Learning about drumming and Korean culture with Halmeoni

November 2016

During my month in Seoul, South Korea, I was quite lucky to be hosted by my friend, JiHeon Ahn, and his family. I experienced local Korean lifestyle, from house slippers to highly sophisticated toilet technology! Even though I was only in Korea a few weeks, I was able to take music classes, attend various traditional Korean and western classical concerts, and learn a lot about Korean culture.
I became especially close to JiHeon’s grandmother, whom I eventually called 할머니 (pronounced Halmeoni), which means “Grandma” in Korean. She would take me to her traditional drumming and music classes at the community center and various concerts. Halmeoni constantly fed me her delicious home-cooked Korean food. Making sure I was well fed and happy, Halmeoni left sandwiches and fruit on my doorstep most mornings. She was the first to introduce me to Pansori music and other traditional Korean folk music.

Pansori is a type of Korean folk music consisting of a singer and a buk drummer as accompaniment (pictured below). Frequently compared to an opera, Pansori is much like a one-man-show where the singer performs an entire story consisting of various characters and narratives by using different voices and gestures. During this dramatic show, the drummer plays the buk, a no-tone drum literally translated as “drum”, and adds encouraging words as embellishment. (The words apparently were encouraging, although I never understood a word of it. But yes, I felt uplifted.) The buk drummer must have the ability to select and change rhythms any second, depending on the singer’s character at that moment. It is customary for the vocalist to be female, and the drummer, male. They are both seen as equals while in other folk music, either the singer leads or the drummer leads. There is an absolute balance of gender between the vocalist and the drummer

For such an old genre of folk music, Pansori reminded me of early 20th-century experimental songs like Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and Charles Ive’s Charlie Rutlage. (For the non-classical music geeks out there, I recommend youtubing these songs if you want either nightmares or confusion.)Pansori is intensely expressive, almost like talk-singing, improvised without a real key or melody. It is all entirely up to the vocalist. The drummer chills in the background and makes sure there is a consistent beat, providing critical structure and cohesion.

One night, Halmeoni took me to a Pansori concert where some of her close friends were opening at an art gallery. The small gallery was packed to the brim. Halmeoni did not take no for an answer, she squeezed us to the very front. While the concert was performed, a man sat on the ground with rice paper and began to paint what I presumed were key words and pictures relating to the story being sung. This added an entirely new dimension to the music, making it multi-dimensional performance art. (Check out a portion of the concert (but here, the singer is playing a wooden flute) in a video below) I was so interested in the concert that Halmeoni took me to her Pansori drum class the next day.

The next day:

Halmeoni and I entered a classroom in the local community center. There were four other students; I was the youngest by fifty years. Before any music actually occurred, we enjoyed various Korean snacks and drinks brought by the students. One woman brought homemade kimchi, Halmeoni and I brought sweet bread, one man brought Korean rice wine and warm tea.

Side note: Korean rice wine is strong stuff! I felt pressured more when drinking with these older Koreans than I ever did during four years of college parties. If my cup was still filled, they commented on how I needed to finish it. When I finally emptied it, they instantly refilled my cup. I propose American orchestras should adopt this pre-rehearsal snack and drink time, maybe even employ adorable Korean grannies to make sure all are fat and happy before rehearsal.

I learned various traditional songs during rehearsal, and I even kept up with the class! Of course, all the students knew the songs so well, they sang as they drummed, while I was concentrating solely on keeping my hands in the right area of the drum. Here is a video of my teacher, 황정원 (Jung Won Hwang), playing and singing one of the Pansori songs we were learning. Jung Won Hwang is certified by the government of South Korea for preserving and keeping Pansori music alive and accurate to tradition.


Like what you see? There’s more videos on class in the “videos” tab!

With the rise of K-pop and the obsession with Western classical music, Pansori and other Korean folklore music is losing popularity. It mostly is enjoyed by the older generation. Children are taught how to play traditional Korean music in school, but my generation’s interest in this genre is quickly declining. Because of this, the government has found it necessary to appoint certain artists and musicians to preserve traditional Korean art and stimulate interest among younger generations of musicians. Pansori music is now seen as more of a cultural attraction, rather than a part of daily life.

At one point, I was able to to experience the general public playing and enjoying traditional Korean music; however, it was not in a concert or class. It was during one of the weekly protests in Seoul’s main square.

Hundreds of thousands of people came out every Saturday in November and December, 2016, to protest peacefully against President Park Geun-hye, during accusations that she and close friends had extorted millions of dollars from the Korean government and businesses for personal gain. It was amazing how absolutely huge the protests were in Korea; whereas internationally, the civil unrest was barely reported. Many of my friends and family had no idea this was happening in Seoul, other than knowledge of corruption charges against President Park. I think there were a few reports about it on BBC News, but the huge protests were not mentioned prominently elsewhere.

Each Saturday, the entire main business district of Seoul was shut down, in order to keep the protesters in one consolidated area. Police forces used giant buses to contain the crowds, and to block people from watching or joining the protests. It was nearly impossible to not go through the crowds during the protests each Saturday, because my normal bus stop was closed down due to road closures. Therefore on Saturdays, I had to walk through the ENTIRE protest to get to the next functioning bus stop. It was quite an experience, making my way through the masses of people.

Along the way, I discovered the protests were like a giant music festival. A famous Korean singer came to give a benefit concert after a few politicians spoke about the issues at hand. And then I heard of all things…. people playing the buk and other traditional percussion instruments! I decided to stick around and watch what they were playing. I was amazed to see first-hand when political chaos was happening, the people held tightly to traditional culture. It unified all Koreans. This was their culture, their music, their country. You can see pictures from the protest on the “South Korea” tab under “pictures”.

If you are interested on how the Korean public protested every week for months to impeach their president (which eventually happened), read Wikipedia’s summary here. It was an amazing feat. I feel we, as Americans, can learn much from the Koreans and how they peacefully persisted for political justice.

That’s all for now, friends. Next blog is about my adventures seeing the famous Korean act, DRUMCATS!


-You get cute little slippers when sitting at certain restaurants/cafes (i would have to wear the man size because Korean women have fairy feet)

-“She has a flower in her hair” is an old idiom for “that girl is craaaazy”

-ANIMAL CAFÉS EVERYWHERE! I went to a cat cafe and a raccoon cafe. Here’s a video for proof