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What is pungmul?

Overview

Pungmul (풍물), sometimes known as nongak (농악), is a Korean tradition of rural folk percussion. Steeped in pageantry, music, dance, and theater — but centrally focused on rhythm — such ensembles have been an integral part of village life for centuries, serving as a musical accompaniment in the often overlapping and shifting contexts of labor, ritual, and entertainment.

Pungmul is often classified as farmers’ music, as it is believed that the rhythms of pungmul originated from the repetitive motion of the agricultural labor. However, one can easily find influences from the native shamanistic culture, Buddhist rituals, and traditional military music.

The history of pungmul reflects the history and lives of the Korean people. Basic rhythms and instruments are not very difficult to play as a beginner; it is inherently participatory music. During important festivals such as the harvest season, villagers would play together and dance to the rhythms, expressing communal solidarity and relieving the hardship of the daily lives. Pungmul has the power to bring communities together. Thus, the fundamental philosophy of pungmul is the unity of people and the community.

Pungmul also possesses musical sophistication and power. Drums are the most fundamental and natural instruments of humankind; therefore, pungmul speaks to the hearts of people. Some compare the music of pungmul to the sound of heartbeats, and it is said that its rhythms take both the players and the audience into musical ecstasy. Most importantly, pungmul is a living tradition. Unlike the court music tradition that died with the dynastic era, pungmul has succeeded in adapting itself to the modern culture.

In 1978, a new style of pungmul called samul nori (사물놀이) brought the traditional and outdoor ritual into concert halls. By extracting the musical essence of pungmul and modernizing it, samul nori surprised the international music community and won various awards in world music and percussion festivals. Musicians are now experimenting with pungmul by combining it with jazz, rock, or classical music in an effort to create unique styles.

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

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