Gang of Four

When the SamulNori comes, it brings rain, lightning, clouds and wind. But it's not a weather condition. It's a Korean percussion ensemble whose name means "to play four parts" or "mastery of four things," which is exactly what these four guys do. One each covers the four traditional instruments: a small gong, which represents lightning; a large gong symbolizing wind; a two-sided hourglass-shaped drum representing rain and a barrel-shaped drum that is associated with clouds. And the four musicians with their four instruments play four musical works referred to as "the golden pieces" in a concert religious and secular, traditional and modern and musical and spectacle.

SamulNori's performances begin with the players, led by founder Kim Duk Soo on the hourglass drum, marching into the concert hall in a "call to attention" with gongs sounding, drums pounding and voices chanting the pinari, religious ceremony music, before giving a blessing and doing a ritual called mun-kut. The next two pieces are secular music, updated versions of art music from several of Korea's provinces that were performed by the traveling bands that preceded SamulNori. The final piece--called the p'ankut--is less complex than the other three, but features flowing hats and dance movements in addition to the drums and gongs. The four performers use their entire bodies to perform this final work, which is often described as playful.

Forgive SamulNori for having a name that sounds like an over-the-counter cold medication or that might seem appropriate for a prog-rock band. The drums are loud enough a pain reliever might be necessary. And there's more to the SamulNori than just Korean folk songs. The group has combined its traditional works with jazz, rock, world music and classical symphonies because it feels that for these ancient works to live, they must continue to grow through outside stimuli even if it means Soo adding some changgo drum to a heavy metal song once in a while.