‘Miracle boy’ Jo performs samulnori with Kim
By Kwon Mee-yoo
Images of him playing “janggu,” or a Korean traditional hourglass-shaped drum, captivated some 2,000 audience members at the opening of the MTV Cyworld Dream Festival at AX-Korea in Seoul, July. Immersed in his playing, his earnest yet delighted face showed pure happiness in performing with his longtime role model, “samulnori” maestro Kim Duk-soo.
For Jo Jan-hee, 19, it was the first time to play in front of such a big crowd. But he didn’t seem to be nervous.
“I enjoyed playing onstage with Kim and was grateful for the people who cheered for me,” said Jo in an interview with The Korea Times.
Jo was born to a single mother and abandoned at a hospital in Chungju, North Chungcheong Province, as a newborn in 1992. He had congenital hydrocephalus, or “water on the brain,” and Ven. Jahye from Oeun Temple brought him to a child-care facility attached to the temple.
The sick boy threw up baby formula and his skin blackened. Some three months later, Ven. Jahye made a trip to Seoul to schedule a surgery for Jo, but she had a car accident and was left a paraplegic.
A miraculous thing happened when Jo was in elementary school — his condition gradually improved as he grew up. Even medical science could not explain Jo’s recovery from the fatal illness.
Jo’s life made another turn when he watched Kim play samulnori, or traditional percussion music, on television. “I was sick and bad at my books, but watching samulnori made me feel better,” Jo said.
He started to learn Korean traditional music at an extracurricular course in elementary school and was later admitted to Seowon University in Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, based on his musical abilities.
All this time, Jo dreamed of playing with Kim, the maestro who led him to samulnori, and the dream came true through Cyworld’s Dream Campaign. He was selected as one of the “Dream People,” which gave him an opportunity to learn from Kim in person and play with Kim’s Samulnori Hanullim Art Troupe. Kim is the founder of samulnori and dean of the Department of Korean Traditional Performing Arts at Korea National University of Arts.
“I always try to communicate with youngsters who are interested in Korean art, especially music, and when Cyworld brought Jo to me, I was more than glad to meet him,” Kim said. “I love young students who are willing to learn Korean music in this fast-changing society. I would do anything to help them.”
Kim emphasized the importance of art education.
“Current education is all focused on being admitted to universities. However, cultural and artistic value is important and a teenager should learn creativity based on humanities,” Kim said. “My father was in a troupe and I learned traditional music naturally. However, Jo chose samulnori after seeing my performance. People may start from different points, but I think it is meaningful that he voluntarily studied Korean music.”
Though shy, Jo’s eyes lit up when he talked about samulnori. He mainly plays the janggu and practices more than three hours a day despite vacation.
“I am preparing for a school performance in September,” he said. He also started to learn “dodanggut,” shamanic music originating from Gyeonggi Province. “It was interesting that instrumental music would go with an exorcism performance,” Jo said.
Kim explained that janggu can play various tones of music with numerous rhythms.
“Janggu originally came from ‘nongak,’ or the instrumental music of peasants, but it is widely used in other music as well,” Kim said. “There are all different kinds of regional music in Korea and Jo has to learn them all to better understand Korean culture.”
Jo not only enjoys playing the instruments but also being together with other performers. “The best part of samulnori for me is that I don’t play alone but with others,” he said.
According to Kim, Jo already realized the essence of Korean art as he gets on well with other people when performing.
“Samulnori is another form of Korean culture — humanitarianism. However, in this digitalized era, children play computer games alone and do not have a chance to learn harmony and solidarity,” he said. “Jo enjoys playing with others and I’m sure he is going to be a good samulnori performer.”
Jo wants to go abroad and introduce Korean culture to a wider audience.
“I want to perform Korean traditional music in front of foreigners,” he said. “Samulnori is very precious to me. This is the art I will stick to till the last.”
Kim advised Jo to experience more diversity. “Lead a band in your school. Compose music for dance. Learn MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) computer music. Dreaming is not enough. Do your best as much as you dream it,” he said.
When the interview was over, Jo packed to head back home to Cheongju. Kim patted Jo’s shoulder affectionately and told the young musician to call him whenever he needs help.