Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Washington Songlines: SamulNori and the Korean-American community

How many entities does it take to present a concert of Korean music in the nation's capital? Despite the exponential increase in "world music" interest and awareness in the U.S. in the last couple of decades, the challenges of presenting a concert of essentially traditional "ethnic" music (as opposed to the more common "fusion" music currently performed by myriad groups) at a major American venue are considerable.

One of the pleasures of living in the Washington area is the abundance of numerous and substantial hyphenated (as in Korean-American) communities (both immigrant and native-born), particularly when it comes to cuisine. Yet for members of the mainstream music audience, access to traditional performances is not as frequent as in many European countries, where well-funded national Ministries of Culture routinely sponsor a wide range of such concerts in prestigious settings.

Last night was an extraordinary demonstration of Korean percussion music by SamulNori, led by master percussionist Kim Duk Soo, at the Smithsonian's Meyer Auditorium. The eponymous group (whose name is drawn from the primally rhythmic genre also called Samul Nori) is certainly the best known in the U.S. as proponents of this music, and it was not difficult to understand the audience's enthusiasm for this spectacularly percussive style--but more on the music itself in a later post.

The performance was preceded by the usual introduction by Michael Wilpers, who for many years has coordinated the public programming at the Freer and Sackler Galleries (the Smithsonian Institution's Asian art museums), and remarks by Paul Michael Taylor, head of the Asian Cultural History Program of the National Museum of Natural History, which co-sponsored the program, along with the Arlington-based Korean Heritage Foundation, Next came a brief speech by former Virginia Governor and Senator George Allen, who was credited in Dr. Taylor's introduction with introducing in the U.S. Senate, in 2005, a resolution for the establishment of Korean-American Day as 13 January--the day of this particular performance.

At this point, let me digress for a moment. Having attended (and assisted in the organization of) numerous concerts at the Freer and Sackler, I am always interested in the various identities manifest in members of the audience, as well as the range of dress (from jeans and sweatshirt to suit and gown and occasional regional garb), ethnicity, and the phenomenon I'll call "clustering"--in which certain individuals will tend to be the focus of unusual attention prior to the concert. As I scanned those in the lobby waiting to enter the auditorium (partly because of some confusion in the distribution of tickets), I was particularly aware of two figures, both Caucasian: one, a distinguished, scholarly gentleman of medium height with an impressive shock of greyish hair, and the other, a tall, smiling, well-coiffed and ruddy-faced man in an impressive (and probably expensive) dark suit. It was clear from the shifting groups of people surrounding them that they were not merely members of the audience.

It turned out that the scholarly figure was Dr. Taylor, who had been instrumental in assisting with the co-sponsorship of the concert through the Museum, and the other was George Allen, whose contributions on behalf of the Korean--American community have been noted above.

To return to my opening question regarding what is needed to organize such a concert: last night's program was the commendable and happy result of the combined efforts (and funding) of two wings of the Smithsonian--the Freer/Sackler galleries and the Museum of Natural History--as well as the Korean-American Foundation, with obvious support by a prominent political figure. In short, the occasion was more than a mere concert, but rather a celebration of a particular day honoring the identity of Korean-Americans, who, according to Wikipedia, are, at 1.4 million, "the fifth largest Asian American subgroup, after the Chinese American, Filipino American, Indian American, and Vietnamese American communities. The United States is home to the second largest overseas Korean community in the world after China."

No comments: