Jennifer Barclay meets Dulsori at their performance in Chichester’s Festival Theatre, 24 January 2009.
I’m not sure the theatre staff were quite prepared when the drummer troupe led the audience dancing into the foyer, bashing gongs and drums in a frenzied finale to an energetic evening. Young and old, the Chichester crowd jumped, laughed and clapped to the beat until at last the band’s leader, shirtless and sweating under portraits of venerable British actors, leapt in the air and yelled, ‘We are Dulsori! From KOREA!’
At the start of the show we heard them advancing up the stairs as if approaching a village, rekindling the spirit of ancient Korean festivals. In their early twenties and mostly from Chollado region of southwestern Korea, these four women and two men dressed in white robes and red ribbons each play several instruments, so your attention is constantly being drawn to one unusual drum or horn or string after another.
The exciting show is full of power and energy, mixing rhythms in a way that can emulate the natural elements of a thunderstorm; the musical style known as pungmul uses crashing gongs and various drums, including the distinctive hourglass-shaped janggu where one arm moves back and forth with mesmerizing speed to beat both ends of the drum.
Most memorable are the huge buk or barrel drums that face the audience from at the back of the stage. At the climax all six drummers hit six drums each with alarming force from every conceivable angle – the exhilarating noise gets bigger and wilder like a train rushing headlong towards you. And just as you think it’s over, Dulsori invite you to join them.
Hanyoung Ryu, manager of the troupe, who came straight from performing in Chile and after the UK will be touring Germany, says:
‘European countries love it – once they see it, they are fans. Koreans too, but unless they see it, they don’t know. Modern Korea is very western now, and the traditions will all disappear unless we promote them. There’s not much opportunity to see and experience traditional music in Korea. In my opinion, Korean people like modern things.’
Do Korean people go to the theatre?
‘Yes, but only to see things like Mamma Mia. They think traditional drumming is old, from farmers.’
When I spent three months traveling around South Korea I found the people immensely proud of their culture.
‘Proud, yes, but not interested,’ laughs Hanyoung. ‘I was the same, I didn’t know anything about the music when I started working with Dulsori. I was surprised that it was very beautiful.’
Generally the biggest obstacle with getting Dulsori to tour the UK is immigration – airport officials misguidedly thinking a Korean musician would have something to gain by staying in the UK after the tour was over, and sending them home.
Then there’s the problem in the UK of acquiring for the band – who live together, practice, eat and drink together – something that approximates soju for a reasonable price. Again, Hanyoung laughs sheepishly. She knows I sympathise: when I visited South Korea for three months, it was with a band of western musicians…
This was Dulsori’s first appearance in Chichester, but judging by the standing ovation, it’s unlikely to be their last. A week before, Hanyoung told me English audiences tend to be more reserved. Chichester might have changed her mind.
If you missed them this time, you can see their clip on YouTube, or catch up with them in July at the Heavenly Planet festival in Reading. Further UK dates will likely be confirmed in the coming months, including the week-long workshop at SOAS in London.
Jennifer Barclay is the author of Meeting Mr Kim: Or How I Went to Korea and Learned to Love Kimchi (Summersdale Publishers, £7.99).
A selection of Dulsori clips are easily available on YouTube. Here’s an example: