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The lure of Oori: ancient Korean art practiced at MIT

Sung-Hee Do plays a traditional Korean instrument called a "Jang-go" at Oori practice.
Sung-Hee Do plays a traditional Korean instrument called a "Jang-go" at Oori practice.
Photo / Omari Stephens

According to Grace Lim (S.B. 2002), in a traditional form of Korean musical culture known as "pungmul," the "soul of the play and the beats of the drums drive the singing and dancing."

Pungmul is practiced by Oori, MIT's traditional Korean folk art ensemble, and that's where Lim, who majored in electrical engineering and computer science, first learned the form, comprised of rituals, drumming, dance and acrobatics.

When Lim initially encountered the Korean group, her concern was more about "learning drums to prove that I could really play an instrument," she said. But she soon discovered that Oori offered much more. "I found a truly sincere and caring family within the group and wanted to practice so that I could become more active," she recalled.

Oori, which will make two public appearances over the next few weeks (see below), is an offshoot of Hansori, MIT's Korean culture group. Members began practicing pungmul in 1993 and in 1994, when Hansori received initial funding for pungmul from the Council for the Arts at MIT to purchase their first set of drums from Korea. Oori formally became a separate group in 1999.

According to group member Minjoon Kouh, a graduate student in physics, Oori means "us" in Korean and follows pungmul's spirit of bringing everyone together into one harmonious community. But, admitted Kouh, it's not an easy name. "When we're at conferences and someone refers to Oori, we're never sure if they mean just our group or everyone there."

About pungmul

Pungmul dates back hundreds of years, originating in Korea's historic agricultural society when music and dance were performed to alleviate the repetitive nature of farming routines, to repel evil spirits and to celebrate the planting of crops and harvesting. The powerful emotional events in a pungmul performance traditionally take place in open space rather than on stage.

Pungmul has four basic percussive instruments--jang-go (an hour-glass shaped drum), kwaeng-ga-ri, (a small gong), jing (a larger gong) and puk (a barrel drum)--in addition to dance, song and acrobatic elements. Beginners generally choose one of the instruments as their starting point. The group leaders usually know all the instruments.

Lim, who now works in information technology at a New York City investment bank, moved quickly from beginner status to leading practices and teaching pungmul as an Oori member.

How is movement and song incorporated into the drumming? "Sometimes, you're consumed with so much energy that you feel the need to stand up and dance with the instruments or sing what's on your mind," explained Lim.

Oori open to all

Lim emphasized that participation in Oori is open to people of all ethnic backgrounds and both Koreans and non-Koreans alike are enlightened through their education in the traditional art form. For many non-Koreans, says Lim, learning this traditional folk art helps them better understand Korean culture and dissolves stereotypes they may have. For Koreans themselves, pungmul is a medium through which they can discover their cultural identities, said Lim. "We learn about Korea's history and the importance that was traditionally placed on community building and strength," she noted.

Pungmul's strong tradition of building and bringing the community together is one reason that Oori expanded its base to include anyone in the Boston area, said Lim. They also broadened membership for more practical reasons: because of busy school and study schedules, students found they couldn't maintain the group's practices and teaching needs.

The size of the group varies from year to year (five-20) and this year there are about 10 active members--students from MIT, Harvard and Wellesley as well as non-students from the area. Some know pungmul before joining the group and some have no experience.

Oori practices weekly, on Saturday afternoons in Kresge Auditorium. Anyone who wants to learn pungmul is welcome. For more information, e-mail

Oori performances

Oori will perform at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center (41 Second St., Cambridge) as part of "Still Present Pasts," an art and oral history exhibition that explores the legacies of the Korean War for Korean Americans. The performance is on Saturday, Jan. 29 at 6:30 p.m.

Oori will also perform at the Peabody Essex Museum's (PEM) Lunar New Year celebration on Saturday, Feb. 12, at 2 p.m., leading "Jishin Balpgi" ("stepping on the spirit of the Earth"), a traditional Korean street festival parade. The pungmul percussionists will join the parade and chase away evil spirits with loud drums and gongs. This community ritual is believed to purify a village in preparation for the New Year. The PEM is located at East India Square in Salem, Mass.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 26, 2005 (download PDF).

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