IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 26 | Theme Pop Music in Asia


Pop Musicin Asia


Popular Music in North Korea

& a critique of Andy Kershaw's 'North Korea -- pleasant snack time'.

The second edition of 'World Music: The Rough Guide' (London: Rough Guides, 2000) contains a brief and poorly informed account of popular music in North Korea. Such an account would never be allowed were this the music of a better-known nation. The author, the BBC Radio DJ Andy Kershaw, has visited North Korea as a tourist for two brief visits, staying in a tourist hotel and buying music recordings in hotel shops. North Korea is an anachronism. It is the last state of its kind, stuck in a weird suspended animation, revering Kim Il Sung as 'eternal president' even though he died seven years ago. Yet, somehow, we have to try to understand.



Music, in the regime's definition, is popular: it is music of the people and music from the people. Kershaw describes the uniform style as 'lush, relentlessly optimistic, top-drawer kitsch'. This was surely once equally true of other hard-line socialist states. His description is a snapshot of popular songs, but this is already outdated, since the deification of the Kim clan has now become the major concern of music. Today, some realism is creeping in: after natural disasters and economic collapse, songs that shout loudly about increasing factory production have been quietly dropped, replaced by songs describing agricultural work teams or land reclamation. Three popular bands are pre-eminent, Wangjaesan Light Music Band ('light music', ky(breve)ong (breve)umak, relates to early twentieth-century Korean trot, ppongtchak), Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble, and the large Mansudae Art Troupe. The first two are named after revolutionary sites where Kim Il Sung is said to have defeated Japanese soldiers and police in the 1930s; the third harks back to the post-war days of militaresque songs. Kershaw refers to the 'Pee' label -- cue the jokes -- as being pre-eminent. 'Pee' is actually a catalogue prefix signifying recordings by the 'Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble'. Only one state body issues recordings, using abbreviated prefixes for each of the three popular bands and a number of labels (including, for example, Meari, Naenara, Pyongyang, and Mansudae). By Spring 2000, when I was last in Pyongyang, Pochonbo boasted eighty-five CD releases, and Wangjaesan forty-eight. This, surely, would be more than enough songs for even te most diehard socialist.


Light Music Band album cover.


The snapshot omits much. Back in the 1940s, revolutionary songs were demanded, based on Kim's interpretation of Soviet socialist realism and Mao's Yen'an talks. Following the death of Stalin and re-alignment with China, musicians and composers were told to collect folksong and revise it for the revolution. Diatonic harmonies replaced pentatonic melodies, and 'resurrectionist' words were replaced by revolutionary sentiments. In the 1970s, the keyword was juche, 'self reliance', requiring supposedly 'unique' Korean creation that reflected party propaganda but fused Western and local elements. In the 1980s, popular songs, taejung kayo, became the norm, with texts about grand socialist construction, farming triumphs, and the glories of industrial production.

All these music genres survive, though not in hotel shops. No recordings of folksongs are available for sale, and no recordings sit on the shelves of the People's Grand Study House (a.k.a. the National Library). Books on folksong, though, can readily be bought. North Korean musicians will sing folksongs to those who enquire, and theoretically old people in the countryside still know the songs of their home regions. Instrumental music survives, but again there are no commercial recordings (except for a few published in Japan). Seven orchestral troupes are sponsored by the ministry in the capital: The Sea of Blood Opera Company, two people's choruses, two art troupes (Pyongyang Moran Hill and Pyongyang), a national orchestra, and a contemporary ensemble dedicated to the music of Isang Yun (1917-1995). The Pyongyang Film Studios, too, has a gregarious appetite for instrumental compositions to fit its many productions. Both Western and Korean ('improved' traditional) instruments are taught at the Pyongyang Music and Dance University and at Children's Palaces in Pyongyang and each provincial capital.

Pochonbo Electric Ensemble album cover

So what is wrong with 'North Korea--pleasant snack time'? Well, reverse the image. At the People's Grand Study House, Scottish folksong is represented not by any golden standards, but by the comedian Billy Connolly singing his 'Welly Boot Song' ­ a strange image indeed! This image has guided us in preparing this supplement. We are also aware how important popular culture now is throughout the region. Space prevents us from being either comprehensive or thorough. Rather, we focus on specific aspects of specific musics. Our aim is to wet your appetite, and to show something of the tremendous variety of pop music throughout Asia. *

Dr Keith Howard is a senior lecturer in the Department of Music at SOAS, London. He is the author/editor of 10 books on Korean music, culture, and shamanism.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 26 | Theme Pop Music in Asia