Korean Percussion Music & Dance in USA

A review of Diasporic P’ungmul in the United States: A Journey between Korea and the United States, by Soojin Kim.

Soojin Kim’s dissertation explores the genre of p’ungmul percussion music and dance as it has been transmitted from South Korea to the United States in the late twentieth century. Based on extensive multi-sited research in Los Angeles and New York, this ethnomusicological study is a story of both continuity and change.

In the introductory chapter, the author lays down the theoretical, contextual, and methodological groundwork for the dissertation. Building from some of the most influential works that shape contemporary diaspora and transnational music studies, Kim sets the stage for an exploration of the Korean diaspora in the United States. The performance of p’ungmul by Korean diasporic communities and groups offers a snapshot of a musical genre that was initially carried overseas by Korean emigrants to the United States. But rather than simply being transported and transplanted as is, p’ungmul in the United States represents a dynamic process of socio-political exchange between important actors based in South Korea and a host of teachers, practitioners, and community leaders in the United States. Kim presents a valuable study of the ways in which a musical genre is transmitted across borders by the people who hold it meaningful.

Chapter 2 provides the necessary context for understanding the factors that led to the formation of Korean American communities from the late nineteenth century to the present day. Given that her ethnographic research centers on p’ungmul groups in Los Angeles and New York, Kim devotes time to tracing the history of the two largest hubs of the Korean American diaspora.

Chapters 3 and 4 serve to introduce readers to the genre of p’ungmul and its history in Korea and the United States. Kim surveys the different percussion and wind instruments that make up the genre, and discusses some of the fundamental rhythmic patterns (changdan) that are central to p’ungmul performance, such as kutkori and hwimori. In a section of Chapter 3 that looks towards the analysis of p’ungmul transmission in the United States (Chapter 5), Kim introduces one of the primary ways in which students learn how to perform this rhythm-based genre. Onomatopoetic drumming syllables known as ip changdan are taught by rote. In this mode of oral/aural transmission, instructors teach students to vocalize the rhythms, often before instruction begins on the instruments themselves. Various attempts at transcribing p’ungmul rhythms led to the development of different notational practices. In the 1990s, Kim Duk Soo’s SamulNori Hanullim organization published a series of notational workbooks that are used by many amateur samulnori (a recontextualized version of p’ungmul) ensembles both within and outside of South Korea.

Kim’s fifth chapter offers fresh insight into the transmission of p’ungmul from Korea to the United States. Whereas p’ungmul was traditionally learned by rote without notation, the learning of p’ungmul in the Korean diaspora is reliant upon the use of notation and audio/visual recordings. Kim analyzes the different modes of learning p’ungmul in a transnational context. North American p’ungmul practitioners often distribute and circulate karakbo—documents which feature transcriptions of drumming syllables or which include a modified notation based on a traditional notational system called chŏngganbo. Digital media is also important. Audio recordings made or acquired in Korea are shared among members of p’ungmul groups. Additionally, the repeated viewing of performances and lessons on social media outlets such as YouTube and Daum serve as a pedagogical workaround to the lack of qualified instruction that face many amateur p’ungmul clubs and ensembles in the diaspora. In this chapter, Kim also reflects upon the shift from oral transmission to notation-based forms of learning and the use of digital recording media. These new modes of transmission facilitate long-distance learning while concomitantly bringing a “standardization and normalization to performances” (p. 163). Kim concludes the chapter with analysis of a drumming workshop led by Korean instructors from P’ilbong, South Korea. Held in New York in 2008, the workshop demonstrates the connections—even despite significant geographical distance—that are maintained between p’ungmul enthusiasts in the United States and musicians in South Korea.

