A Question and A Weird Observation

I’ve got a question: does anyone know whether the Japanese “taiko” drum has a long tradition of Korean performers? Does the drum’s presence in Korean music predate Japanese occupation? How popular is it in Korea today?

I went to pick up some tickets for the Sori Festival this week, and stayed around to see the opening night pre-Fest party. (The real Opening Concert is tomorrow night, and since I have a night class, I’ll have to miss it! But I have tickets to a ton of other great shows this week, thanks to the pass I was given for doing editing work on the English text of the festival booklets.)

Well, the pre-fest party had some interesting things going on. There was some kind of rock band that made fairly liberal use of Korean traditional instruments, which didn’t really grab me, but then some women did a fan-dance (while singing), a brass band played a show featuring the most charismatic tuba player I’ve ever seen, and a taiko drum ensemble sent everyone over the edge. The taiko drummers were full on, no fooling around, seriously into their beats. I find taiko drumming compelling in the same way I find bagpipes, played live. There’s something about all that primal intensity that overrides my disdain for things that are too simplistic or too easily assimilated. This stuff is not avant garde, but its so damned rearguard it’s verging on ancient music, and for that reason I really gets me. I have one thought after tonight’s show: when you have an emsemble of good taiko drummers, their movements are as much a part of the show as the music itself, and I think all taiko drummers should have long black hair, because the way it moves when they play really is fitting.

Anyway, after the taiko drumming, the slowly kept adding new instruments to mix, including smaller tuned drums that look a lot like the Korean buk drum, various cymbals, and a bizarre little wooden-xylophone sounding thing which I’ve never come across in Korean music before. Finally, a traditional Korean marching band joined them and one of the drummers stripped down to the waist and did some acrobatics, and then they invited audience members down to join in on the performance. Now, only about a hundred and fifty, two hundred people maybe, did pour down the steps, and only slowly. At certain moments, it looked like a bunch of ajummas doing a conga line behind one of the female drummers.

But when everyone who was going to join had done so, the scene reminded me of nothing more than seeing the shots of the crowds of pilgrims at Mecca going round the Kaaba. The band was playing a vigorous beat and people were following the one mic’ed singer’s lead in belting out Arirang, all of which I could get into, I guess. I know, if you’ve heard Arirang once, you’ve heard it a million times, but I just shrugged and enjoyed people getting really into it. And then, after the Nth repetition, the drum break came. You know what this is, even if you’re not musical. It’s the moment when the drummers absolutely need to stop playing that beat and play another beat for 4 or 8 bars, before going back to the original one. That musical convention.

Well, guess what rhythm they played?

Eighth note, quarter note, eighth note, quarter note, quarter note. Bam-bam, ba’bam-bam. If you were here during World Cup, you know that rhythm. If you weren’t but have come to Korean since, you know that rhythm. If you have never been to Korea, you will never know why this, and the requisite chanting of “Dae~~~Han-Min~Guk!” (“Republic of Korea!“) somehow just bothered me. I mean, I guess I can understand. If drumming is composed of a repository of rhythms, one that is really going to get the crowd going is a familiar rhythm, one associated with happy memories and pride, and so on.

But I guess what disturbed me is that there were suddenly people all around me chanting this nationalistic phrase, again. It was weird. It felt like not time at all had passed since the World Cup was hosted in Korea, 3 years ago. And as I walked up the ramp and out of the courtyard when the band finally stopped playing, a couple of the older men walking out in the same direction, within earshot, were declaring it to themselves again: “Dae~~~~Han-Min-Guk!” Maybe they were joking around, or mocking people, but I don’t think so: there was power and an ardent quality to it, and it sounded as impassioned as any of the voices in the crowd around me had sounded.

Now, I can search as much as I like but I cannot find an example of this in Canada. I know there are nationalistic people, but I do not think you could find a single rhythm that would immediately cause everyone to start chanting some nationalistic phrase in unison. At least not at an international music festival, anyway. When they were chanting, I looked over at the Indian woman I saw, in a sari and all, watching the performance. I wonder if she knows what they were chanting.

I say that I can search as I like and not find an example in Canada, but it’s funny: the nearest analogue I can find is in American culture. I don’t know whether adults really can recite the Declaration of Independence–isn’t that the one you hear kids reciting in movies all the time? That and the Gettysburg Address?–but I can find a place where the nation’s central musical theme found treatment by a major artist. I’m talking about Jimi Hendrix’s treatment of the Star Spangled Banner, of course. What a piece of work that is, well, as far as I can remember from years back. (There’s something I ought to download!) There is so much tension, so much pain and discontent and torturedness in it, and yet at the same time, there’s a profound and unrelenting assertion in that performance of Hendrix’s, that constitutes a kind of holding tight onto the national myth, the national dream, whatever it is. Though it dares to criticize, the rendition is also assertive of the deepest promise of what America was meant to be.

We don’t have anything remotely like this in Canada, you see. Sure, some pop star sings the national anthem before big hockey games, and people stand up respectfully enough, I suppose. But I don’t think you’d find middle-aged guys walking out of a hockey rink after the first half of a game singing out “Oh, Canada! We stand on guard for theeeeeeeeeee!” as it were programmed into their minds for retrieval on hearing a rhythmic code, followed by rather extended, passionate repetition. We tend not to be passionately angry at our government, not even when it screws up massively, and we tend not to be passionately proud or loving about our nation either; enh, we’re Canada, we don’t need that kind of excitement, we just need to get the damned windshield scraped clear of ice.

Anyway, I’m not complaining: the show was pretty cool, all in all, but I guess I was thinking to myself about how much more interesting art will be in Korea when people stop having this impulse to insert the obligatory affirmative “Yay Korea!” message in the middle; when you can go to a music festival and find artists being, at least, passionately critical at the same time that they are passionately proud of their people and nation; and perhaps when you don’t feel as if the borders of the country are being reaffirmed, reasserted, and drawn in red marker in case you missed the black marker line, whilst musicians from other lands are being invited to share their own traditions with the local audience that, what do you know, is once again verbally drawing that border in with green highlighter around the red line, just in case you missed it.

But you know, I have tickets to a ton of great-looking concerts, from Pansori (Korean traditional opera) and a gamelan orchestra and even a pan-Asian avant garde show all the way to the pre-WOMAD show (with musicians from as far away as Uganda!), and a concert featuring Kurdish musicians, and another show with Palestinians and Israelis playing together in the finale. It looks like it’s going to be a fascinating, worthwhile week.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *