Then Comes The White Tiger
Wolfgang Puschnig alto saxophone, alto flute
Linda Sharrock voice
Rick Iannacone electric guitar
Jamaaladeen Tacuma bass guitar
Kim Duk Soo changgo, piri, hojok, ching
Lee Kwang Soo k’kwaenwari, vocals, ching
Kang Min Seok buk, ching
Kim Woon Tae buk, ching, bara
Kim Sung Woon komungo, kayagum
Recorded May 1993 at Garak Studio, Seoul
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Wolfgang Puschnig
Look at the sky and pluck a star
Look at the earth and farm the land…
Moon, moon, bright moon, as bright as day
In the darkness this light is our illumination
Like many people I am sure, my first exposure to the world of samul nori was through the 1984 Nonesuch Explorer Series recording Samul-nori: Drums and Voices of Korea.
The group SamulNori, which takes its name from the selfsame style of Korean folk music and was founded in 1978 by Kim Duk Soo as a means of expanding the music’s compass of awareness, combines its namesake’s balance of ritual and humble beginnings with contemporary leanings. Samul nori is at heart a percussive genre. Its four instruments are the jing (large gong), the kkwaenghwari (small gong), the janggu (hour-glass drum), and the buk (barrel drum). Each is its own element—wind, thunder, rain, and clouds, respectively—and brings a fertile sound to bear upon a range of ecologically minded texts, both recited and sung. SamulNori members have worked with, among others, Bill Laswell (a true maverick whose seamless productions were the soundtrack to my late teens) and Kodo, but perhaps most notably with Red Sun, a jazz outfit that was the brainchild of saxophonist and flutist Wolfgang Puschnig and with whom SamulNori had its first meeting eight years prior to this influential record.
The ritual drums and horns of “NanJang (The Meeting Place)” are the ideal start, giving way as they do to Lee Kwang Soo’s recitation of the “Pinari,” a Korean origin myth in verse form. Splashing gongs seem to swirl at our feet, and from them arises the voice of Linda Sharrock (wife of another maverick, Sonny), who explores a panorama of nature and living bounty. Guitarist Rick Iannacone draws a cosmic thread through these rawer beads (not to say that one is purer than the other, for they are all made from the same breath that gives all life to matter, and all matter to life), and steers us into the beauties of “Peaceful Question.” Though it is but an amorphous congregation of gongs and bells nesting a voice born from nature who blurs the lines between human and animal (and in fact shows them to be one and the same), words fail to evoke its splendor. It sounds familiar to us all the same, so that “Kil-Kun-Ak” becomes the percussive sinew connecting that voice to the void from which it has taken shape. It leaps like a fire, finds its stillness of mind in the sharing.
Like a playground swing moving of its own accord, Jamaaladeen Tacuma’s crab-walking bass line in “Hear Them Say” traces a counter arc while Sharrock’s notes tremble amid Puschnig’s starlit branches, singing of self-empowerment in a spider’s web of radial guitar lines. “Piri” changes gears dramatically and takes its name from the double-reed bamboo pipe played here by Kim Duk Soo, who soars on a crane’s back through a flowering rendition of the folk song “Han O-Paek Nyn” (The Sorrows of Five Hundred Years). “Soo Yang Kol (The Valley Of Weeping Willows)” is an equally inspired construction that celebrates the place where the musicians had their first Korean pre-production meeting. It also boasts most arresting sax solo on album. Quieter pastures await us in the electric gyrations of “Flute Sanjo” and in “Komungo,” a wavering solo from guest artist Kum Sung Woon on the zither of the same name. This is followed by the two-part “Full House.” Composed by Tacuma, it brings some groove into the mix and represents the session’s deftest idiomatic blends. Its message of joy, peace, and thanksgiving leads us into “Ariang,” which comes to us as if from a distance, an ancestral song woven anew into the lighted corridor of all life.
I have to admit that, as one who had only heard samul nori outside of any fusion context, it took me a while to understand the sound-world of this project. Yet what at first seems an incongruous meeting of “East” and “West” ends up a genuinely wholehearted attempt to undermine those very arbitrary categories. And in the end, perhaps jazz and samul nori aren’t all that different in what they are trying to achieve, in the language they speak and in the ways they speak it. Its voices enact that same need for dialogue and communication that is at the heart of jazz, and expresses said need through evolution and improvisation. All of this is wrapped up in those voices, and in the saxophonic punctuation that reorders their grammar. This music speaks to us because it tells us a story we already know. It is a story from which we were born, one into which we will be written when we die. A space-time continuum to which profundity need not apply, for it is too lowly to express that from which it hangs.