Sun Nin Fai Lok! Chúc Mừng Năm Mới! Sae Hae Bok Mani Ba Deu Se Yo!
Happy New Year! We are now in lunar year 4713 -- the Year of the Wood Sheep.
Asian-American communities throughout California have annual celebrations to usher in the new year. In L.A.’s Koreatown, traditional folk drummers organize a street festival called jishinbalpki, which literally means “to step on the earth’s spirits.” The drumming troupe drops by local businesses to stomp out bad spirits and to usher in prosperity for the new year.
You simply can’t miss the drummers as they march down Western Avenue and Olympic Boulevard -- two main thoroughfares in L.A.’s Koreatown.
As they march, the drummers shout, “Ajulshigoo-johta!” -- it’s basically a vocal high-five.
They drum traditional Korean folk beats, going from business to business: restaurants, beauty salons, video rental stores, comic-book shops and even car mechanics.
When the troupe arrives at a nail salon, emcee Han Kim starts a call and response in Korean, “Owner, open the door! Open the door so the luck can come in!” The group follows in unison. When the owner comes out, Kim continues the call and response.
He asks the group, “You have a friend that’s just complaining about how their fingertips look,” shouts Kim to the group. “Where do you recommend her to go?” The drummers respond, “Miiyu!”
After the exchange, Kim instructs the drummers to give a blast of good luck on their drums before exchanging thanks and moving on.
The jishinbalpki tradition stems from South Korean student activists who brought it to the U.S. in the late 1980s. They used Korean drumming and the new year festival as a way to bring attention to their political work.
Jang Woo Nam has drummed for more than 25 years. Nam says jishinbalpki gained popularity after the 1992 Los Angeles uprising, also known as the Rodney King riots. The Korean-American business community was hit hard -- it had almost half of the total damaged and destroyed property in Los Angeles.
“The jishinbalpkis from '93 became a very community thing where they welcomed all these young Korean drumming folks, reminding Koreans of their Korean-ness and the Korean community,” says Nam. “Because they realized that communities do need to help come together and celebrate its identity.”
UCLA freshman Sally Oh says drumming is a way to connect with her heritage. She’s part of three student drumming groups that are organizing the event.
“Part of it is being able to express yourself through something you know your ancestors have been playing for centuries,” Oh says. “It feels like even living in America, I have a connection to my family in Korea, a connection with my friends here.”
Han Kim says togetherness and community-building are core themes of Korean drumming philosophy.
“Just playing one instrument doesn't sound good,” he says. “All the instruments have to come together to play. That creates harmony. It’s all about everyone playing together. So I feel it’s a symbol to world peace.”
Back in the street in Koreatown, Kim thanks the students for coming out.
“It’s you guys that bring out good fortunes of this year for our loved ones, for our neighbors, for the whole entire world,” says Kim. “Because we are ghostbusters in a sense. We’re here to call in the good spirits, the good energy, good fortune for everyone in our community. And we do it loud and proud, right?”
The drummers respond with shouts while banging on their drums.
The students wrap up around dusk. They’re tired and sweaty after drumming and dancing all day long. They say they’ll be back next year to usher in the Year of the Fire Monkey.