Emory Report
MayNu 5, 2008
Volume 60, Number 30


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May 5, 2008
Playing for peace

Min-Ah Cho is a Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate Division of Religion.

If you participated in the Iraq war fifth anniversary observance at Cox Hall on March 19, you might have been curious about the percussion performance that opened the event. What did the performance imply for the event, and where did it come from?

The percussion music is called Poongmul nori, and it originates from Korean traditional music. Poongmul nori is conducted with four Korean traditional instruments: “kwoenggwari,” a small gong; “janggu,” a double-headed drum; “buk,” a drum; and “jing,” a large gong. The kwoenggwari is a small metal-percussion instrument, which produces the loudest and highest-pitched sounds; the janggu produces enchanting sounds in harmony with the kwoenggwari; the buk serves as a harmonizer of all sounds in the quartet; and the jing produces long, reserved sounds that embrace the sounds of all four instruments.

Poongmul nori traces its roots to traditional Korean folk performances that were comprised of music, acrobatics, folk dance and rituals. They were traditionally played in rice-farming villages to ensure and celebrate good harvests as well as to encourage people’s cooperation and communion in work.

The spirit of Poongmul nori might be well explained in the symbolic meaning of each musical instrument. Each of the four instruments represents a different weather condition: kwoenggwari represents thunder, the janggu rain, the buk clouds, and the jing the sounds of the wind. When the instruments were put together and attuned in rhythm, ancient Korean people prayed all the inhabitants in the universe would find harmony in diversity.

These instruments also reflect the idea of yin and yang. The janggu and buk (made of leather) represent the sounds of the earth, while the kwoenggwari and jing (made of metal) represent sounds of the heaven. It is the spirit and hope of Korean people that everything in this universe makes its own voice and yet orchestrates in a tune.

In Poongmul nori performance, there is no division between performers and audience; us and them; human beings and other creatures. All are invited to play and dance together.

Poongmul nori was faced with challenges between the late 19th century and early 20th century when Korea was colonized by the Japanese imperial power. Japanese imperialists, fearing that Poongmul nori might be used by Korean patriots to unite Korean people against the Japanese ruling regime, suppressed Poongmul performers and relocated the outdoor performances indoors. And so Poongmul nori became “Samul nori,” a stage performance that has a strict division between the performers and the audience. Even after Korea was liberated from Japanese occupation in 1945, the spirit of Poongmul nori could not be released from its dormant state.

In the 1980s Poongmul nori met a moment of revival and developed in two different ways. One of those moments occurred by way of the Korean democratization movement. Under the military dictatorship of general-president Doo Whan Cheon, Korean people rose up against oppression, especially college students who yearned for democratization of the country, and laborers and farmers who were exploited by the government and capitalistic system. Activists in each group rediscovered the potential of Poongmul nori to unite the scattered powers and voices of people. They restored the original form of Poongmul nori and brought it back into rallies and public demonstrations where people gathered and united with one another fighting against the unjust powers.

The other moment came from the artist Duk-Soo Kim. Kim sought to find Korean music’s identity through re-interpretation and experimenting with traditional art, especially Samul nori. Kim has played a pivotal role in widening the horizon of Samul nori by bringing it into the spotlight of the world music scene.

How does the character and history of Korea’s Poongmul nori relate to the fifth anniversary observance of the Iraq war? Five years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, both countries continue to bleed and suffer. As a member of the global community, I want the war and occupation to end now. In the spirit of Poogmul nori that has always accompanied hope for unity and reconciliation, I joined the anti-Iraqi-war event and played.

I dream that one day all the members of the planet will care and respect one another, similar to how the different instruments of Poongmul nori create harmony in a performance.

It’s time to say “no” to war and occupation. It’s time to say “yes” to human rights and respect for all the inhabitants of the global community.