Its cold and smooth surface felt oddly alive against her skin. She hadn’t touched a 장구 / janggu in years. Rubbing her right palm against the smooth face of the drum, she leaned in to take a closer look at its wooden body. A thick hourglass figure, the 장구 / janggu’s chestnut center lay horizontally against her crisscrossed legs. Her right hand grabbed the straps connecting the two faces of the drum on either end and swiftly pulled to tighten. She then slowly rotated her drum like a water wheel to tighten each of the straps around its center and sat silently, thinking about other things while the instructor chattered on.
The last time she had been face-to-face with a 장구 / janggu was in first grade, when she had been sent off to weekend Korean school with the rest of her Korean church kids. She learned how to tighten the drum that day, as well as stories about how farmers had used these drums to bring in the harvest. She had tried to imagine her grandmother drumming, perhaps not in her usually baggy floral pants and plastic visor, but nevertheless standing with a drum tied tight to her hips, drumming out sporadically accented staccato beats like the way she spoke her 경상도 / Gyungsangdo-region Korean. Her grandparents had been farmers, she recalled, somewhere on the southern tip of the peninsula. But neither her Korean nor her memory was good enough to remember exactly where. She had never been able to visit her grandmother’s village while she had been alive. But there were so many memories that held her grandmother’s stories of the village 사천 / Sachon, that sometimes they felt like her own. The lines around them could get quite fuzzy sometimes. She remembered the open gravel roads that always snuck a couple rocks into your shoes, the hills spotted with a deep orange from the persimmon trees, and the loud speakerphone peeking out over the blue- and orange-roofed houses, shrilly blaring the news of everyone in town for their daily 마을방송 / village news. She had imagined her grandmother somewhere there, drumming with her townspeople against the backdrop of their golden rice fields.
Here she was now, somehow in the basement of her old church with a handful of Korean American highschoolers like her, all sitting in front of a drum they didn’t know how to play. They had been mercilessly forced to sit on these cold tile floors with their drums for the last half hour or so. She had been listening on and off to the instructor talk about the garak. Garak? Like jutgarak / chopstick?… Occasionally, he would wave the drum mallet in the air and point at someone to tell them to focus. Maybe he’s talking about how to hold the stick. She leaned in, but couldn’t quite catch all the words. He named too many things in that spit-fire uppity Seoul Korean. Her mother spoke much slower than he did and spoke with a different regional dialect, like her grandmother. She grew bored, and as others fiddled over their grip and drum positioning like the instructor told them to, she just gripped the mallet whichever way and brought it down with a loud thump.
The instructor stopped talking and swirled around, trying pinpoint the rogue player. But as her sound began to fade, others around her stepped in to fill in the void and took off with their own thumping and ringing. She liked how their drums sounded together, echoing chaotically in the cold interior of their church.
The instructor seemed to be yelling something to the group. Probably to stop playing, she assumed. She looked around, but no one could seem mind him. Hitting down with the mallet in her left hand and then the thin stick on the right, she played the drum in sync with the opening and closing his mouth.
He tried for a couple more times, but soon he seemed to give up fighting against the thunderous roar of the drums. Instead, he took his spot back at the center of the room. With his drum tied tight up against his body, he faced the group circled around him.
Everyone was still furiously pounding away at their drums. No one saw him hold his mallet up high with his left hand and the stick with his right. No one saw the way his entire body seemed to be pulled up into the air — weightless — then in a sudden movement, brought down both stick and mallet in perfect sync.
She looked up. His arms jolted back up to their positions, like a maestro, then pounded down again. 덩. Other students’ eyes flickered up. He drummed out slow, regular beats at first, then gradually it began to grow louder and faster. She was still staring, but some of the older students began to join in. 덩 덩 덩 덩 덩덩덩덩. Even those who had initially dropped their own mallets to silently watch, now took up their sticks, and the entire room pulsated in rhythm. Bodies rocked back and forth with each beat. Everyone’s arms lifting high into the air, then down hard against the drum. Faster and faster, they went; everyone’s arms flapping up and down, as if about to take flight. She felt out of breath chasing the beat around the circle until it just turned into a flurry of pounding, pounding, pounding. Then, during a sliver of a pause, the instructor’s body arched back and his arms opened broad to hover in the air for the slightest second, before he brought down a final beat along with everyone else.
His arms fell limp against his sides. Warm and pulsating.
He slightly loosened the drum strapped to his body, and in between his ragged breaths, he began to describe the sound they had just made together: “The 장구 / janggu that we just played is the sound of rain. It goes along with the thunder, wind, and moving clouds of other instruments in 풍물 / korean drumming.” He brought down the mallet on the left face of the drum. 쿵. Rain. Her eyes shot over to the still vibrating skin of the 장구 / janggu.
She wondered if this is what rain sounded like this in her grandmother’s village in Korea — a heavy and low rumbling against her chest that exaggerated her hollowness yet left her feeling full. And as she absentmindedly rubbed the left face of her drum, feeling a warmth radiating against her palm, she wondered why the drum sounded so similar and familiar. Like the sound of her own heartbeat.