Koreans tend to be jugglers. Not in the sense of juggling pins or balls, but in the sense of simultaneously being involved in multiple projects and pursuits. If someone told me that Koreans invented multitasking, I might believe them. The performing art that best demonstrates multitasking is pungmul, a type of traditional drumming performed while dancing. Amongst pungmul performers, this is best exemplified by those who perform while wearing the sangmo. Sangmo is a hat crowned by a whip attached to a ribbon. The ribbon is manipulated while dancing and playing percussion on any of the pungmul instruments, although most commonly it is the sogo a small hand drum that does not significantly contribute to the soundscape. The pungmul soundscape is dominated by the low, regular resonant beat on the large gong, the jing; the high staccato clang of the ggwaenggwari; and the variety of drum beats emanating from the buk (a barrel drum struck on its barrel as well as the hide) and the janggu (an hourglass drum struck on both sides, simultaneously or alone, with two sharply different sticks). The sogo is the preferred instrument of the sangmo because it encourages a more spectacular show—the drum is light enough to be frequently raised to head height or higher, and with one hand swinging the drum, the other the stick, dance motions, punctuated by drum beats, are accentuated. Sangmo specialists are a particular type of pungmul player—alpha personalities tend to gravitate towards the ggwaenggwari, as the leader of the performance will (almost always) be on this instrument, dictating the mood and eliciting the best performance through carefully circulating through the rhythmic patterns. The instrument that sounds good, alone or in groups, and is mostly widely used in all types of Korean performance is the janggu. Hence many of the most musical and most deeply interested in exploring all aspects of Korean performance become janggu players. Those on the buk and the jing are often those most comfortable with a supporting role, although in full-time professional percussion groups every member will be given time in the spotlight. Those who become proficient with the sangmo, however, are stubborn.
I tried to teach myself back in the late 1990s, but after achieving no progress at all I concluded that the sangmo I had bought must be purely decorative and non-functional. In 2010, in Korea to do research for my dissertation, I decided to try again and ventured to a store I already knew was frequented by musicians (not people looking for an interesting object to hang on their wall). I bought a sangmo and enrolled in an intensive week long class at the Imshil Pilbong Nongak Transmission Center. On the first day a helpful fellow classmate helped me strap the sangmo onto my head, and learning to put the sangmo on was the only progress I made that week (leading me to believe that my previous sangmo had been completely functional).The first hurdle to learning sangmo is that a brand new sangmo is stiff and unresponsive compared to how it will become after several months of use. Chaesang jaebi (sangmo performers) also utilize various hacks to improve the sangmo that the manufacturers apparently are unaware of. These include adding some weight to the jinja. The jinja is the key part of the entire sangmo, between the hat and the whip. Some also work to improve the flex and responsiveness of the whip by adding an additional layer of thread, or a coating of wax to the end of the whip closest to the jinja. The single most important part of making the sangmo easier to spin, however, is just rotations of the jinja. These rotations, of course, can occur with the sangmo on the chaesang jaebi but most people also rotate the jinja, off the hat, holding one end in their hand and rotating it (in both directions) whenever they have a free hand.
During winter vacation I returned to Pilbong for a week, hoping to recover the sangmo ability I'd lost during the 2.5 years of dissertation and job search when I did not practice. Honestly, I thought of it often, but always kept putting it off. It's my personality-- give me a room full of people to practice anything with and I'll do it. Ask me to do it on my own and ... oh well. Back in July 2011 I had been getting pretty good, too! For some reason the week I went to the training center there were no independent learners. Or there was one, and she was in high school. We shared a room, and went to almost every meal together, but we had nothing in common-- or nothing except the fact that a graduate of her high school is one of my favorite people I've ever met at the training center. He's not a close friend, but he's just sweet as sujeonggwa (cinnamon punch) at the wedding dinner I was at last Saturday. I did, however, get to know my fellow sangmo students-- after all, we were enduring the same torture together.
Yes, sangmo can be torture.
You know that punishment (popular in Asia) where people put their hands behind their back (or on their ear lobes), squat, and then jump up and down? That was the first day. Our instructor, Yu Seonbo, was determined to prove to everyone that the sangmo spins because of your --downward-- motion when you bend your legs (no, it's not spun by your neck). By making it almost impossible to power on the upstroke, and showing us that the sangmo still spun, if we did it right, he felt he was imparting this important lesson. I felt he took it way too far. The punishment to the leg muscles of that first day (9-12 and then 2-5 followed by individual practice from 7-9) haunted the group for the rest of the week. Fortunately my regular instructor, Yi Jonghui, had told Seonbo that my knees were bad, so I was able to escape the worst of this torture. But what I had to do just to maintain face as a serious learner was enough to keep me for the next four days whimpering and mincing along as the pain in my knees was overpowered by the agony of my calves. At one point it was so bad I FB messaged a fellow student in the next room-- with an adjoining sliding door between the rooms-- to bring me "pas" the mentholated lotion that I knew he had but I felt too pained to stand up and go get it.
By the end of the week I feel that I returned, more or less, to the proficiency I had in summer 2011, but I don't know if I will ever advance past that point.
Photos and explanation about how to improve the whip and jinja
My Sangmo Progress as of Spring 2011