Traditional Korean music was part of Umbrella Arts Festival.

Boom! Clang! The sound of two drums, a gong, and a tambourine-like instrument reverberated through the Fountain Square area Saturday afternoon.

Four musicians, playing traditional Korean music called pungmul (which loosely translates as “percussion”) made their way through the crowd at the Umbrella Arts Festival, an event celebrating Asian, South Asian, and Pacific Islander American history, culture and current affairs.

The purpose of the festival is to “increase the visibility of the ASAPIA community,” says Melissa Raman-Molitor, head of Evanston ASAPIA, the group behind the event.

“There is not much documented history of the Asian/Pacific population in Evanston,” Raman-Molitor added, so “a lot of ASAPIA people feel invisible.”

Besides events such as this festival, now in its second year, an effort is under way to partner with the Evanston History Center to establish an Asian/Pacific archive, to tell what to many is an unknown story.

But school children should start learning that story in the upcoming academic year, when Illinois becomes the first state in the nation to require the teaching of Asian-American history. The law calling for that was sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, whose district includes part of Evanston.

Traditional Chinese dancers at Umbrella Arts Festival

Much of the festival, of course, included music and other arts, food and activities for children.

But with the upswing in anti-Asian violence across the country in recent years, events such as Umbrella Arts take on an additional importance.

Hate crimes, says Ramon-Molitor, were the impetus for starting the festival last year.

Inah Choi, a member of the pungmul group, says a cultural and historical gathering is “a way to raise our voices for immigrant justice.”

The pungmul ensemble is associated with the Hana Center, a Chicago-based organization that works on the social service and legal needs of Korean and other immigrant groups.

The powerful percussion group is impossible to miss, which is the whole point.

“All the sounds together are supposed to represent a thunderstorm,” says Inah Jeong, another member of the ensemble.

This type of traditional Korean music, she explains, comes from an agricultural heritage, of praying for and also being thankful for rain.

But despite the rain connection with the music, the name “Umbrella Arts Festival” actually has nothing to do with the weather.

Rather, it represents 40 different cultures, under a common umbrella bond of Asian/Pacific background … and one other thing.

“We’re also Americans,” says Inhe Choi.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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