Korean Percussion Group Finds Its Voice in Traditional Music

Juhong Kim, the artistic director and vocalist of Noreum Machi, before the group’s performance at Flushing Town Hall on March 1. (Photos by Heejeong Yu for Voices of NY)

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Korea’s March 1st Independence Movement, a Korean percussion group performed at Flushing Town Hall. The neighborhood is home to a large number of Koreans.

Noreum Machi returned to New York for the first time in almost 10 years, traveling all the way from Korea to spread Korean traditional music.

“During the days of imperialism, powerful nations used to boast of dominating powerless nations. I hope that the independent and peaceful message of the March 1st Independence Movement and the spirit of Yu Gwan-sun and many other ancestors are delivered through our performance in New York,” Juhong Kim, the artistic director and vocalist of Noreum Machi, said in an interview with Voices of NY shortly before the performance.

The name of Noreum Machi originates from namsadangpae, which refers to the men who entertained people through song and dance in the countryside during the Joseon dynasty. The group’s name is a combination of the words “performance” (Noreum) and “end” (Machi).  “Noreum Machi means performers who play the best on stage and receive the most attention. It refers to the best performance, oftentimes the grand finale. We named the group with the desire to reflect the term’s underlying meaning.”

Noreum Machi was founded in 1993. Its music traces back to Korean musical folk traditions known as Samul-nori and Pungmul-nori. According to press materials, Samul means “four objects” and nori means “performance.” Samul-nori, which is usually performed with four instruments, is a modernized version of the ancient Pungmul-nori, also known as “nongak,” or Korean folk music performed by farmers. Composed of dancing, singing and drumming together, Pungmul-nori was performed while working on the farm to relieve the stress from labor and over time it became an activity done for enjoyment.

Percussionist Taeho Kim is twirling a sangmo (Korean spinning hat). His performance has roots in Pungmul-nori.

While Samul-nori makes music with powerful percussion instruments, Noreum Machi adds song and dance to a traditionally instrumental performance.

This band is currently composed of five members: Juhong Kim, the artistic director, vocalist, and percussionist; Howon Lee, percussionist; Taeho Kim, percussionist; Uigyung Jung, wind instrument player; and Hyunju Oh, percussionist and the only woman in the group.

Kim said: “What I always emphasize to our members is the performance that we play is an ensemble. It’s not a solo, it’s an ensemble. The first condition of an ensemble is to listen to each group member. It’s hard to control my sound without listening to other members.”

He added: “It is also important to ensure your own voice is heard. An ensemble and harmony is about adjusting my sound in the process of listening to others. When I have to be quiet, I have to be absolutely quiet, and I need to stand up when I have to. If you stand up when you’re not supposed to, you are hated and if you can’t stand up when you are supposed to, you are a fool.”

Instruments from left: Jang-gu, Kkwaenggwari, another Jang-gu and Buk

Each of the four Korean traditional percussion instruments played by Noreum Machi members represents an element of nature – the Kkwaenggwari (small handheld gong) for thunderstorms, Jang-gu (hourglass drum) for rain, Buk (barrel drum) for clouds and Jing (gong) for wind. The ensemble also uses wind instruments including the Taepyeongso (double reed), Na-gak (seashell played as a horn), Na-bal (long brass horn) and Dae-geum (large bamboo flute).

Kim said: “We are not just beating on the Kkwaenggwari, the Jing, and the Jang-gu like simple lumps of iron, but embodying the code of our ancestors who made a very good combination of harmony between yin and yang, up and down, and plus and minus. We read the code of yin and yang harmony and perform as we feel it. No matter what great music there is, we are so excited to deliver this message of our ancestors. We are honored to be practicing what Koo ‘Baekbeom’ Kim (a Korean independence fighter) encouraged, who wanted Korea to flourish culturally rather than only become a great nation economically.”

In addition to their instrumental performances, the group also sings and dances based on the Samul-nori style. “What makes us special is a so-called ‘voice percussion’ which is a special kind of Korean traditional rap music. I majored in pansori (Korean musical storytelling performed by a singer and drummer) in college. Like a cappella, only using our own voices, we create music that mixes modern vocal beats with the musical storytelling part of the traditional pansori.”

Juhong Kim (right) sings the Korean traditional pansori while other members beatbox.

Noreum Machi has so far performed in nearly 250 cities in 65 countries. “I initially thought we should make our performances different from country to country, but we collectively realized that we don’t need to. When the content is fun and clear, everyone likes it,” Kim said. “It would only be the language we speak to the audience that we make different. As the group’s leader, I would speak Konglish (broken English used by Koreans) to the audience, but they seemed to like it.”

Kim said that rather than trying to convey meaning verbally, they strive to make their performances easy to understand through fun and composition. “We have tried to deliver the esoteric rhythms and patterns of our performances through musical interpretations that can be easily understood in modern times.”

Kim hopes that every audience member feels happiness watching and listening to the ensemble. “Let’s be happy. It’s meaningless if you don’t find happiness in our performances. To be able to find happiness, we have to be honest every minute on stage. Only when the performance’s format, mask, and frame are removed and the basic human voice is revealed, do we have the possibility of making the audience happy.”

With this last message, Kim headed to the stage for the final rehearsal before the concert began.

“I’m happy, you happy?”

Members of Noreum Machi; from left, Uigyung Jung, Hyunju Oh, Juhong Kim, Howon Lee and Taeho Kim.

While Noreum Machi performed all songs in Korean for the majority Korean audience, during the intermission they made an effort to introduce themselves and their instruments in English.

“This name is Jang-gu, Korean traditional drum,” Kim said. “Jang-gu has two skins. One skin means woman, water and ground. Sound is ‘Kkung.’ Kkung is woman sound. Other skin means man, mountain, sky, and strong sound. Sound is ‘Dda.’ ‘Dda’ is man. ‘Kkung’ is woman. Together means love. Love sounds ‘Dung.’”

Despite the imperfect English, a great cheer went up from audience members who focused their attention on the performers and moved their bodies to the music. Kim even encouraged audience participation.

“I have a teacher. My teacher name is Park byeong-chun. He is very famous in Korea and he is shaman. When I was young and no have Jang-gu, he teach me voice percussion ‘Kkung, Dda, Dung.’ Follow me [repeat after me], Dung Dung Kkung Dda Kkung!”

As the performance neared the finale, the audience rose to their feet and danced. Regardless of race, age, gender and occupation, they stepped toward the stage, waving and clapping, and moving to the rhythm.

“Encore! Encore!”

After 75 minutes of the performance, as Noreum Machi disappeared behind the stage, the audience began calling for an encore.

At last, the band reappeared amid cheers.

Kim said: “The last song is an ordinary ship song, boat song. My father is a fisherman. He is working in the sea, in the ocean. You are also working in the city. [So we are] same, same. Thank you very much.”

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