K-Pop and K-dramas led her to learning Samul Nori, the genre of Korean percussion music.
Twenty-six year old Mariam Al Hammadi, a marketing professional based in Abu Dhabi, has always been fascinated by Korean culture, be it their food or music. She has even learnt a little Korean, and manages to introduce herself fluently. She is now most excited to be attending a second round of Samul Nori sessions at the Korean Cultural Centre or KCC in Abu Dhabi.
Explaining her love for K-Pop and K-Dramas that nudged her in this direction, she says, “The song Thunder from Stray Kids used Samul Nori. Many BTS performances have it too. The instruments are there in other musical shows,” she adds. The presence of the Samul Nori in Korean culture is what’s so interesting for Al Hammadi, and she wishes more people in the world to know about it. Yet, while K-Pop and K-dramas have had undoubtable sway in spurring the Hallyu wave, Kwak Junhyuk wants to bring the spotlight on Korean music that many people might not know about.
Kwak Junhyuk, an instructor for Samul Nori lessons at the Korean Cultural Centre, says there’s a ‘special joy’ in Korean music that must be shared. Elaborating more on why he started the classes at the KCC, he says, “I came to the UAE to study in university. I realised that there were many Korean classes offered, in cooking Kimchi and art, but not many in music. So I thought, why not teach Samul Nori, so that more people can learn about it?” Junhyuk learnt Samul Nori in elementary school itself, and it is something that stayed with him throughout school and college.
The response to his classes have been overwhelming. Junhyuk is teaching a batch of around ten students, most of whom are Emirati women. In the introductory session, most of them had similar reasons for joining Sumul Nori. Some of them were attending the session owing to their love for Korean dramas and K-Pop; others were intrigued by Korean culture in general. A few had already learnt Samul Nori before and were eager to begin from where they left off. There’s a sense of eagerness that pervades through the room as they play the instruments, trying to follow Hunhyuk’s instructions to the last beat.
The history of Samul Nori and the instruments
There are a wide range of different sounds reverberating in the room, due to four very different instruments. Samul means ‘four objects’ and nori means ‘to play’ in Korean, explains Junhyuk. And, each one has a connection to the weather. There is the Kkwaenggwari, a small gong, and Jing, a brass gong that has a deep pitch. Kkwaenggwari and Jing mean wind and lightening in Korean.
Along with these two, there is the Janggu, an hourglass shaped wooden drum with two leather surfaces, where one side is pitched higher than the other. The Buk is a barrel shaped drum with a lower pitch. Jangu means earth in Korean, and Buk means clouds. The music is meant to be a combination between the Earth, sky (Jangu and Buk) and wind and lightening (Jing and Kkwaenggwari).
There’s a reason why these instruments are so deeply entwined with the weather.
A song for the harvests and protests
Samul Nori finds its roots in Pungmul, which was a form of ancient Korean farm music. It wasn’t just a folk tradition that needed to be preserved, it was a crucial part of the rural life.
Pungmul, which is speculated to be as old as 57 BC, is rooted in Shamanism, according to Korean historians Sung Youn and Sonya Gwak in their book, Becoming Korean in The United States: Exploring Ethnic Identity Formation through Cultural Practices. These songs paid tribute to Nature, which means that the livelihood of farming societies depended on the seasons and the weather. Performed in farming villages , it wasn’t a staged show, rather a participatory performance that involved all the villagers, dancers, singers and instrumentalists. It was a manner of creating community through music.
It was also the farmer’s way of cheering themselves up and wishing for a good harvest. “It was to get all the farmers and people together, so they could be engaged in this agricultural process throughout the year,” says Junhyuk. “It was a very tiring process, so they had this music to boost their energy and sustain them throughout the year.”
In the 1960s, a performing artist named Kim Duk Soo decided to modernise Pungmul further, and modify it for stage, which became Samul Nori. Duk Soo used the four main instruments of Pungmul, which are Janggu, Jing, Kkwaenggwari and Buk. These forms of Pungmul decontexualised the musical form from its rural roots, writes Youn. The focus shifted from community building to the focus on the music itself.
However, in the late 1970s, there was a revival of Pungmul. Korean students learned and played the various instruments of Pungmul on campus as a form of protest as part of a democratic political movement.
According to Korean authors and researchers Jong Hwa-Lee and Chyun-oh in the book The Candlelight Movement, Democracy and Movement in Korea (published in 2021), students believed that these forms of traditional culture would reconstruct Korea’s national identity. The students joined in mass street demonstrations in 1987. They chanted out slogans to the rhythms of Pungmul.
The fascination for Korean Culture in the UAE
Considering the Hallyu boom and its towering waves, there is an increasing interest in all aspects of Korean culture in the UAE. People in the UAE have become more interested in Korean culture now, says Lee Yong Hee, the director of the Korean Cultural Centre. He attributes this fascination to mostly Korean dramas and the increased tourist visits to South Korea. “They’re more curious now. To meet this interest, we decided to open the workshop on Samul Nori, which is traditional Korean music.”
People in the UAE have become more interested in Korean culture now, because of Korean dramas and visits to the country. They're more curious now...
Al Hammadi is thrilled to do another round of learning Samul Nori. “I started learning it in the KCC two years ago. It was so much fun, and I learned from different instruments, like the Buk and the Kkwaenggwari. We even got to do the performance, and once the sessions started, I wanted to learn it again.”
Finding similarities between Emirati culture and Korean culture
On the other hand, Bakhita Al Derei, an Emirati in her early forties, credits her friend for motivating her to learn Samul Nori. “She learnt it in Korea, and she came and performed it here. She played so beautifully that it attracted me, so I decided to try it.” Another reason for her joining the sessions, is also due to her fascination with Korean culture. Moreover, she feels that there are undeniable similarities between Emirati culture and Koreans, as she says. “I think it’s our traditions and beliefs, for instance both Emiratis and Koreans sit on the floor and eat. It’s also the food we eat, with a lot of vegetables and salt,” explains Derej.
Learning something new
Meera Al Saafi, an Emirati in her early 30s, finds learning Samul Nori a “wonderful” experience. “I am learning more stuff in these classes than I did before. I am learning about the sounds that are connected to Nature, like the thunder and rain. It is really interesting,” she says.