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Drumming, dancing and chanting: Arirang Texas Group brings Korean folk music to Carrollton

Members of the Arirang Texas Group practice.
Tom Fox
The Dallas Morning News
Instructor Kyong Sun Kim leads the Arirang Texas Group during practice at the Carrollton Senior Center.

At Carrollton Senior Center, metallic clicks ring out as pingpong balls are served. The soft buzz of chatter floats through the halls. Outside, a fountain gurgles as it sprays water in the nearby pond.

But the sound of more than a dozen drums beaten in unison thunders in and out of the center, overpowering it all. It’s not just loud, you can feel it. The pulsing rhythm vibrates through the floor and walls up through your body and fingertips.

It’s Tuesday afternoon practice for the Arirang Texas Group, a club of Korean seniors who perform a Korean folk music tradition called pungmul that involves drumming, singing and dancing. The specific version of pungmul they perform is called samulnori, which is a modernized, indoor version. Kyong Cooper, one of the group’s teachers, travels for most of the year but is always eager to rejoin practices.

“Oh gosh, it’s better than sex,” she said. “It’s very satisfying. You can see me and I go crazy – another person comes out of me when I’m playing.”

A woman plays a little gong.
Tom Fox
The Dallas Morning News
Arirang Texas Group member Kyong Cooper plays a kkwaenggwari as she practices samulnori at the Carrollton Senior Center.

It’s true that the room is bursting with energy and joy. Wearing Korean clothes like matching cobalt blue jokki or vests, they twirl in unison and beat the janggu, or small drum. At moments, they pause their drumming to bellow out a chant in unison.

Traditional Korean folk music has immense cultural, social and historical significance. Pungmul is considered “farmer’s music” that includes the many repetitive motions that imitate agricultural work. “Arirang,” the namesake of the group, is the name of a popular folk song that is considered the unofficial national anthem of Korea. It’s taught to Korean children from a young age and is sung as a lullaby, in festivals, on holidays and during moments of grief. The song is so important that it was accepted twice on the UNESCO cultural heritage list, for North and South Korea.

“Arirang” is a centuries-old, bittersweet melody that describes the broken love between a couple. It now represents the historical division between North and South Korea. The song has also been sung as a form of protest against Japan’s occupation of Korea and subsequent efforts to erase Korean culture.

“But during the Japanese occupation, this song was not permitted because they [thought] we are gathering,” Cooper said. “People somehow [thought there’s a] hidden message with this.”

Despite that cultural suppression, “Arirang” and pungmul have survived and remain essential to Korean culture.

When asked if she’s worried whether “Arirang” will die out, Cooper incredulously responds, “No.” She points to the way BTS released their own version of “Arirang,” which has 13 million views on YouTube.

Drumming away at samulnori

A group of Korean elders play a tradition style of Korean drum.
Tom Fox
The Dallas Morning News
Instructor Kyong Sun Kim leads other Korean members in playing the buk as the Arirang Texas Group practices at the Carrollton Senior Center.

While the beauty of the group’s performances can make samulnori seem effortless, it's physically and mentally challenging.

Each samulnori performance requires carefully coordinated drum beating, choreography and chanting. There’s not an elaborate score that everyone reads. Instead, there are certain memorized rhythms and chants that have been passed down generation after generation. Lead teacher Kyong Sun Kim stands at the front of the class and conducts while giving instructions through a headphone set.

For about three hours twice a week, the group drills passages so that performances can be seamless. It can take the group two years to master a single song. Just learning how to handle the drumsticks correctly is a feat in and of itself, Cooper said.

It is very difficult to learn because you have to use both hands and it has beats and all that,” she said.

Korean elders play the drums.
Tom Fox
The Dallas Morning News
Korean elders who are members of Arirang Texas Group beat on the buk at the Carrollton Senior Center.

That’s why Kim volunteers several hours of her time each week to give free lessons to other Korean elders in the group who want to learn samulnori.

