Lee Bu-san, who began to play the janggu (a traditional two-headed drum) at the age of six,
has created his original rhythmic repertoire by combining farmers’ music (nongak) with
traditional dance beats, and integrating the regional traditions of Korea’s southwestern and
southeastern provinces. Having played the janggu for almost 60 years, the master musician’s
life continues to be shaped by his devotion to and his artistry with the traditional drum.
Lee Bu-san, playing lively rhythms with sticks in both hands, is a virtuoso of seol-janggu, an improvisational solo genre of the traditional two-headed drum.
The boy’s house was always buzzing with visitors, who would come to their reception room to play the janggu with his father. Every morning, the boy would wake up to the invigorating sound of drumbeats rising with the bright morning sun. Eventually, he mastered the rhythms of traditional music even before he learned reading and writing.
In 1961, he had the first physical contact with the sound he had been familiar with for so long. The six-year-old boy instinctively rapped out the rhythms lingering in his mind on a janggu that happened to be within reach. Listening to the sound, standing still and thoughtful, was his father, who was a renowned drummer designated as a “Living Human Treasure” for Honam Udo Gimje Nongak (Farmers’ Music of Gimje in the Style of the Western Honam Region), listed as North Jeolla Province’s Intangible Cultural Property No. 7-3.
Father and Son Ensemble
At the time, the janggu was more than just a musical instrument. For ordinary people in the countryside, when all they could do for entertainment was watching soap operas on the neighbor’s black-and-white television, one of the few in the entire village, the performance of a farmers’ music band was a great pleasure. They would revel in dancing to the delightful music played by rural musicians on the two-headed drum, small gong (kkwaenggwari), conical oboe (taepyeongso), and a couple of other instruments.
Among all the instruments they used, the janggu provided a major source of livelihood for the band. Even at the time when most people lived in dire poverty, playing the drum enabled them to earn money to augment their incomes from farming or other rural work. When the solo performance called seol-janggu, played standing up and walking about, succeeded to arouse the audience to breathless excitement, the player’s waistband would soon sport thick wads of bills tucked into it by thrilled listeners. For this reason, anyone with talent among the poverty-stricken community would join farmers’ music bands and travel across the nation to earn a living by performing music.
Although fully aware of the joys and sorrows of such a nomadic life, the boy’s father could not just ignore his son’s obsession with that particular drum; he had shown little interest in other traditional instruments, such as the daegeum (transverse bamboo flute), ajaeng (seven-stringed fiddle), or sogo (a small hand drum). Eventually, he sat down with his son, facing each other on a sand enclosure, where his band was playing to work up the crowd at a traditional wrestling match. The young drummer’s delicate sound, boosted by the warm, solid strokes of his father, rose up above the steamy haze in the sand. Ever since, the sound has never left the mind of Lee Bu-san, who has lived as a janggu player for 59 years already.
Learning to Play Dance Beats
In the long time it has taken the boy’s soft dark hair to turn gray, he has followed his father’s footsteps as a musician. A recent performance by Lee Bu-san, now recognized as a virtuoso of seol-janggu, seemed to illustrate the course of his life as an artist.
Lee came out on the stage with a janggu slung across his chest, and started to beat a rhythm with sticks in both hands, the two drumheads making two different tones: a deep, low-pitched thumping alternating with clear, high-pitched notes. His legs gracefully moved to the rhythm. While one hand was beating a drumhead, the other hand merrily played with a stick, spinning it or tossing and catching it. Attuned to the sound that he was making on the drum, his movements were decidedly different from the typical gestures of other players.
In our talk later, the musician recollected his encounter with dance: “I think it was in 1973. I had a performance in Busan, which was attended by some of the leading figures of Korean dance, such as Lee Mae-bang, Kim Jin-hong and Lee Do-geun. They liked my performance, and then told me that seol-janggu could be a great addition to their dance repertoires. That is how I got to teach dancers how to play the janggu, and got acquainted with the rhythms for dancing apart from those for farmers’ music. I learned to play for different traditional dances — Monk Dance (seungmu), Exorcism Dance (salpuri), Dance of Peace (taepyeongmu), and so on. The same rhythm, let’s say gutgeori, an equivalent of 12/8 meter, is to be played differently between a dance accompaniment and a farmers’ band music.”
The time he spent adapting his music for dance moves of eminent dancers was hardwired into his body, and the experience of familiarizing himself with unaccustomed beats was integrated into his performances.
Lee remarked, “Our folk music scarcely has scores, so you have a degree of freedom to play with the rhythm — either slowing down or speeding up — within a certain time span, and the skills for that come from experience. That is why words can’t teach the improvisational charm of seol-janggu. It has to be felt by the player.”
As his career matured, the name Lee Bu-san became closely associated with his favorite instrument. Various contests of traditional percussion music tried very hard to invite him to join. In time, his art form was designated as Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 11-1, under the title of Jinju Samcheonpo Nongak (Farmers’ Music of Jinju and Samcheonpo), originated from the Gyeongsang provinces. For the native of Jeolla, it was an unusual honor and recognition that transcended the entrenched rivalry between the two regions.
“The farmers’ music of western Honam that I learned in my childhood is ornate and delicate, while that of Jinju and Samcheonpo is bold and powerful. People say that my seol-janggu performance embodies both styles, which must be attributed to my extraordinary experience,” said the master musician.
“My hometown Gimje has a great expanse of plains.
The idyllic atmosphere of the rural town must have created an
undercurrent in my music. So far, I’ve tried to express every
subtle sound, like beans rattling down on the linoleum floor,
raindrops falling on leaves, and so on.”
