Korean Drumming


Korean Drumming


P’ungmul nori

P’ungmul nori is one of the oldest and most popular folk arts of Korea deeply rooted in the country’s traditionally agrarian lifestyle and culture. The term consists of pung (literally, “wind”), and mul (literally, “thing” or “object”), with nori meaning “play.” Generally, p’ungmul (sometimes known as nongak) refers to the percussion bands that performed in farming villages on various occasions, festivities, and celebrations, including planting and harvesting seasons, New Year, Full Moon, to invoke blessings and repel evil spirits. But perhaps most importantly, p’ungmul nori is an activity that calls on the collective energy and unity of the community. It stirs up the shinmyong (excited spirit) of the people providing a renewed sense of energy to carry on the difficult tasks of laboring.

Instrumentation of p’ungmul groups tends to vary according to region, but the four basic elements of p’ungmul nori are the kkwaenggwari (small gong), changgo (hourglass drum), ching (large gong), and puk (shallow barrel drum). Ensembles will sometimes include the sogo (small frame drum with handle), the nabal (long trumpet), or the taepyongso (conical oboe). In cases where the sogo is present, its player will usually perform acrobatics with a ribbon tied to a headpiece, while the rest of the ensemble dances the steps to a procession. P’ungmul nori traditionally takes place outside in an open space, and while it is considered to be music, it is dance is an integral and inseparable aspect of the whole performance. As such, all members of a p’ungmul group carry their instruments or have them tied to their body, so that dance movements are possible.

The kkwaenggwari and ching (small and large gongs) are the most important instruments in the percussion band. The kkwaenggwari is played by the leader who directs the group in changes of rhythm patterns and tempi. The ching, on the other hand, plays a key role in the ensemble by providing the basic beats that unify the performance. Many a p’ungmul musician will attest that if the large gong loses the pulse, the band will fall apart. The changgo, however, can be seen as the feature instrument of p’ungmul and samul nori. It realizes the complete changdan (rhythmic cycle) and carries the most complex rhythm patterns. It is also the only instrument in the ensemble played with both hands. The changgo can reach great levels of virtuosity, especially in samul nori. The puk rounds out the quartet of instruments by providing a strong and consistent pulse.

Musicians and scholars believe that p’ungmul music has its origins in shamanism, the indigenous religion of Korea. But it is difficult to say where this influence ends not only because data on the history of this genre is sparse, but also because its evolution has been affected by military music, Buddhism, its role as pure entertainment, and its connections with the itinerant performing troupes (namsadang) of the late Choson Dynasty.

The ritualistic aspect of p’ungmul percussion bands was extant in the agricultural and coastal countrysides of Korea until the middle of the 20th century. But this tradition has slowly died out in the wake of modernization, the influence of western religions, an overall decrease in superstitious rituals, and the rise of technology not only in farming materials and equipment, but also in various leisure items that focus more on individual and indoor entertainment.

Today, p’ungmul nori remains a source of entertainment and is preserved in festivals, parades, and in performance contexts. It is also an art form that carries the identity of the Korean people, especially in a time where western music seems to have eclipsed much of Korean traditional music. P’ungmul is significant in that it still exists in Korea today. Where as court music died out with the dynasties, and something like p’ansori (narrative folk singing) is to be enjoyed when there is a skilled p’ansori singer available, p’ungmul is an accessible form of music, its musical patterns relatively easy to learn, pick up, and perform.

After the military coup in Korea (1961) and throughout the latter half of the 20th century, students across Korean campuses employed p’ungmul as a medium to empower the masses and rally strength in demonstrating against the authoritarian government. Its dynamic, powerful rhythms, and its accessibility to the masses made p’ungmul nori a popular channel and source for provocation, mobilization, energy, and solidarity. In Korea’s culture of survival, p’ungmul has played an important role in rousing the shinmyong and regenerating the spirit of the people.

Samul nori

Samul nori (literally, “play of four things”) may be seen as a modernized adaptation of p’ungmul nori. It first emerged on the stages of Korea in the late 1970s with a tremendous following, under the leadership of Kim Duk Soo who is credited as the leader of this movement. The four instruments in the samul nori genre are the kkwaenggwari, changgo, ching, and puk. Samul nori stems from the p’ungmul tradition, but it is designed mainly for performance and is reserved for highly skilled, professional musicians.

Whereas p’ungmul is performed outdoors, in an open space, samul nori is presented in a small space or on a stage (outdoors or indoors). Samul nori performances are often performed in a seated position. P’ungmul music has simpler rhythm patterns that are repeated, and thus accessible to the wide audience. Indeed a “successful” p’ungmul nori invites as many people as possible, as the shinmyong of the group will be more euphoric when there are more people involved. The boundary and space (physical, emotional) between player and audience is minimal in p’ungmul nori, as the larger goal is to achieve a communal high in spirit. P’ungmul performances are not limited to a particular time frame, coming to a close only when the festivities come to a natural end.

On the other hand, the genre of samul nori is performed by an average of 4-6 performers who are somewhat distanced from the audience as they showcase a program of extremely complex and technically difficult patterns. Although audiences can certainly sense the shinmyong and participate in the exciting spirit that is generated through such brilliance, samul nori is not conducive to audience participation in the way that p’ungmul nori is. It is not easy, nor is it meant, for onlookers to follow along, in rhythm or dance. Since samul nori is tailored as a staged art, the length of pieces is considerably shorter and the program is set before the show. Although samul nori is not completely without improvisation, its scope is limited in comparison to p’ungmul nori, which is more responsive to audience reactions and the atmosphere created at the time of performance. While p’ungmul nori does not come with a “repertory,” and no two performances or groups would play the same material, samul nori has developed a set or standardized pieces.

Samul nori is an urban phenomenon that has been immensely popular with Korean youth. It has sparked renewed interest in traditional art forms among Koreans in the face of Korea’s ever-westernizing musical arena.


Hae Joo Kim (2005)

Collection Items

View all 4 items