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Traditional drums beat out rhythm of island lifeKorean Janggu drums can be heard all around Jeju
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승인 2009.07.03  14:34:19
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▲ Maro, a drumming and dancing group based on Jeju Island, puts on regular shows in Jeju, featuring high-energy drumming and dancing. Photo by Colleen Hyde

The booming sound of janggu drums is an iconic part of festivals and traditional folk music performances on Jeju. It’s just not a party without them. The distinctive hourglass- shaped drum is easily recognized as a symbol of Korean traditional folk music, and it’s relatively simple to learn to play, even for non-Koreans.

Drum is a symbol of Korea
Janggu drums are believed to have existed in Korea for at least 2000 years, appearing in ancient artwork and in historic documents. The janggu is famously one of the four percussion instruments used in one type of Korean folk music called Samulnori or “four instruments.” It is also used in the Nongak (or Pungmul) folk music tradition that combines drumming, dancing and singing. Besides Samulnori and Nongak, janggu was also used in many other musical traditions. Today, the janggu is seen on Jeju in a wide variety of settings including traditional folk performances, shaman kut rituals, parades, school events and festivals.

The hourglass-shaped body of the drum is usually made of hollow wood but can be made of other modern materials. The heads of the drum are covered with animal skin, often horse hide. The skins are stretched across the heads by rope that crisscrosses along the drum.

Janggu has two heads and is played with two sticks, bare hands or a combination of both. There are two types of janggu sticks or chae. The first is gungchae, a wooden mallet with a round head. This stick is held in the player’s left hand but is used to hit both sides of the janggu. The second stick is the yeolchae, a long flat stick made of bamboo. It is held in the player’s right hand. Janggu players hit the drum with the sticks both separately and together as they play.

Drum lessons open to all
Janggu is a relatively simple instrument to begin learning and even Jeju elementary schools have traditional music groups. Non-Koreans may find the rhythms of the music unusual at first but learning more about the janggu drum and traditional music can be very rewarding.

The excitement of the janggu is not just in the music it produces but also in the showmanship of the players. Janggu is meant to be enjoyed in a live performance. The Jeju traditional music performance group Maro has players sitting, standing, dancing and even musically dueling with their janggu drums. Even seated Samulnori janggu players move their bodies to the music as react to other musicians. Maro’s janggu players run, dance and play in intricate patterns without missing a beat.

Music is a huge part of the history and culture of Jeju. Any amount of time spent on Jeju should include a performance of traditional folk music that includes the janggu drum. And learning to play the janggu is a unique and valuable insight into the traditional music of Korea. Maro’s members show the heights that a janggu player can reach but even a beginner player can find joy in this drum.

The Jeju group Maro was established almost 10 years ago to preserve and showcase Jeju’s rich musical culture. Maro performs throughout Jeju Island and on the mainland, as well as year round at the Jeju Folk Village near Pyoseon.

The Jeju Folk Village website is
Janggu drum lessons are also available with Maro, and foreigners are welcome. To discuss lessons call them at 011-9726-7507 or 064-722-0129 Their headquarters/drum school is located in Hwabuk to the east of Jeju City. From the 1132 road turn north at Ohyeon High School onto Tombstone road.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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