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As the tension between Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington increases, Harvard’s only Korean drum troupe, composed of eight undergraduates, will bring a refreshingly apolitical Korean entertainment to Arts First.
Han Ma-Eum was founded in 1990 and has participated in Arts First every year since. Its name means “One Heart,” though Jennifer J. Ahn ’04, one of the three co-leaders of the troupe, remarks that “Han” has a double meaning, denoting “Korean” more generally.
All the troupe’s music comes from only four instruments: the kwaenggari (the lead instrument, small and loud), the janggo (hourglass-shaped, with ornamental sticks on either side), the buk (a big round drum that provides the bass beat) and the jing (a gong that, Ahn says, “rounds out the beats with a deeper, darker sound”).
Percussive music has deep roots in Korean culture. Jung S. Lee ’04, another troupe co-leader, estimates that it dates back several centuries and that it is the oldest of Korean folk arts traditions. Dancing and drumming is the type of thing farmers would do in order to unwind after a long spell in the fields, Lee says. Ahn says drumming “tended to be the music of the common people…farmers especially.”
The pieces have been modernized for today’s audiences, both by the troupe and by a developing Korea. At each of the troupe’s performances, Han Ma-Eum will select one or two pieces from its standard repertoire, which includes such traditional and modern works as “Young mam” (originally a celebration of the harvest, Ahn says), “Yong ho” and “Utdari”—rhythmic music.
Dance has no place in Han Ma-Eum’s repertoire, as the dance that accompanies Korean drums is usually traditional. Although the troupe practices weekly, each of its rehearsed compositions includes room for improvisation—mostly on the kwaenggari and the janggo—and so no two performances are alike.
Drumming provides for Korean-American students at Harvard a way of negotiating their cultural identities, performers say.
“I’m probably more American than Korean, given my background,” Ahn says, remarking that her participation in Han Ma-Eum definitely “adds” to her sense of being Korean.
At the same time, Lee said that the central mission of Han Ma-Eum at Arts First was to permit and encourage “people who haven’t been introduced to Korean culture to get to know what it’s all about, or at least one aspect of it.”
Those intrigued by the Arts First performances should also attend the troupe’s other annual engagements, said Lee. Han Ma-Eum is a regular participant in the Cultural Rhythms shows and the Korean Culture Shows that occur in the spring, including the recent celebration of the centenary of Korean immigration to the United States. The troupe will play its drums, called samulnori, twice this weekend.
—Han Ma-Eum performs in Sanders Theatre on Saturday at 4 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. on the Mass. Ave. side of the Holyoke Center.
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