This year the Fes Festival presented two excellent drumming ensembles, The Master Drummers of Burundi, and the Korean Samulnori Hanullim Ensemble. Experiencing these two groups got me thinking about how much we rely on our own cultures to interpret sound.
It's not that I don’t believe music can cross boundaries, but I also believe that as we grow up our own culture informs us of how to hear things, and even how to evaluate the quality of the music we are listening to. The drummers from Burundi were excitement personified, and they were rightly presented on the big stage at the Bab Makina, where their athletic gestures and mighty, deep-voiced drums matched the grandeur of the setting. The Korean drums were presented in the more intimate Batha Museum, and although they were no less athletic, the statement was nuanced.
Again it had me thinking about what we are and are not comfortable listening to. Two hundred years ago, most occidental opinions of music were filtered through European classical standards. African music was considered barbaric. In the USA things changed about 90 years ago with the introduction of "Race Records" that brought the music of the African American population into broader distribution and the public consciousness. It's been a love story ever since, and these days most American pop music continues to be a blend of Western harmonic concepts with African American grooves and gospel-influenced vocals. So the drums of Burundi already felt familiar as the progenitors of music I grew up with.
But what of the drummers from Korea? The higher pitched timbres and shifting rhythmic deconstructions that transitioned into ferocious grooves reminded me that sometimes we have to push hard with our own listening to "get" something that has been around for thousands of years. That’s why I thought to insert part of an interview I recorded about a year ago, and to focus on this ensemble in my post.
I had seen Kim Dong-Won in the wonderful documentary "Intangible Asset Number 82," about the journey of Australian jazz drummer Simon Barker to find the Korean shaman whose music inspired him. Dong-Won had been Barker's guide, and he was in town, playing with Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble, so I set up an appointment. I was anxious to get his insights into the film, and I also asked him to talk about Korean folk music: the way the vocals functioned, and about the philosophy behind the drumming technique. I have edited a small part of that interview into my video here.