Korean percussion that resonates across cultures


Sebastian Wang explaining Gayageum (Korea traditional 12-string instrument). (Courtesy of the Korean Cultural Center Washington, D.C. /Courtesy of the Korean Cultural Center Washington, D.C.)
May 24

“It’s like seeing Paul McCartney perform rock-and-roll!”

That’s the simile that the University of Maryland’s Sebastian Wang comes up with to convey the experience of seeing South Korean musician Kim Duk Soo perform. Kim is a towering figure in Korean music, having helped launch the genre of percussion known as samulnori. The maestro will demonstrate his virtuosity in that drum-and-gong art form on May 30, when he performs at the historic Lincoln Theatre as part of an evening celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

Wang, who directs the Korean Percussion Ensemble at the University of Maryland at College Park, will also perform at the event, which is mounted by the District’s Office on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs and the mayor’s office in partnership with the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. The lineup for the evening also includes drummers Isabelle De Leon and Kiran Gandhi, and the Rockville break dancing collective Rockvillains Crew. (The event is free; RSVPs are accepted.)

According to Soohyun “Julie” Koo, executive director of the Office on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs, the concept of percussion will provide a unifying theme for the event, the latest in a series of annual celebrations that she says dates to 2001. “Every year we have a different theme,” she explains. “For this year, we wanted to use the drum as a theme and a medium to showcase Asian American culture.” The result, she says, will be a production that “can really resonate with everyone.”

The participation of Kim (whose trip is supported by the Korean Cultural Center in the District) certainly adds cachet to the evening. Born in 1952, he received a Korean presidential citation for his talent as a performer when he was 5 years old, according to his bio. In 1978, he helped found a quartet named SamulNori. The group incorporated four instruments: the changgo (an hourglass-shaped drum), the puk (a barrel-shaped drum), the kkwaenggwari (a hand-held gong) and the ching (a larger gong).

The instruments are traditional to Korean culture, but SamulNori recontextualized and “revitalized” them, Wang says. Typically, they might have been played in a communal or outdoor setting during a community celebration, such as a harvest festival; the SamulNori artists made the music “more technical and also designed to be performed in a more formal concert setting,” he says.

SamulNori was successful enough that the name — which derives from words signifying “four things” and “to play” — became an umbrella term for an art form that gained international visibility. Wang, who grew up in the Washington area, first encountered samulnori when he was about 6 years old. He went on to attend Korea National University of Arts, in Seoul, where he studied under Kim. Now he passes on his expertise to U-Md. students, who “get very excited about it,” he says.

“It’s such dynamic music — very soulful music,” he says. “People who watch samulnori feel the energy.”

Something extra in the lobby

Audiences who attend the comedy “Wild With Happy” at Baltimore’s Center Stage will have the chance to get wild with geography, too. Beginning May 31 and continuing through the run of Colman Domingo’s play, the theater will present “Global Cities,” a lobby installation showcasing video from multiple international burgs.

Artists from Durban, South Africa; Glasgow, Scotland; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Reykjavik, Iceland; and Detroit are supplying videos that in some way address the role of art in public discourse. For example, the Reykjavik piece shows people in street clothes shimmying with abandon in public spaces — including a shipyard and the sidewalk in front of a fast-food joint — while a voice relates a colorful anecdote about a risk-taking dancer. The piece was created by Choreography Reykjavik, an organization that describes itself as devoted to “creating, curating and opening up spaces for choreography.”

“This is a way of using art to invigorate and catalyze a conversation about Baltimore and some peer cities,” explains Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah. “What ideas can we bounce between global cities, some of whom may find themselves in the position that Baltimore is in today?” Sparking such dialogue is in keeping with the theater’s mission “to really integrate ourselves into the community and to be a conduit for an interesting community conversation,” he says.

An international perspective may come easily to Kwei-Armah, a British playwright and director who once headed a world arts festival in Senegal. He says that, when brainstorming “Global Cities,” he sat down with colleagues and “tried to identify different cities in different countries that may have something in common with Baltimore. So for instance, Glasgow: Glasgow is often perceived as somewhat depressed, and [yet] it has some of the most beautiful architecture and great artists”—a situation he sees as offering parallels with Charm City’s image and cultural resources. Center Stage ultimately reached out to Fish and Game, a Glasgow experimental company that has contributed a work with the peppy title “Everyone’s a Winner, Baby!”

“Global Cities” (which is a venture of Center Stage’s Fourth Space, a media initiative) revs up with a May 31 event that will involve a live-streaming powwow among civic leaders in Baltimore, Reykjavik and Durban.

Kwei-Armah says the videos don’t directly echo the theme or content of “Wild With Happy” — with whose run “Global Cities” overlaps — and he calls that a plus. “I like the juxtaposition,” he says. “While people are going to have a brilliant night filled with fun, they’re actually going to have an encounter with Baltimore and its relationship to the world” as well.

Mayor Gray’s 2014 Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month Celebration. May 30, 7 p.m., at the Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW. Visit apia.dc.gov/node/819942.

“Global Cities.” May 31–June 29 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore. Free and open to the public. Reservations for the May 31 launch at 1 p.m. are encouraged. Visit www.centerstage.org.

Wren is a freelance writer.

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