learning culture

Sounds of Korea

Korean music and dance New York, New York
Photo Credit: Ji Jeon
learning culture

Since her arrival in the United States in 1982, Sue Yeon Park has been a major force in the preservation and celebration of traditional Korean performing arts in her adopted country. In 1993, she founded Sounds of Korea, a world-renowned dance and music ensemble she directs to this day. With their exquisite traditional attire, powerful choreographed drumming, lush music, and richly expressive solo and group dance pieces, each performance of Sounds of Korea is a powerful journey into the heart of Korean culture.

Traditional Korean dance has roots in Buddhist and shamanic rituals thousands of years old, and incorporates both court music and folk pieces. Particularly in rural areas of Korea, traditional dance and music remain central to annual celebrations that ensure family health and bless the harvest of land and sea. As a child, Sue Yeon Park was so enchanted by the dancing of the shaman in these rituals that her mother sought out a teacher to instruct her in this ancient art. She went on to train with one of South Korea’s “Living National Treasures,” Master Yi Mae Bang. She herself has now been given the honorific titles of yisuja, for achieving the highest level of mastery of the salpuri-ch’um (shaman ritual dance), and jeonsuja, for the preservation of seung-mu (Buddhist ritual dance) by the Ministry of Culture of South Korea. Since coming to America, she has received numerous awards for both her artistry and her role in preserving Korean heritage, including our nation’s highest honor for folk and traditional artists, the NEA’s National Heritage Fellowship.

In Sounds of Korea, Mrs. Park directs some of the country’s finest Korean-American traditional dancers and musicians. The ensemble and its members are part of the larger New York Korean Performing Arts Center (NYKPAC), a Manhattan-based community organization that preserves, cultivates, and disseminates Korean culture. They offer weekly classes in folk singing, dance, and instruments, including many of the instruments they will play at the National: the haegum (two-stringed fiddle), gayagum (12-stringed zither), daegum (transverse bamboo flute), danso (small flute), and janggu (hourglass drum).

Sounds of Korea’s vibrant repertoire includes folk, court, and ritual dances expressing varied facets of Korean culture, history, and belief. Among their best-known pieces is the s’am-g’o-m’oo (Buddhist drum dance), featuring the puk, a drum that Korean creation myths say was brought to earth by the gods of wind, clouds, and rain. The powerful drumbeats are meant to instruct humanity on the ways of heaven and to save creatures from suffering. Another beloved dance is the buchae-ch’um (fan dance), in which the shifting geometric designs the dancers form with their fans create the impression of a garden filled with breathtaking flowers.

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