Though training up newbies takes a considerable amount of her time and energy, Kim said it’s worth it.

“So now, I feel very rewarded doing this. Expanding our members is important. However, it is important we don’t forget about our traditional instruments or dancing,” she said. “Even though we live in America, this is the opportunity to demonstrate our Korean traditions.”

Kim started the group out in 2021 during the pandemic with seven or eight people practicing in the park. Now, the group has grown to over 30 people at different levels of expertise with more than half being beginners.

Choon Hee Moon, 72, is one of the newer members in the group. While pungmul is centuries-old, it’s a new adventure for her.

“Now I’m old, I can spend time doing new things as a leisure activity,” she said. “This is very helpful to me.”

Johnny Yu plays the drums.
Tom Fox
The Dallas Morning News
Johnny Yu, a member and teacher in the Arirang Texas Group, practices at the Carrollton Senior Center.

Members in the group can train on four instruments: the janggu (small drum), ggwaenggwari (small gong), buk (barrel drum) and jing (large drum).

Johnny Yu, another one of the group’s teachers, said each instrument represents a different sound in nature.

“This is a janggu, representing rain. That little gong kkwaenggwari
representing thunder and this big gong we call jing is the wind,” he said.

‘We’re not just waiting to go to hospice’

Arirang Texas member Scott Kim dances to BTS’ pop rendition of the classic song as he wears a sangmo, or traditional Korean folk arts hat. It has an attached ribbon that’s over 12 feet long and is adorned with traditional Korean coins. Kim looks like a human spinning top as he jumps and whips his head around to make the ribbon flourish through the air.

At 60, Kim is considered one of the younger members of the group. On his own, he learned how to perform with a sangmo after seeing it in Korea and importing it to the U.S. about a decade ago.

To perform, Kim says you “jump and [go] across. I’m going to put it between both legs. But it’s hard for me – I’m 60 years old.”

Scott Kim performs in a sangmo.
Tom Fox
The Dallas Morning News
Arirang Texas Group member Scott Kim of Carrollton, Texas dances to BTS' "Arirang" in his sangmo which has a long ribbon attached.

While the group practices samulnori together, Arirang Texas is about much more than that. It’s also a space to find community and give back. Each practice, members take turns bringing break time food. Today, it’s chicken wings and fried rice. And in a few weeks, the group will have a picnic in the park.

Arirang Texas also shares its passion across North Texas, performing at Korean supermarkets, restaurant openings and schools. One of their performances earlier this year was at the unveiling of new bilingual street signsin Korean and English in Dallas’ Koreatown.

Kyong Cooper plays a kkwaenggwari.
Tom Fox
The Dallas Morning News
Kyong Cooper plays a kkwaenggwari as the Arirang Texas Group practices together.

The Arirang Texas Group is deeply important to its members and they’re grateful to have the Carrollton Senior Center for practices. In the past, Cooper said it was difficult to have group practices because of the noise.

“So, a lot of places don't allow us to perform this or practice,” she said. “We used to have a place when we first learned where everybody every day, complained, ‘Too much noise, too much noise.’ We used to cover [the drums] with fabric to make less noise.

Cooper may be a senior, but she said the group shows being older doesn’t mean life is over.

“It’s dedicated people who enjoy their culture and they would like to show the community what seniors can do,” she said. “There’s life far more than going to Walmart on the weekend. It’s just being a productive citizen. We’re not just waiting to go to hospice.”

Arts Access is an arts journalism collaboration powered by The Dallas Morning News and KERA.

This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.

Corrected: May 15, 2023 at 3:39 PM CDT
A previous version of this story said the jing is a large drum. The jing is a large gong.
Elizabeth Myong is KERA’s Arts Collaborative Reporter. She came to KERA from New York, where she worked as a CNBC fellow covering breaking news and politics. Before that, she freelanced as a features reporter for the Houston Chronicle and a modern arts reporter for Houstonia Magazine.