Ten students sit in a circle on the third floor of Hyde Park Union Church. Most of them hold drums in their laps; one sits in front of a large gong; another holds a mallet and small brass disk in his hands. Slowly, the sound of low rumbling begins to fill the room.
The group is The Koong, a samul nori (traditional Korean percussion music) ensemble on campus. The group was started a couple years ago by a handful of interested students but has since grown, just recently becoming an official RSO.
“Pure passion [and] all the members [coming] to grow towards samul nori is what started this RSO,” second-year and RSO head Junwan Neil Cho said.
Members meet once or twice a week for an hour to practice their repertoire, which is based on the original note score from southeast Korea. “At a usual practice, we first split into different instrument groups to learn and synchronize the beats,” Cho said. “As soon as the separate instrument groups are familiar with the beats, then we come together and put the pieces together.”
Several traditional instruments comprise the basis of samul nori: kkwaenggwari (a small gong), jing (a larger gong), janggu (an hourglass-shaped drum), and buk (a barrel drum). Each instrument in turn represents a part of the weather. Kkwaenggwari represents thunder, jing represents wind, janggu represents rain, and buk represents the clouds. Together, these instruments—which are traditionally used to play folk music—come together to form scintillating beats and sounds.
If The Koong were an orchestra, the kkwaenggwari would act as the conductor, guiding the powerful swells and crescendos of the music and keeping the group on beat. The Koong is not an orchestra, however. There is no fixed sheet music that the ensemble must follow and, as a result, no specific instruction. Rather, there is a lot of variation and improvisation in the rhythm, speed, and style of the music.
Ultimately, synchronization is both the most important and hardest part of the group’s success. Members must stay on beat with one another through eye contact and bodily coordination. With such measured effort alongside unbridled energy and investment in the music, playing percussion is a surprisingly exhausting endeavor. At the end of rehearsals, group members find themselves sprawled on the ground, struggling to catch their breath.
However, the group still hopes to complicate and intensify their music. “We want to expand the size of our group to at most 50 members,” Cho said. “By doing so we’ll be able to try more complicated (thus hard to learn) but more entertaining beats. More members also means we could hold performances more frequently.”
The group’s first official performance will be on Friday, May 20, on Bartlett Quad. On the following day, Saturday, May 21, they will perform at several outdoor locations in downtown Chicago, among them Water Tower Place, Tribune Tower, Millennium Park, and Grant Park. The aim of the showcase is to promote Korean culture, provide entertainment for passersby, and to have a good time.
The Koong is open to all students regardless of their musical experience. “We believe that there is magic within the percussion music and the group that brings people together,” Cho said. “We want any person who is interested to come and just watch what we do. The magic will lead them into the group.”