Drumhead Leather and Tonal Quality
I wanted to know more about the stylistic quality that my untrained ear could not grasp. What, then, was the root of the sound that he played on his instrument?
Lee replied, “My hometown Gimje has a great expanse of plains. The idyllic atmosphere of the rural town must have created an undercurrent in my music. So far, I’ve tried to express every subtle sound, like beans rattling down on the linoleum floor, raindrops falling on leaves, and so on. Most janggu players have their own color, or voice, which does not change even when played on a different janggu.”
However, not every janggu is capable of expressing such subtle sounds, the musician observed. He then called attention to the leather used on the drumheads: its type and condition determine the quality of the sound that the instrument makes.
“The leather for drumheads should be thin to effectively express delicate sounds. Ordinary cowhide is too thick for me. Certainly, it is used for other types of janggu for classical — as opposed to rustic — music (jeongak) or popular folk songs, but not for percussion ensembles. My own instrument, made from calfskin imported from Germany, sounds quite soft,” he explained.
Dog skin immersed in brine was a familiar sight in his childhood. After a couple of months’ brining, the dog skin is shorn of hair, and secured to a board with nails to be stretched before it was dried and attached to his father’s janggu. Farmers’ music, as the name implies, was popular music played in the fields to relieve farmers from the tedium of work. Seeking the comfort of music in their daily toil, people made their own instruments. When a dog died in the village they made leather for the two heads of the drum, and the trunk of the paulownia tree on a nearby hill provided logs for the hourglass-shaped body.
In this way, music became one with life for those who made and played their own instruments. In whatever spare time that was found, they would shed sweat over the task of choosing and cutting the right tree, hollowing out the log, carving it into the drum’s body. They would painstakingly prepare and stretch the leather, hearing in their heads the pleasant sound that it would make. With cautious concern, they would stitch up the tears in the leather, listening for any possible change in the sound. What could all these amount to? Where else could one find such an honest sound?
“I’ve never seen a janggu that is better than the one I made as a boy,” declared the musician before going on in more detail about the making of the instrument. “The mallet held in the left hand is made of a bamboo root — not any bamboo root, but a straight one protruding out of a cliff. The sap is removed by immersing it in salt water. It is important to choose one that has distinct and even-spaced joints,” he said.
Being able to modify an instrument to fit one’s preference must mean that one has complete mastery of the instrument. Perhaps that is why the musician said no, he didn’t feel the need, when asked if he played only janggu made by renowned artisans. He claimed he could always find a janggu that produced a desired sound: he could simply tune it for that purpose.
Children dance to the rhythms that Lee plays on his drum at an apartment complex in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province.
Sound Minds Create Good Sounds
Whether talking about musical talent or about the instrument, Lee Bu-san kept returning to the subject of a musician’s character or mindset. He asserted, “Playing the janggu, an irritable person tends to produce harsh sounds, and an amiable one, soft sounds. Just by listening to their music, you can see through to their character.”
He thinks that the temperament of the janggu player is a key factor for the success of the ensemble’s stage performance. As a founding member of the percussion ensemble Durepae Samulnori, consisting of players of the small gong, the large gong (jing), the barrel drum (buk) and the janggu, he has led thousands of performances at home and abroad.
Concerning the role of the janggu in an ensemble, Lee noted: “It’s said that the buk sets the pace of the ensemble’s tempo. In reality, however, when we find it difficult to keep a steady tempo, it is the janggu that can fix it right, leading other instruments to follow its beats. I didn’t know that in the past, but years of experience have taught me that the janggu has a vital supporting role for the harmony of all the four instruments.”
Sitting beside him and listening to his comments, Lee’s pupil Kwon Jun-sung added, “Just as the player’s character affects the sound of an instrument, his considerate nature is fully at play in the performance of his band. He controls the flow of the music, helping the instruments at odds with one another to get back on track. It is something that requires excellence in both skills and character.”
Made self-conscious by his pupil’s compliment, the master musician now touched upon the matter of etiquette among fellow performers. Regardless of your seniority, he maintained, whether you have been in the performing arts for 10 years or 50 years, it is your duty to arrive in plenty of time to get ready at least 30 minutes ahead of the performance. He firmly believes that the artist — the human element — should come before the art, no matter who achieves what in their artistic pursuits. This humanist mindset was also evident in his response when I asked him to name the most memorable stage he has performed on in the course of his career:
“During my band’s tour around 11 states in the U.S., I met an Asian couple who came to clean my hotel room. They didn’t seem to notice it when we were talking in Korean in their presence, but after a few days, I overheard them speaking to each other in our language. It turned out that they were too embarrassed about their circumstances to say hello to their compatriots. I told them not to feel that way since we Koreans are all brothers and sisters wherever we live. I invited them to our performance, and they were so happy because they had never had such an experience in their busy life. And it made me happy, in turn,” Lee recalled.
While he was getting prepared to be photographed, he showed me a pamphlet with a picture of him playing the janggu, fully dressed in a musician’s costume and a conical hat. Professing his satisfaction with the representation of himself, he told me that the same picture had been tattooed on his back so he could bear in mind, in life and in death, his life-long devotion to music. Indeed, his back had the picture with his motto in a classical Chinese phrase expressing his will to keep playing the janggu wherever he would be.
It is his determination that would be cherished until the end of his life, he said with a smile on his face. I did not need to ask any more questions, and realized what he meant when he said he worked out every day to be able to play his instrument.