's uniqueness and rhythms.

More and more people learned of the existence of their musical style and asked them to perform in their local communities. The 1982 performance soon opened a gateway for never-ending performances in the U.S. and other countries all over the world, playing a pivotal role to spread samulnori.

His team started to travel all over the world, performing in key international events such as the Olympic Games to represent Korea.

Samulnori has been enjoying unprecedented success since then. Now it is considered traditional despite its comparably short 43-year history.

Local communities and ethnic Korean communities overseas eagerly learn the music as a way to learn Korean culture. There are reportedly more than 200 university samulnori clubs in the U.S., and more than 50 samulnori teams throughout the world.

Kim Duk-soo, second from right, and Stevie Wonder, center, pose before they perform together in Seoul on Aug. 11, 2010. Courtesy of SamulNori Hanullim
Kim Duk-soo, second from right, and Stevie Wonder, center, pose before they perform together in Seoul on Aug. 11, 2010. Courtesy of SamulNori Hanullim
Kim Duk-soo performs during the 2002 World Cup in Seoul. Courtesy of SamulNori Hanullim
Kim Duk-soo performs during the 2002 World Cup in Seoul. Courtesy of SamulNori Hanullim

Even popular musicians flocked to collaborate with Kim and his crew. Seo Tai-ji, one of Korea's most popular pop stars, and internationally renowned musician Stevie Wonder collaborated with Kim.

The percussion master stressed that the reason behind the popularity lies in "shinmyeong," or its unique vibe, energy and rhythm which can only be created by Korean people.

"Anyone who doesn't understand the Korean language can get the energy from samulnori and be moved by its rhythm that they don't have…. The original rhythm of the Korean people created its own voice language and drums as well. And it includes its own philosophy…In Korea, it is Hongik Ingan, or living for the betterment of all humanity. Rhythm is deeply rooted in each culture. If you know a culture's own beat, you can learn its language easily as well," Kim said.

"Ethnic rhythms are the basis of popular performing arts. For example, hip-hop music was created based on African rhythm and reggae music is based on Jamaican culture. Korea's sinmyeong is the ethnic rhythm we have. People entertain themselves with original beats."

Education of tradition

While spreading samulnori, Kim made a lot of effort to educate his students, aiming to help the genre live longer.

Given that it is a living performing art form, traditional performance has been transmitted orally or shared among a small number of people, which Kim thought was problematic because it supports a negative hierarchy between the master and apprentices, creating a discrepancy.

Based on the ideas, he criticized the country's designation of traditional performing arts as intangible cultural heritage for making artists feel complacent and failing to seek innovation in arts, which is not at all beneficial to the true meaning of tradition.

"Tradition, even though its core features rarely change, should be changing as time goes by along with the change of the era. It is different from the definition of transmission. But the country's system to designate intangible heritages is urging people to transmit the original art form. There is no change and vitality in it. To preserve tradition, you should face challenges, which is why my colleagues and I made samulnori."

Kim stated the importance of standardizing the traditional art to pursue the true meaning of tradition so that people can learn it under a certain universal syllabus and teaching techniques, just like how taekwondo is transmitted. That's why he didn't accept a professor job at Washington State University and happily took the post as the founding professor of the School of Korean Traditional Arts at the Korea National University of Arts in 1993 to establish a standardized form to teach to students, he added.

"There is a limitation in creating tradition just by doing art on our own. We need to standardize and industrialize our traditional instruments and clothes to share it with global citizens and send it to classes all over the world, like taekwondo has been doing…. I believe explaining our rhythm, which is our asset, is also beneficial to the world. It will make something new and innovative in the long term… That's is what I call tradition."

He stressed the importance of creating art and tradition for all while pledging to keep working to pursue tradition through his entire life.

"The true meaning of performing arts for human beings is to make them happy. As an artist, I have faith and confidence that our own energy and tastes can help bring happiness to people…. That is the reason I live and my driving force to overcome hunger and difficulties to give this asset to future generations. At the exact moment when samulnori was born, I decided to dedicate the rest of my life to creating tradition. That's my role in life."

Kim Duk-soo, center, the traditional percussion master and founder of
Kim Duk-soo, center, the traditional percussion master and founder of "samulnori," a percussion-based music performance genre, poses with puppets during a practice for an upcoming gig on his biographical musical "The Story of Kim Duk-soo" at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in Seoul, March 14. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk



Park Ji-won jwpark@koreatimes.co.kr


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