On a tour to the United States several years ago, Korean musician Kim So Ra wanted to know if Americans were familiar with Asian percussion instruments.
Yes, she learned; they were: They knew about the taiko, a category of Japanese drums that are frequently used in ensemble performances. Starting in the late 1960s, taiko began gaining prominence in the U.S. through groups like Taiko Dojo.
But almost nobody knew about the Korean janggu, the hourglass-shaped, double-headed drum with a history dating back hundreds — if not thousands — of years.
“I was really surprised,” Kim said in a recent interview. “[I thought the] janggu [was] more popular in the world.”
Now, Kim wants to do for the janggu what groups like Taiko Dojo did for the taiko.
Initially, Kim So Ra simply wanted to become the best at what she does. The janggu, she said, “is simple but very sensitive. Most people cannot play [with] a higher technique.”
Luckily, Kim comes from the city of Jeongeup, where the janggu has a particularly rich history. When she began her studies at 9 years old, she was able to find a teacher “very quickly.”
The instrument is popular in Korea and has a lot of different uses. It’s light enough to be strapped to a performer’s body and incorporated into a traditional dance, and it’s also used to maintain rhythm within an ensemble.
But as Kim’s studies progressed, she became more interested in showcasing the janggu as the focal point of a group, and one that could stand on its own in solo performances.
While Kim identifies as a “percussionist of the Korean tradition of music,” she pointed out that her own “music style is not traditional.”
Rather, Kim draws from Korean rhythms to “make a balance” between old and new styles of playing. The result has landed her on international stages: In 2018, Kim was an official showcase artist at both Mundial Montréal (North America’s world music summit) and WOMEX, the world music expo that annually brings together thousands of musicians from all over the globe.
Kim partly attributes this success to a general growing interest in percussion instruments. Even at world music conferences, where a diversity of sound is celebrated, she had sensed a preference for melodic instruments.
But, in addition to comprising some of Korea’s (and the world’s) oldest instruments, percussion has a particularly special place in Korean music.
Within the pungmul tradition — a type of music and performance associated with agriculture — a collection of percussion instruments represents different elements. A small gong called the kkwaenggwari represents thunder; a larger gong, the jing, represents wind; a barrel drum called the buk stands in for clouds; and the janggu evokes the sound of rain.
Kim draws from this history in her latest project, “A Sign of Rain,” which she brings to Baltimore on Friday as part of her current world tour.
Kim will be joined onstage by three longtime collaborators: fellow percussionist Hyun Seung Hun; Lee Hye Joong on the piri, a double reed wind instrument made of bamboo; and Lim Ji Hye on the gayageum or Korean zither. (With Lim, Kim has a separate project called Duo Bud; the pair performed at SXSW earlier this year.)
While performing within an ensemble allows Kim a greater variety of musical textures, rhythm is still paramount. “Every one of my members understands the variations in traditional Korean rhythms,” she said. “When [we] play together, we’re very comfortable.”
Beyond evoking the sound and rhythm of rain, Kim also strives to capture its spiritual experience as one that leaves listeners feeling renewed. “There’s a deep meaning,” said Kim. “My music style is kind of like a prayer.”
If you go:
Kim So Ra performs at the Creative Alliance Aug. 16 at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $18. creativealliance.org