The Korea Herald


Banging the drum for traditional music

By 천성우

Published : Feb. 24, 2011 - 19:50

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Janggu master Kim says modernization does not mean Westernization

Although, Kim Duk-soo, a master percussionist, is mostly known as a virtuoso of the “janggu,” an hourglass-shaped Korean drum, he said expertise in a single instrument is not enough to be considered a master in the field of Korean traditional music.

Unlike the western way of categorizing expertise by instrument ― such as violin master, pianist, ballerina and the like, Korean traditional music masters have to be “universal musicians“ as the discipline requires excellence in both dance and music.

Kim debuted on the traditional music scene as a 5-year-old in 1957, and joined the namsadang, an itinerant troupe of male performers who perform acrobatics as well as sing and dance.

In 1978, he founded a samulnori troupe, which has since worked to popularize samulnori, the genre of traditional percussion music using four instruments. He laments that today’s generation seems to lack what it takes to become traditional music masters.

“In the past, traditional music masters were able to do everything from singing, playing instruments, to dancing. It was a synthetic art, but nowadays, the Westernized idea of dividing the discipline of traditional music by instrument has screwed things up,” he said in a recent interview with The Korea Herald.
Korean traditional percussionist Kim Duk-soo poses with his janggu at his office in Seoul National University of Arts in Seoul.  (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald) Korean traditional percussionist Kim Duk-soo poses with his janggu at his office in Seoul National University of Arts in Seoul.  (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

He blames university curricula for the Westernization of the Korean traditional music gugak.

“Gugak departments disregard the basics which have been accumulated from a long history of performances. As a result, modern gugak has lost practicality. It is because schools split our traditional music by genre.”

According to Kim, it was the mid-20th century, or around the time of the Korean War (1950-53) that gugak music was separated from gugak dance as in the case of Western music and dance.

“Western music and dance can stay separated as two different fields. But our music is impossible to sector out in different categories. We can’t make separate departments for ‘pansori’ (a vocal and percussion music) and samulnori. That is ridiculous.”

Kim called the phenomena a “hazard” in the traditional art and a risk for the next generation of artists. “If one can not become a universal artist in the field of traditional art, he or she is handicapped.”

In the past, there was no differentiation between dancers and musicians ― there were only “yein,” or artists, who did both.

“We have got to shed this Westernized system and its vestiges. Now is high time to undertake what I would call the reunification of the traditional art,” he said.

The professor of Korea National University of Arts put his words into practice. He launched a new department for gugak and named it the “department of Korean traditional performing arts.” The department first teaches the “roots” of Korean traditional music, including mask dance and samulnori, for students to try every aspect.

“Our traditional music spectrum needs to expand its meaning to nurture good ‘yein’ for the next generation.”

Kim was concerned that many students are unable to play instruments without music scores, and that some even lip-sync on stage.

“Schools should integrate music, acrobatics, stunt, play, dance, mask dance and other music genres into a single curriculum,” he said. “If the traditional music restores its basics, the next step is to discuss matters on ways to ‘modernize’ it. Modernization is one thing and Westernization is another.”

As an example of the pitfalls of modern interpretations, he cited the recently invented 25-stringed gayageum. “Why don’t they just go play a harp?”

“Misconception of modernization comes from blindly comparing our music to the Western tune. The sounds of Korean traditional music do not come from ‘complete tones’ as in the case of the Western instruments but from shaking strings or tuning the strength of blow on a single tune.”

He explained that the Westernization of Korean traditional music is almost copying another’s work and a complete abandonment of origin. Modernization, however, such as the digitalization of gugak, is what he believes Korea should recognize.

The samulnori guru also talked about the current flaw in methods designating the nation’s intangible assets.

“There is a problem for an asset who expects some kind of compensation or reward for talent. However, the problem derives from the systemic flaw which designates intangible assets as an act of courtesy and then disregards them.”

Kim said that our government should consider benchmarking a Japanese system called “Iemoto,” or family foundation. Iemoto refers to the founder or current head master of a certain school of traditional Japanese art. “They have an absolute power, once they are designated. They are really appreciated and respected as a national treasure.”

Over the last decade, the meaning of an intangible asset has been distorted and the level for assets has gone down. Because of the lack of a solid system protecting human assets, some people buy their qualifications, and a quasi-organization has formed issuing certificates for a short term course, he said. “It’s a chaotic mess.”

“Both school curriculum and systems on intangible assets really need to take our traditions back to the basics.”

By Hwang Jurie  (