‘Samulnori’ drumlines beat a Korean pulse

Saturday night’s Samulnori saw Goodrich filled with bursting energy and a riveting performance from the five Korean men of KCON, the Korean Cultural Outreach Network. The intense animation of their music and dance could not help but spread to every enthralled audience member in attendance.

A traditional Korean drum and dance routine, Samulnori is an evolved, smaller concert version of Poongmul-Nori, a ritual that has celebrated agricultural success in Korean villages for up to 2000 years and involves 12 to 50 performers. Poongmul-Nori has traditionally been viewed as an uplifting source for the tired souls of an agrarian society, giving them spiritual inspiration to cultivate unity and farming efficiency.

The music began with the solo beat of a piercing gong, followed by the other four performers joining in. The rhythm and noise gradually gained momentum until the beat was hammering in the chests of everyone in the room. Through quickening and slowing rhythm changes and rapid switches from earth-shatteringly loud to soft, the music displayed energy and innovation. Initially, the music’s intense barrel beat seemed reminiscent of a war song, a cry for courage and battle, but as the communication between the separate instruments started to mirror the communication between the performers’ head-nods, smiles and cries, it began to feel more like a celebration. At one point, the music felt like techno, with its thumping beat, high-pitched, jarring gong and growing energy. The excitement in the beats was, in fact, uplifting.

The show consisted of three parts. In the first, the five performers all sat down on the stage in front of their own instruments, which struck beats that represented the sounds of lightning, rain, clouds and wind. They ranged from a large gong, two large barrel drums called “buk” that sat in the performers laps, a unique drum called “janggu” with an hourglass shape in the center, surrounded by two sides of leather and connected by strings, and one small gong called “kkwaenggwari.”

The second part, which consisted of the three “best” performers sitting and playing the janggu, easily transitioned to the third part, where the performers had the audience stack the chairs and clear space on the floor for them to dance. Joined by the College’s own Korean drumming club, the musicians came out in hats with rods that connected to long white ribbons, which flew into beautiful, snaked arcs as the performers tossed their heads to the beat.

KCON and the Williams group danced together to lively steps in circles and twisting lines while keeping time with the music. The joyous and festive nature of Salmunori’s climactic piece took hold on the audience, and when the performers formed a circle around one of KCON’s more impressive janggu masters, the spectators could not help but admire the skillful drums and snares. This man had the talent to simultaneously hop back and forth on his feet throughout the circle, swing his head around to form gorgeous arcs with the ribbon on his hat and create animated and powerful beats on his drum. He even danced around members of the audience, playfully enticing them to feel the excitement of his music.

KCON’s ability to spread to the audience the energy and joy of its art was a testament to the group’s dynamic charisma. Though at times somewhat overwhelming, the music seemed to spread a feeling of jubilance to all in its presence.