Kim’s ethnographic work comes to the fore in the remaining chapters of the dissertation. Two New York-based p’ungmul groups, Hanool and Hannoori, are the focus of Chapter 6. After presenting a history of each group’s emergence and development, Kim draws on her field research with both groups to provide in-depth ethnographic portraits. In one episode, Kim recounts her experiences attending Hanool’s winter mokkoji (“Membership Training”) in 2007. The 2-day event was an intensive drumming retreat that also functioned to instill a sense of group solidarity. Another ethnographic case study is of the KCON P’ungmul camp, held in May 2008. (Developed in part by the Hannoori and “149” p’ungmul groups of New York, KCON—or the Korean Cultural Outreach Network—began to organize p’ungmul camps for groups and college clubs in the greater New York area in the early 2000s.) Kim provides a vivid narrative account of the daily format of group lessons and rehearsals, followed by a description of the final evening’s performance. Although both fieldwork experiences share some structural similarities, Kim hones in on the distinctions between the two groups. Hannoori, for instance, has chosen to learn a variety of different regional styles of p’ungmul, whereas Hanool’s approach is strongly influenced by performance practices and values associated with P’ilbong p’ungmul.

Continuing on in the same ethnographic vein, Chapter 7 introduces four separate cultural events where p’ungmul was performed during the author’s field research period. Kim’s multi-sited research unfolds here, with visits to Los Angeles and to sites within New York City. Here, Kim focuses on the adaptations that amateur p’ungmul groups make when performing in a North American context. Issues of space, language, resources, and audience all confront p’ungmul practitioners outside of South Korea. As Kim declares, “p’ungmul performance and traditional Korean cultural practices themselves are continually being redefined, reformulated, and reshaped according to different strategies…so that the performances fit into multiple new and changing performance contexts” (pp. 288-289).

Chapter 8 considers the “here and now” of p’ungmul practice in the United States. Kim presents useful categorizations for the ways in which p’ungmul has been modified and adapted (e.g. repertory, instrumentation, conceptualization of p’ungmul, age of performers, and amateur vs. professional designations) in a new locale. Kim refers to work published on Korean American p’ungmul by ethnomusicologist Donna Lee Kwon and by Jennifer Bussell (Kwon: see below; Bussell, Jennifer L. “A Life of Sound: Korean Farming Music and its Journey to Modernity” B.A. essay, University of Chicago, 1997). A brief conclusion reiterates the main assertion that p’ungmul in the United States is in a process of continual change, as “it is shaped…through multiple negotiations within and among Korean immigrants’ communities, the larger host societies, and the cultural politics, institutions, and ideologies of contemporary Korea” (p. 316).

Soojin Kim’s multi-sited ethnography on p’ungmul in the United States offers important insights to diaspora studies and transnational music studies. Her work builds on ethnomusicological research of p’ungmul in South Korea by Nathan Hesselink and Donna Kwon, and extends the discussion on diasporic p’ungmul that scholars such as Youngmin Yu and Sonya Gwak have treated in terms of ethnic identity formation (Kwon, Donna Lee, “Music, Movement and Space: A Study of the Madang and P’an in Korean Expressive Folk Culture” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2005; Yu, Youngmin, “Musical Performance of Korean Identities in North Korea, South Korea, Japan, and the United States,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles, 2007; Gwak, Sonya S. Be(com)ing Korean in the United States: Exploring Ethnic Identity Formation through Cultural Practices, Amherst: Cambria Press, 2008.) Kim’s most valuable contribution lies in the detailed investigations of precisely how musical and cultural practices are transmitted across borders. By peering into these varied modes of pedagogical transmission, we learn how a musical practice is sustained but also given new sets of meanings in the Korean diaspora.

Katherine In-Young Lee
Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology
University of California, Davis
kiylee at ucdavis.edu

Primary Sources
Ethnographic fieldwork in New York and Los Angeles (2006-2008)
Notational books (karakbo) and various audio/visual recordings of p’ungmul
Hesselink, Nathan, P’ungmul: South Korean Drumming and Dance, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Kwon, Donna Lee [Kwŏn Hyeryŏn]. “The Roots and Routes of P’ungmul in the United States” [Miguk-esŏ ŭi p’ungmul: Kŭ ppuri-wa yŏjŏng] in Music and Culture [Ŭmak-kwa munhwa] 5 (2001): 39-65.

Dissertation Information:
The Ohio State University. 2011. 351 pp. Primary Advisor: Udo Will.

Image: Photograph by Soojin Kim.

Leave a Reply