ASIAN MUSIC/DANCE SERIES BEGINS : SAMUL-NORI FOLK TROUPE IN LITTLE TOKYO : Korean Shamanistic Priests Heed a Different Drummer--Blending Energy, Technical Mastery and Spirituality at the Japan America Theatre

Times Dance Writer

Anyone who has heard the pounding rhythms of Korean farmers' band music approaching across a field--a late-spring snow crunching under the band's feet--isn't likely to be satisfied with any indoor performance. But whatever Samul-Nori might have lacked in scale and atmosphere Thursday in the Japan America Theatre, this four-man South Korean folk group supplied in intricacy and intensity.

The first group to appear in the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center's important Asian music and dance series, Samul-Nori performed drum music and dances associated with Korea's still-thriving shamanistic tradition. Indeed, the members are all priests and the experience they offered seemed almost minimalist in its uncompromising rigor and single-minded focus, in contrast to the prettified Korean sampler programs that Americans usually see.

Sitting in front of an eight-panel screen, Samul-Nori began with "Binari," in which sharply inflected vocal benedictions led by Min-suk Kang were punctuated by explosive percussion passages. In the purely instrumental sections, weighty dance-like patterns led to abrupt shifts of speed, rhythm, pressure and density.

In addition, the thump of drums contrasted with the clang of metal gongs, inviting many varied textural and dynamic effects.

Kang played a small hand-held gong, Jong-shil Choi a bigger one, Kwang-su Lee a barrel-drum and group founder Duk-soo Kim an hourglass drum--essentially the same instrumentation as in the two-part "Nong-ak." In the latter piece, however, Choi's large stand-held gong would have been too reverberant for him to play in stroke-for-stroke unison with his colleagues. Instead, his gong provided a tonal wash over the lashing, accelerating, ecstatic drum, gong and vocal fireworks.

For "Samdo Sulchanggo," everyone played double-sided hourglass drums, with the two drumheads (and the dissimilar drum-sticks used on them) allowing unlimited virtuosic interplay. Ratchety attacks, gunshot accents, eight-part cross-rhythms, sudden-death terminations--this was folk music of primal power yet imposing technical sophistication.

If each hand in this showpiece sometimes seemed to be drumming for a different marcher, the dancing after intermission confirmed it. Here, in "P'an-kut," the members of Samul-Nori accompanied themselves while executing complex footwork and, at the same time, whirling paper streamers attached to their hats into unison arcs, loops and figure eights.

With the streamers continuing to form pinwheel halos around the dancers' heads and shoulders, solos showcased such specialties as knee drops, side kicks, squat hops, high-velocity spins and a circuit of steeply cantilevered turns. And, of course, drumming galore.

Clearly, Samul-Nori controls its feet as brilliantly as its hands. Like Kodo, it offers an experience that matches unsparing energy and technical mastery with a strong sense of spirituality. It is going to be stupendously popular.

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