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How A North Side Immigrant Rights Group Is Using Korean Folk Drumming To Build Community

Nonprofit Hana Center wants to get more people involved in their work around immigration and racial justice by teaching more classes in Pungmul, a drumming style used in protests.

Inah Jeong plays the buk drum during an open house at the HANA Center in Irving Park on June 18, 2022.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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IRVING PARK — An Asian American and immigrant rights nonprofit is opening its doors to teach neighbors traditional Korean folk drumming that organizers often use in their activism.

Hana Center, 4300 N. California Ave. in Irving Park, provides services to address needs related to citizenship and immigration, housing and more.

The organization also teaches classes in in the Korean folk style Pungmul using instruments like the janggu, a double-sided drum shaped like an hourglass, community engagement coordinator Won Joon Lee said.

The drumming style originated with Korea’s pre-industrial farming culture and evolved into a tool groups like Hana use in demonstrations, protests and vigils about immigrant rights, anti-racism and other human rights.

Credit: Provided.
Members of the Hana Center rallying in front of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans on July 6, 2022.

The group led its first open-to-the-public class on the drumming style this summer. They plan to continue classes and accept new students. Organizers said they hope such programs will help neighbors and other community groups get more involved with the center and its causes.

“Pungmul is very loud and we create quite a ruckus. That’s the whole point. To be able to draw attention to ourselves in both a cultural and political way,” Hana drum instructor Inah Jeong said. “Korean immigrants, no matter what brought them to the United States, are able to relate through this heritage and march among other immigrants in Chicago advocating for immigrant justice and citizenship for all.”

‘It’s really easy to converse in music’

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Won Joon Lee plays along as Inah Jeong plays the janggu during an open house at the HANA Center in Irving Park on June 18, 2022.

Pungmul is a folk tradition with deep roots in Korean history. During the Japanese occupation of Korea between 1910 and 1945, public gatherings were banned with the exception of music performances, which made Pungmul a form of resistance, Lee said.

It had a resurgence in the ’80s when groups used the drums during mass protests demanding democratic reforms and a removal of the military dictatorship that had been in charge of the country, Hana’s Executive Director Inhe Choi said.

“In the ’80s people in Korea really started to reclaim their culture,” Choi said. 

The Hana Center leaders took different paths to learning the tradition.

Lee grew up in South Korea and learned Pungmul history and techniques in elementary school, he said. He stopped taking formal classes when he came to the U.S. but retained the different types of drum beats he was taught as a child as he got older, he said. 

“It just stuck with me. I sometimes can’t believe that I haven’t forgotten these beats over the course of all these years,” Lee said. 

As a Korean adoptee, Jeong said she was excited about connecting with her Korean heritage when she attended University of Minnesota. She met a freshman involved in a Korean percussion group that uses the same instruments as Pungmul, “diving headfirst into this Korean traditional music that I had no exposure to growing up,” Jeong said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Inah Jeong plays the buk drum during an open house at the HANA Center in Irving Park on June 18, 2022.

Choi moved to Rogers Park from Korea in the ’70s when she was 12, at a time when Korean history and culture wasn’t readily accessible in Chicago, she said.

She later joined the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center and wanted to learn Pungmul, she said. 

“It was very strict. It was all run by men and they were very disciplined and not very family or women friendly,” Choi said. “I was like, ‘You know what? Screw that. I’m just going to create my own group,’” Choi said. 

The group named themselves Woori Sori, which means “our voice” in Korean, and invited women who could play in the Pungmul style, she said. 

“I was able to bring my kids and we just did that and we brought food. It became a women’s community where we also talk about our lives and allow our children to be around to be in it,” Choi said. “A few years later we had a Pungmul drummer from Korean who immigrated here and she became our teacher. She loved the concept of it.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Inhe Choi leads a group playing the drums during an open house at the HANA Center in Irving Park on June 18, 2022.

Hana Center, taking its name from the word for “one” in Korean, was formed when two longtime organizations — the Korean American Community Services founded 1972 and the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center founded in 1995 — merged in 2017. 

Despite the changes, the drums have remained a constant, Choi said.

The Woori Sori group performed at vigil honoring the victims of the Atlanta spa shooting in March 2021 and at Northwestern University in July 2021 to honor “comfort women” survivors of sexual slavery during World War II. Members of Hana’s Pungmul group also joined a New Orleans rally in support of protecting DACA, and last year’s May Day rally in Washington D.C., Lee said.

“I think a lot of people know us and identify us with the drums. We just carry that and we brought it to the Hana Center when we merged,” Choi said.

The group has a long history of youth Pungmul programming but this summer was the first time the nonprofit offered classes geared towards adults also interested in organizing and advocacy work, Lee said.

Each of the instruments uses a slightly different technique, but as long as someone is following the same rhythm and beats, they can pick up the skills to play pretty easily, Lee said.

“Our group is about community building and organizing. So we’re not going too harsh on the technical part,” Lee said. “What’s more important is breathing together so that we are all staying in tempo which naturally builds camaraderie as we produce one sound together.” 

The inaugural class will continue after the first eight-week session. Instructors plan to take on new students on a rolling basis as the new program grows, Lee said.

Anyone interested in learning more about the new adult Pungmul classes can reach out to Lee via email at wlee1@hanacenter.org, he said.

“Chicago has really unique pockets of different ethnic groups and different cultures. That’s one of the best parts of the city,” Lee said. “When we’re connecting with different cultural community groups, it’s really easy to converse in music. That’s where a lot of the collaborations come from.”

Choi said the goal is to turn this community building into activism that blends immigrations rights with racial, gender and class issues.

“Things are really hard right now. It’s exhausting and scary. But the communities we build are resilient and generous and bring joy even in the hardest times. We have to remember that,” Choi said. “Communities power us to bring change in the world right now and for future generations.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Inhe Choi leads a group playing the drums during an open house at the HANA Center in Irving Park on June 18, 2022.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Drums lay about during an open house at the HANA Center in Irving Park on June 18, 2022.

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