Brass Kettle 17 × 19 × 13 cm
In describing the ordinary life of people in Seoul in the late period of the Joseon Dynasty in Gyeongdojapji, Yu Deuk Gong, a practical science (Silhak) scholar in the eighteenth century, stated “people value brassware highly, and always use brass to make tableware for rice, soup and vegetables”. Korean people have continuously used brassware from ancient times. Besides tableware, brass was widely used in everyday items such as washbowls, chamber pots, candlesticks, and incense burners, and also in religious articles of Buddhism such as small gongs, bells, and ceremonial vessels. Small gongs and larger gongs used in farmers’ folk bands (Nongakdae) were also made of brass. These are called “sound of wind” instruments, because their sound travels far. People believed that since the gong had the energy to bring together many different sounds, it would bring harmony by suppressing noise. So they all had at least one gong in their houses. Gongs were signiﬁcant in the lives of Korean farmers.
Hamyang, the hometown of Gong Master Lee Yong Gu, has active performances of farmers’ folk music because of its geographical features surrounded by plains. Hamyang was also famous as the home of brassware. Since the Hamyang gong was made by the masters of hand-beaten Bangjja brassware, its sound was prominent.
Due to ﬁnancial difﬁculties, Lee Yong Gu did chores at a studio that produced gongs, at a young age. He did various errands and washed dishes during the day and he secretly mimicked making gongs at night when all others were asleep. Soon he started to receive proper instruction in gong production from Master Oh Deok Su, who was the best craftsman of the Hamyang gong. Although he originally started the job in order to earn a living, he eventually felt that he had found his lifelong vocation. He said that he had felt joyful in making gongs to the point that he could not notice the attendant physical pain.
In the 1970’s, when economic development was the most important national agenda item, traditional culture gradually lost its place, and he had to stop working for some time. However, he opened the Obuja studio in Geochang in 1986, and worked hard to produce the best quality gongs. As a result, he won the prize from the Traditional Korean Handicraft Art Exhibition three consecutive times, starting in 1988. In 1991, his gong was selected as Korea’s best gong during the “Searching for Korea’s Standard Gong Sound” project, which was administered by Lee O Young, then the Minister of Culture, and soon after Lee Yong Gu’s Bangjja gong was purchased and permanently stored at the National Gugak Center. In 1993, the province of Gyeongsangnam-do chose him as Holder of an Intangible Cultural Treasure no. 14 in the production of gongs, indicating that he was Korea’s best gong master.
In keeping with the saying “the more metal is beaten, the stronger it becomes”, a Bangjja gong requires several thousand repetitions of hammering. As is the case for a vessel, a gong is produced by mixing 78% copper and 22% tin, and melting the metal at a temperature higher than 1200℃. However, shaping a gong requires a higher level of effort and care than shaping a vessel. After quenching from 11 o’clock at night until 6 o’clock in the morning to balance the color of the metal, it has to be beaten for many days in order to create the proper sound. The maker has to listen to the gong through his whole body as well as hammer it. Lee Yong Gu mentions it is difﬁcult to get the proper sound even though he has made Bangjja gongs for the last twenty-four years.
Succeeding to the family business in 2005, his youngest son, Master Lee Gyoung Dong, changed the name of the studio to Dubuja Gongbang In order to provide brassware that can appeal to people’s modern sensibility while continuing the tradition, he introduced the brand “Notgeuleu-gajileonhi” (meaning orderly brass vessels), and launched a studio called “Noshi Gongbang.” Even now Lee Yong Gu continues to teach the techniques of making the Bangjja gong, producing gongs and brassware.
Master Lee Yong Gu was born in Hamyang in Gyeongsangnam-do, the birthplace of the Hamyang gong (Jing, a percussion instrument made of copper and tin), and has produced the best bangjja gongs and containers for the last seventy years or so. He opened the Obuja studio in Geochang in 1986. Three consecutive times since 1988, he has won the prize from the Traditional Korean Handicraft Art Exhibition. In 1991, his gong was selected as Korea’s best gong during the “Searching for Korea’s Standard Gong Sound” project, and was purchased by the National Gugak Center. In 1993, the province of Gyeongsangnam-do chose him as Holder of an Intangible Cultural Treasure no. 14 in the production of gongs. He was chosen to develop Gyeongsangnam-do crafts in 1995, and his Janggo and Samulnori percussion instruments were each ofﬁcially recommended by Gyeongsangnam-do in 1998 and 2000. He won awards several times as the best gong maker in the Craft Competition. He participated in the Foire de Paris in 2008. In 2012, he launched a new brand, ‘NOSHI’, with his son, Master Lee Gyeong Dong. He produces gongs and brassware at his studio, and has handed over to his son the methods of producing bangjja gongs and brassware.