Pungmul, or nongak, is a Korean folk music tradition that includes drumming, dancing, and singing. Most performances are outside, with tens of players, all in constant motion.

Pungmul is rooted in the dure (collective labor) farming culture. It was originally played as part of farm work, on rural holidays, at other village community-building events, and in shamanistic rituals. Today it has expanded in meaning and is also used in political protest and as a performing art form.

Drumming is the central element of pungmul. Each group is led by a kkwaenggwari (small handheld gong) player, and includes at least one person playing janggo (hourglass drum), buk (barrel drum), and jing (gong). Wind instruments (t'aepyongso, also known as hojeok, senap, or nalari, and nabal) sometimes play along with the drummers.

Following the drummers are dancers, who often play the sogo (a tiny drum that makes almost no sound) and tend to have more elaborate - even acrobatic - choreography. Finally, japsaek (actors) dressed as caricatures of traditional village roles wander around to engage spectators, blurring the boundary between performers and audience. Minyo (folksongs) and chants are sometimes included in pungmul, and audience members enthusiastically sing and dance along. Most minyo are set to drum beats in one of a few jangdan (rhythmic patterns) that are common to pungmul, sanjo, p'ansori, and other traditional Korean musical genres.

Pungmul performers wear a variety of colorful costumes. A flowery version of the Buddhist kkokkal is the most common head-dress. Advanced performers sometimes wear sangmo, which are hats with long ribbon attached to them that players can spin and flip in intricate patterns by moving their heads.

Pungmul in the United States

Pungmul is played in many Korean-American communities across the US. There are several community-based Pungmul groups in Oakland, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Baltimore, etc., and many college-based groups at the University of California at Berkeley, Los Angeles, Davis, San Diego, Santa Barbara; Columbia University, New York University, MIT, Harvard University, Yale University, the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, Buffalo University, Syracuse University, Stanford University, and so on.

Even though pungmul has rapidly gained popularity, it is, however, difficult to learn and play in the US. One of the most primary reasons for the difficulty is the lack of resources and teachers. In Korea, there are local centers for preserving and teaching indigenous styles of pungmul, and anyone with an interest can visit those centers to learn pungmul and improve his/her skills. However, most pungmul groups in the US have to rely on a limited number of pungmul players who happen to live in the vicinity of those groups.

Coupled to the difficulty of finding a pungmul teacher or master, the lack of information on Pungmul is also a major problem for the Pungmul activity in the U.S. It prohibits many people from studying and learning pungmul even for themselves.

Last but not least, obtaining or purchasing the pungmul instruments is also major difficulty for playing Pungmul. Currently, most Korean folk instruments are not available in the US, so they have to be purchased directly from Korea. In most cases, a few members of a Pungmul group would bring one or two pungmul instruments, after visiting their home or relatives in Korea. Pungmul groups so far had to reply on such occasional trips to Korea for the replenishment or purchase of the new instruments. Naturally, through such a method, only a limited number of instruments can be brought in, and sometimes the pungmul group has to go on with broken instruments for a long time, until one of its member makes a trip to Korea.

The lack of teachers/masters and resources and the difficulty of obtaining instruments are some of the most apparent obstacles of the pungmul activity in the U.S. There are also subtle, yet important and unique issues that the pungmul groups in the US have to resolve. As mentioned before, pungmul has been accepted and gained popularity in many Korean-American communities across the US during the past few years. However, playing Pungmul in the U.S. now takes on quite a different meaning from playing Pungmul in Korea or playing it 10 or 5 years ago.

For the second generation of Korean-American pungmul players, who constitute a large fraction of the pungmul group, pungmul is a medium through which they can experience the cultural heritage of their parents' motherland and a way of discovering their identities and the roots. For the 1.5 generation or the recent immigrants from Korea, pungmul is a source of joy and pride about their motherland's culture. For the people from other cultural and ethnic origin, pungmul provides an easy access to learn and experience parts of Korean culture. However, Pungmul's power of bringing people together has not been fully realized yet. Even though pungmul has had much positive influence on the Korean-American community in the past, there are still many gaps that have to be bridged. The cultural and generational gap between the first and the second generations of Korean-Americans is one such example.


In 1978, a group of pungmul players from the namsadang (itinerant musician band) tradition formed a group called Samul nori ("four-piece playing"), collecting folk rhythms from across Korea into coherent, technically challenging performance pieces. Samulnori transformed pungmul into an art form in and of itself, nearly separate from its ritual origins, much as the group Osuwa Daiko merged Japanese folk and temple rhythms into the modern kumi-daiko (ensemble taiko) style.

Samulnori's degree of influence is such that the term "samulnori" now refers to a genre of music practiced by thousands of people worldwide, whose core repertoire is the four pieces on Samulnori's landmark 1983 first recording. Today, the Samulnori Hanullim organization (led by original Samulnori member Kim Duk Soo) includes several performing groups, two music schools, an instrument factory and store, and the annual World Samulnori Festival and Competition.

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