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  • SamulNori: Contemporary Korean Drumming and the Rebirth of Itinerant Performance Culture by Nathan Hesselink
  • Sunhee Koo (bio)
SamulNori: Contemporary Korean Drumming and the Rebirth of Itinerant Performance Culture, by Nathan Hesselink. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. xiv, 201 pages, figures, photographs, illustrations, tables, appendices, notes, bibliography, index-glossary; accompanying CD. $75.00 cloth, $27.50 paper.

Since its introduction in 1978, samul nori (also samullori or samulnori) has enjoyed enormous popularity both inside and outside Korea. This Korean genre performed by percussion ensembles mainly comprising two drums and two gongs took its name from its first performance group, SamulNori. With the success of SamulNori, numerous followers sought a career in this music, while amateur musicians adopted it as a group and/or cultural heritage activity in both its native and transnational contexts. While some musical and material aspects of this art have enabled its national and international audiences to imagine “traditional Korea,” samul nori is a relatively new invented tradition compared to other genres of Korean music dating from several hundred years ago. Despite its mass recognition and commercial success, the short history of samul nori has discouraged academic publication on this topic. In this regard, Nathan Hesselink’s monograph on samul nori is worth the notice of both native and foreign music scholarship. Hesselink’s book is comprehensive, covering many details involved in the birth and practice of this music. It also calls ethnomusicologists’ attention—though often indirectly—to issues such as musical [End Page 250] agency, class, and the power dynamics between national and international agencies of cultural production.

As a researcher and musician, Hesselink starts the book by sharing his insights into samul nori, based on his participant-observation research. As in the author’s previous publication, P’ungmul: South Korean Drumming and Dance (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2006), Hesselink’s long-standing commitment to Korean drumming and years of close interaction with the musicians accord well with his rich archival data in this book.

Using the idea of a Korean proverb, pŏpko ch’angsin [preserve the old (while) creating the new] (see pages 1 and 9), as the main thread of the book, the author explores multiple aspects of samul nori. For example, its musicians and professionalism (chapter 1), performance venues and audiences (chapter 2), music repertoire (chapter 3), modes of pedagogy and transmission (chapter 4), and fusion and globalization (chapter 5). If p’ungmul, or Korean farmers’ drumming, is projected as a communal art that represents rural village identities, peasant ideology, and the preservation of traditional cultures, samul nori has been portrayed as a successful reshaping of a traditional culture in accordance with the emerging dispositions of contemporary people. Because of that, samul nori has in some ways been neglected by scholarly attention and devalued by traditional musicians. However, Hesselink provides the fresh view that samul nori’s emphasis on its presentation and modern professionalism was not completely new, but was instead rooted in old itinerant performance culture.

The first chapter delineates the relationship between samul nori and the namsadang, the itinerant performance troupes who presented their artistry by visiting villages and marketplaces in traditional and rural Korea (p. 21). Just as founding and early SamulNori members Kim Duk Soo (Kim Tŏksu) and Kim Yongbae associated themselves with the namsadang, SamulNori inherited the spirit of the namsadang in terms of artistic professionalism, technique, and drumming repertoire. They are also similar in that the namsadang, in their day, were superstar-like performers attracting mass audiences in old Korea. Moreover, as the itinerancy of the namsadang enabled them to encounter new cultures and syncretize their arts beyond regional or national boundaries, SamulNori was similarly innovative in adapting new cultural and musical ideas to preexisting Korean drumming, and opening their performance to international collaborations and exchanges (pp. 18–19).

Chapter 2 introduces multiple social antecedents that led to the birth and success of SamulNori in the late 1970s. The second half of the twentieth century in Korea saw the marginalization of native culture under the influence of Western hegemony. While the nation’s new elite and [End Page 251] middle class became major patrons of Western classical music, the Korean people (minjung) as...