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Music pioneer brings Korea to the world

Aug 08,2018
Along with members of his samulnori ensemble, “Samulnori Hanullim,” Kim Duk-soo performs at Insa Art Hall, located in Jongno District, central Seoul. [PARK SANG-MOON]
From left: Kim Duk-soo begins performances by playing the taepyeongso, a Korean double reed instrument. He then continues with his performance by playing instruments, such as the janggu and the kkwaenggwari.
Samulnori performances are invigorating and are enjoyed by audiences all over the world. Kim has been invited to perform in countries on six continents.
After the end of each performance, Kim invites the audience to come on stage to dance.
One of the most respected traditional musicians in Korea, Kim Duk-soo is known as a master percussionist as well as a virtuoso of the janggu (hourglass-shaped drum).

But more importantly, Kim is the creator of samulnori, which is a percussion quartet featuring four percussion instruments: buk (barrel drum), janggu, a jing (gong) and a kkwaenggwari (small gong). Based on nongak (traditional farmer’s music), this genre of Korean music is seen as a modernized version of pungmulnori (Korean traditional instrument playing) that gets its charm from its fluctuation between tension and relaxation. Originally, samulnori was performed in rice farming villages to celebrate good harvests, but over the years, the style has greatly evolved.

Born in Sept. 24, 1952 in Daejeon, Kim was heavily influenced by his father, who was a professional musician in a troupe of wandering artists called Namsadang. As a beokgu (a type of percussion instrument) player, Kim’s father sought to pass on the family tradition to one of his children. Out of his eight siblings, Kim was chosen and first started performing as a saemi (a boy playing on the top of the shoulders of adults in a crowd) at the young age of five. He has since followed in his father’s footsteps for 61 years.

In 1959, two years after he entered Namsadang, Kim was awarded the presidential award for his superb performance at the Nationwide Nongak Competition. This marked the beginning of his career, which led him to travel around the world to perform on numerous stages. He spent time performing in foreign countries, and each performance abroad would take an average of six months to put together. His longest performance stint abroad was 10 months.

The reason that Kim performed mostly abroad was due to political restrictions that prevented Kim from doing a Korean folk performance that includes drumming, dancing and singing known as pungmul outdoors in Korea. In the 1970s, under the strict Yushin regime, Kim was unable to perform on the streets, as pungmul was considered to be an instigator of political rallies. Anyone performing on the streets could be arrested for violating demonstration laws, and the only place that Kim could play pungmul was at indoor venues.

In order to play within a confined space, Kim could not bring all of the instruments used to play pungmul. After careful selection, he chose four instruments - buk, janggu, jing and kkwaenggwari - leading to the creation of samulnori.

This discovery was also influenced by architect Kim Swoo-geun (1931-1986). The two prominent artists first encountered each other in 1969 and then met again in Osaka at the World Expo. From 1970 to 1976, Kim Swoo-geun would accompany Kim Duk-soo abroad and helped design stages for the performers. Kim Swoo-geun would create a stage that looked like it was a “piece of land outside.”

One of the most influential architects in Korea, Kim Swoo-geun was forced to go to Japan during the Japanese colonial period. Unlike other architects, Kim Swoo-geun didn’t think of architecture as merely making buildings, but rather creating a part of the urban environment.

The first showcase of samulnori took place in Feb. 22, 1978, when Kim performed the new style of music indoors in Gonggansa located in Jongno District, central Seoul. Accompanied by Kim Deok-su, a janggu player, Kim Yong-bae, a kkwaenggwari player, Choi Tae-hyun, a buk player, Kim presented a brilliant performance where the performers sought to achieve a perfect harmony between the four percussion instruments.

Although the discovery of samulnori was unintentional, nevertheless Kim’s life took on new and diverse dimensions. Currently, Kim spends more time performing abroad than in Korea, visiting countries on six continents. During his time abroad, Kim also teaches people interested in playing the janggu and the art of samulnori. The reason Kim spends the majority of his time teaching people abroad, despite his tight schedule, is because he wants to spread the beauty of Korean traditional music throughout the world.

Across the globe, there are more than 3,000 music clubs that play samulnori, with roughly 220 in the United States alone. This was all possible due to Kim’s pupils, who follow his motto of sharing the art of samulnori to the world.

Because of these individuals, who provided educational opportunities for students and others to learn Korean percussion music, samulnori and other genres of Korean percussion music have been able to rapidly spread around the world.

By collaborating with Western orchestras and Western instruments, Kim has a knack for combining different styles together. The key to Kim’s success lies in his willingness to experiment and adapt to different musical environments.

“Even tradition needs to evolve and meet the changes of the new environment,” said Kim during an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily. But that doesn’t mean that his music is anything less than rich, traditional Korean music.

Another motto that Kim follows is to continue challenging one’s boundaries while making sure to never lose sight of one’s original intentions. This is what Kim constantly reminds his pupils of, as he considers this the basic step to drive a musician to become innovative and creative.

Kim, who performed at a concert held for the people of Pyongyang in the 1990s, also said that music will have an impact on the relations between the two Koreas.

According to Kim, traditional folk music will help foster inter-Korean cultural exchange, as the rhythm between North Korean music and South Korean music still remains the same.

“A musician lives for the purpose of performing music,” said Kim.

“For example, if a musician performs for one hour out of a day, he or she [is living life to the fullest] for that one hour.”

BY PARK SANG-MOON [park.sangmoon@joongang.co.kr]
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