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Korean-Americans find new identities through an ancient beat

Courtesy of Ieumsae / cropped and resized


Their hands pounded the hourglass shaped drums that were strapped across their bodies as they followed the lead beat of a small metal gong. And their echoes carried through the 30-acre farm on U.C. Santa Cruz’s campus as they performed and practiced the instruments of their ancestors.

Curious passers-by paused on their afternoon hikes and bike rides to watch and snap photos of the eclectic drumming group, Ieumsae. The musicians, unaware, continued to march to the beat of their own drums.

Ieumsae is not just any group. It’s made up of second-generation Koreans who deviate from the norm.



“I identify as queer and trans Korean-American,” says Eugene Kang, a long-standing member of the group. Other drummers also identify as mixed race, queer, or transgender.

The group provides a way to connect to their heritage through Korean percussion known as pungmul, a centuries old Korean tradition started by peasants and farmers. It was picked up by Korean anti-government student activists and migrated to the U.S. in the 1980s.

Many of the members of Ieumsae, such as Kang, grew up in conservative and heteronormative Korean households in America. Being gay was simply out of the question.  

“We all have, for one reason or another, felt alienated from the Korean community or didn’t belong or felt ‘othered,’” Kang says. “So we have found that with one another.”