SOAS University of London

Samulnori beats in an English heart

27 January 2009

One janggu, a traditional Korean drum, was all it took. Keith Howard spotted it on stage, began playing and immediately was having the time of his life. He played it like a pro. In fact, that’s what he is. Howard is a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies, or SOAS, at the University of London. He has been teaching about Korean music for 20 years now.

Howard visited Korea recently for an international symposium marking the 30th anniversary of samulnori in Seoul, sponsored by Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. Samulnori is a traditional form of music using four instruments: jing, a large gong; kkwaenggwari, a small gong; janggu, an hourglass-shaped drum; and buk, a barrel drum.

It originated in farming villages, but four traditional percussionists led by Kim Duk-soo redefined samulnori 30 years ago. Their powerful, dynamic version has put the music on the international performing arts map.

“I searched out Kim Duk-soo as well as obscure shamans in remote areas in the 1980s to learn about Korean rhythms,” Howard said in an interview at Gwanghwamun Art Hall in Jongno, central Seoul.

His area of interest and expertise, according to the SOAS Web site, is Korean culture and society, ranging from Korean shamanism and music to the sociology of music in the Western world, as well as composers and composition. He has authored more than 10 books on traditional Korean musical genres and instruments, as well as Korean shamanism and rituals.

Howard first came to Korea in 1981. In his hand, he had a note with the name and address of Kim Byeong-seob. Kim was the janggu master of the time. His longing for janggu became his lifetime passion.

“I was more interested in Korea, which was relatively less known to the Western world compared to China and Japan,” Howard said. “Later on, I went to China, Japan and Russia to study their cultures. But I was intrigued most by Korea.”

He was particularly mesmerized by Korea’s folk music.

“With its strong beat, Korean folk music has the power to bring together performers and audiences. Just listen to nongak, farmers’ music. Taiko [Japanese traditional drum music] makes people hold their breath and watch, but Korean folk music magnetizes and merges people.”

But learning to play was no easy task. Howard learned to play the janggu from Kim Byeong-seob in 1981. Since he didn’t speak any Korean, Kim would just play and Howard would try to imitate him. They would repeat and repeat until Kim was satisfied. After weeks of intensive training, Howard turned to other instruments.

He also learned to speak Korean. With his newfound abilities, he traveled the country, learning other traditional Korean music like nongyo (farmers’ songs), pansori (a vocal and percussion mix) and other folk styles.

A turning point came in Howard’s search in 1982. He watched a rehearsal of Kim Duk-soo’s samulnori troupe. He then volunteered to be the troupe’s self-proclaimed manager to help it succeed in the international performing arts scene.

“The troupe’s performance embodies the cheerful qualities of Korean folk music. I knew it would go global,” the professor said.

Kim Duk-soo, who described Howard as “samulnori’s best friend,” said that it was Howard who helped the troupe travel and arrange meetings with and appearances for foreign media. Kim said Koreans should be thankful to Howard.

Howard, however, laments how little is still being done to promote Korean folk music overseas. He points out that while there are many Web sites in foreign languages on Japan’s taiko, there are hardly any for Korean traditional sounds. Neither are they available in popular music download stores likes Apple’s iTunes.

“We don’t teach culture, but we enrapture people with culture. In order to do that, there should be many ways to experience the culture,” he said.

By Chun Su-jin JoongAng Ilbo [hkim@joongang.co.kr]