A visit by Kim Duk Soo, Master of Korean Samulnori

Samulnori. According to Kim Duk Soo, the founder of the Korean drumming and dance artform, the name of the genre comes from the words for the number four, samul, and nori, a verb meaning to play. As Master Kim demonstrated on March 12, the rhythms and tones from four different styles of drums blend harmoniously—and playfully—to create a mesmerizing soundscape.

Master Kim and several members of his touring group, Samulnori Hanullim, took a break from their U.S. tour to lead a percussion workshop at the Wyatt Theater, on invitation by Professor of Musicology Katherine Lee. The masterclass, sponsored by the UC Davis Department of Music, ended with an amazing performance by the troupe whose musicality and acrobatic skills were on display.

In the 1970s, Master Kim developed the samulnori genre, including theater, dance, acrobatics, storytelling, and shamanistic spirituality, from folk performing arts traditions that are an essential part of rural Korean life. These music and dance forms accompany work, weddings, and funerals and, as Kim explained, are inspired by rhythmic cycles of life by the sea. The ching, or vibrations produced by the drums, “reflect the natural landscape of Korea, as well as the ancestral spirit,” Kim said.

The four different drums that make up a samulnori combo each evoke elements from the natural world: a large gong (wind), a smaller gong (lightning), an hourglass-shaped, double headed drum (rain), and a large tom (clouds). As they played together, multi-layered percussive expressions flowed from the haunting to the frenetic, and the voice of each drum alternately whispered, spoke alone, and joined in chorus with the others.

To close their performance, one of the members of SamulNori Hanullim took the stage in colorful, traditional garb. As he danced and wheeled around the stage to the polyrhythms behind him, the athletic movements of his body were extended by the skillful manipulation of the tango, a curious “warhat” tied to his head. On the hat is a thin pole with a streamer that spins with the dancer´s subtle head movements, filling the space around him with streaks of white.

Audience members and Professor Lee´s students were energized by the performance. When asked how much improvisation was a part of the music, Master Kim replied that improvisation happened “like chess,” according to the skill-level of the musicians. Kim told his audience that the most important thing to remember when learning samulnori was to create a wavelike energy flow through breathing and the body that, ultimately, harmonizes with all parts of one’s life.