▲ Norianmaro's energetic performance at Jeju Folk Village, Pyoseon. Photo by Douglas MacDonald
Musicians clad in blue and white flowing robes, at times swirling and expansive, at times meditative and serene, take the audience on a journey as they reach euphoric crescendos and plumb trance-like depths.
The energy infects the audience, some of whom are dragged up by an urge to move in unison with the primeval beats. Others are just dragged up, by companions or even the performers themselves.
As the show at Jeju Culture and Arts Center closes, the scene resembles a London nightclub at 6am. Bright lights frame each reveler’s face, some catatonic, some unsure how they ended up dancing on stage.
Harmonizing the island’s talent
For Yang HoSung, producer of the Jeju samulnori group Norianmaro, such revelry is at the heart of his art. Yang formed the group in 2009 when his love for music — and a need to “feel alive” — prompted him to quit his job as an electrician and begin performing samulnori with friends and colleagues from Jeju Folk Village.
It is definitively a group endeavor, and each of Norianmaro’s current seven members (down from 12 previously) adds their own personality to the mix. Song Haein, creative director, says this medley is crucial to their act.
▲ Noriamaro members spend so much time together they say they are like a family. Photo by Douglas MacDonald
“The point of the performance is to harmonize each member’s character, regardless of the performance theme,” says Song, currently studying a PhD at Brunel University, London.
▲ 'Music is all about balance' says Norianmaro producer Yang HoSung. Photo by The Jeju Weekly
“Music is all about balance,” concurs Yang. “We usually spend 10 hours a day together so we know each other deeply. One who is calm produces calm music, and one who is outgoing produces outgoing music. I think this benefits our performance.”
Such balance is at the heart of Norianmaro whose members master various skills in dance, song and percussion in order, says Song, to honor ancestral tradition and build intimate bonds with the audience and each other.
Nongak, pungmul or samulnori
Although some groups (such as Norianmaro) use a wider variety of instruments, samulnori takes its name from the fun and play (nori) made from four (sa) objects (mul), or instruments: the handheld gong (kkwaenggwari), the hourglass drum (janggu), barrel drum (buk) and gong (jing).
It is a form of pungmul, which means “wind objects," and wind instruments are also often incorporated, as are actors and dancers in frenetic renditions of folk tales and songs.
Samulnori is pungmul adapted for the stage, with fewer instruments and performers. This evolution was a result of the art’s modernization in the late 1970s, when outdoor rituals were brought indoors.
Confusingly, this traditional Korean music is also known as nongak (farmers’ music), under which name it was inscribed as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in November 2014.
Nongak was the term imposed by the Japanese colonial authorities and scholars argue it misrepresents an art that is embedded not only in agricultural labor but also community ritual, entertainment and even political subversion. Pungmul is therefore increasingly used.
The National Gugak Center states the music is an integral part of local custom and seasonal celebration, and has its roots in shamanic rituals to appease the gods and ensure abundant harvests, also cleansing the land of maleficent spirits.
The performances contain elements of carnival parades, theater and acrobatic dance, driven by deep percussive beats and exuberant movement. Highly participative, the music’s role in cementing communal bonds is instantly recognizable.
▲ Gi Jong-seok playing the janggu. Photo by Douglas MacDonald
▲ Park Jong-ho playing the taepyeongso. Photo by Douglas MacDonald
The rhythms of yesteryear
Just as individuals bring their own idiosyncrasies to the stage, so local traditions give pungmul its rootedness in place: “If you look closely,” says Yang, “you find it [pungmul] has a unique tune just like each region’s dialect,” and just like the Jeju language, it will “fade away if no one takes care of it.”
▲ Haein Song says music is the 'heart and spirit' of Jeju culture. Photo courtesy Haein Song
Despite the art being the “mind and spirit” of Jeju culture, says Song, it is telling that although five representational models of pungmul have been listed intangible cultural assets, Jeju is the only region without official recognition.
Norianmaro pays this no heed, and fully embraces local shamanism, mythology and folk cultures in their performances. This is seen in how many of their shows have the suffix “gut,” says Yang, a word associated with shamanic rituals which can lead to misunderstanding.
“It is different from the common conception of gut in shamanism. My forebears would say, “Let’s go and see the gut” when there was something to celebrate in town,” says Yang.
Rather than sombre religious rites, Song says its essence is a “festival of fun through art,” with Yang stating it is carnivalistic, even hedonistic.
Heoteungut is one such example. Traditionally a shamanic rite to cleanse a possessed individual of evil spirits according to the Encyclopedia of Korean Folk Culture, the Norianmaro show of the same name is an explosion and energy and interpersonal chemistry.
“Heoteungut means disorder and messiness, and there is no division between the audience and performers. This openness is the traditional Korean form,” Yang says. “Some might say it’s too messy and crowded, but we don’t care — even if you dance right in the middle of our performance.”
As he witnesses the number of pungmul performers decrease, along with tradition generally, Yang calls on the government to designate “every single one” of the remaining folk singers and shamans as intangible cultural heritage before it is too late.
“I just want both the younger and the older generations to know about the artistic value that Jeju culture has. Koreans have viewed shamans as common and low class. But this is not the reality; the artistic value of gut is tremendous ... almost the origin of Korean traditional music,” he adds.
▲ Norianmaro takes much of its inspiration from Jeju's shamanic heritage. Photo by Douglas MacDonald
Going to the world
Tradition’s uncertain future at home is contrasted with the fame of samulnori spreading abroad. Norianmaro has been welcomed in Mexico, Australia, the United States and Scotland — the Edinburgh Festival, no less.
“Apparently, the Edinburgh Festival is the largest [arts] festival in the world,” said Yang. “[I]f the media reviews were positive, we would be able to get more and more attention from around the world. I was half worried and half excited.”
The reviews were positive, although some audiences were not quite ready for their spontaneous and participative style, says Song, something valued in Korean performance culture.
“In [some] foreign countries they think they should not clap, or [shout out] during the performance, so we were embarrassed ... but at the end they were crying out and gave us a standing ovation,” she said.
Seeing such warmth toward Jeju tradition, clearly appealing to universal values, gives Yang confidence that Norianmaro has something memorable to offer the world.
“We are unique in that our performance is not didactic — we communicate with the audience. They see us sweating and hear us breathing ... having fun. I don’t want people to walk away from the theater and forget about it.”
Jeju Folk Village, Pyoseon, Seogwipo-si
11:20am / 1:30pm/ 3:30pm (except Wednesdays)
Jeju Culture and Arts Center, Jeju-si
7:30pm / every first Wednesday of the month
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