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Pungmul in the U.S.

Pungmul in the United States

Pungmul is played in many Korean American communities across the United States. There are several community-based pungmul groups in Oakland, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Baltimore, and other metropolitan areas. College-based groups can also be found on major campuses throughout the country.

Despite pungmul’s growing popularity, it is difficult to learn and play this musical tradition in the U.S. One of the primary reasons is the lack of resources and teachers. In Korea, local performing arts centers preserve and continually pass down indigenous styles of pungmul. Anyone interested can visit these centers to learn pungmul and improve his/her skills and technique. This is not the case in the U.S., where most groups have to rely on a limited number of pungmul players who happen to live in the vicinity of those groups.

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

Additionally, obtaining or purchasing instruments is also major difficulty for playing pungmul. Currently, most Korean folk instruments are not available in the U.S., so they must be purchased directly from Korea. In most cases, a few members of a pungmul group would bring one or two 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 group has to go on with broken instruments for a long time, until one of its members makes a trip to Korea.

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

For second generation Korean American pungmul players, who constitute a large fraction many pungmul groups, it 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 those from other cultural and ethnic origins, it 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. Although pungmul has had much positive influence on the Korean American community in the past, there are still many gaps that have to be bridged. Cultural and generational gaps between the first and the second generations of Korean Americans are such examples.

It is now a time to search for a new direction and meaning for pungmul activities in the U.S. Finding ways to correctly learn and teach pungmul as a living tradition of Korea and to recreate it on American soil is the most imperative and difficult task facing all U.S. pungmul groups.

Content adapted from the National Pungmul Network, a project of the Korean Youth Cultural Center in Oakland, California.

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