Napalm Death, Abba, Norah Jones, Wu-Tang Clan, 98 Degrees. No, this isn’t your slightly-off cousin’s Itunes play list. It’s all jazz, man. At least, that is, in North Korea, where all foreign music is lumped together under that title and is also very much illegal. With North Korea very much in the news recently, I thought we’d take a closer look at its homegrown pop music, something I knew very little about.
With only the emailed wisdom of THE hottest Pyongyang mega-club DJ’s and nightlife personalities, and a dog-eared copy of the North Korean top 40 charts in hand, we set out to learn as much as one with a passing, middling interest in North Korean music, possibly could in one afternoon.
"But wait", you say, "North Korea is a strange, isolated place in general. Makes sense that the music would be odd there, no?”
And you’d be right. At least to those used to the tried and true themes of western pop music.
Lover’s lament? Nope. Unless your love for the Dear Leader is more than you can possibly handle and you are only able to express it in song form. How about the old call to the dance floor? Not quite. Unless, of course, you mean the sound of being ordered back to work on the floor of the textile mill.
All music being state sanctioned, most lyrics feature the same touchstones of communist propaganda’s greatest hits. We’re talking land reclamation. We’re talking fierce paternalistic nationalism (I Am A Blossom of the Fatherly General- a stand out track, highly recommended). Agricultural production? You betcha. And lest we forget, the wellspring of all North Korean song lyrics: textile production.
But recently, and most importantly, the goal of all North Korean pop music has been hyping up the long-reigning Kim family to god-like heights. Of course the musicians and writers get their marching orders directly from the Kim clan themselves. It’s hard work deifying yourself and sometimes you just need a fresh face to sell your truly inspired, but still refreshingly insane propaganda.
There is no quintessentially American Cinderella story of the young aspiring singer with a little bit of pluck, a decent amount of raw talent, and a whole lotta sass, ascending to the heights of fame and fortune. Shockingly, things don’t work like that in North Korea.
No, the narrative is more along the lines of the young, poor but pretty peasant girl, hand picked by the Dear Leader and ordered, upon threat of execution, to sing about the many uses of fertilizer. For 139 albums.
In any conversation about music in North Korea, there’s no getting around the giant, lumbering dinosaur in the room. And with over 150 albums and counting, Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble are that dinosaur. A national institution and ground zero for any one looking into the modern era of pop music in the DPRK, this is where our journey begins. So let’s dive right in.
It’s Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble, it’s “Excellent Horse-Like Lady” and you’re very, very excited. Here we go:
What’s that? Calm down, speak slower. What are the lyrics? Well, I’m glad you asked. Here’s a brief taste:
"Our factory comrades say in jest,
Why they tell me I am a virgin on a stallion
After a full day’s work I still have energy left
My skills are truly like lightening they say
They say I am a virgin on a stallion
Yet again today I was the first to leave for work
Apparently my name was in the paper”
On a side note: If you are a lady and have, god forbid, ever been referred to as horse-like, know that it is a compliment in certain parts of the world, and by that I mean only in North Korea.
Traditionally, pop music is a vulture, flitting from one era to the next, cannibalizing the past and mining nostalgia for commercial purposes. One day its moody synth pop from the early 80’s, the next it’s shiny rave anthems circa 1991. Pop has, and will, eat itself, again and again.
But perhaps North Korea is a step or three ahead of all the would-be western tastemakers, arbiters of all things nostalgic, flaunting its superiorly obscure musical taste from afar.
So, you’re influenced by discordant post punk from the early 80’s?, asks North Korea, smugly. Well la di da, we have no idea what you’re talking about as we have never heard of that. We’re more into 1950’s polka music and revolutionary folk songs from the former Soviet Union and it’s surrounding satellites. And not ironically. We’ve literally never heard anything else. Top that, comrades.
In a country where much of the culture could be described as being stuck in a 1950’s time warp, is it any wonder that the music coming from there has less in common with the slick, modern sounds of K-pop, whose epicenter is a mere 31 miles away in Seoul than it does with polka music from the 50’s ala Lawrence Welk? I’ll let you decide.
Here’s my late grandfather’s, possibly Bob Dole’s, and definitely that creepy guy milling outside the Lady Footlockers favorite, ”Pennsylvania Polka”:
In 1983, after months of scouring the greater Orlando area for THE best teen singers and dancers, Jong-il handpicked the members for what would become the other pillar of North Korean music, Wangjaesan Light Music Band. The Stones to PEE’s Beatles, both are named after “great victories” won against the Japanese by OG Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung in the 1930’s. Of course, Jong-il couldn’t help playing Yoko a bit, and ended up all-but marrying the piano player, making her his fourth mistress and North Korea’s unofficial first lady. But I digress.
Personally, I prefer Wangjaesan’s earlier, less commercial era, which produced such classics as the feel good hit of the summer of 1989,”The Joy of Bumper Harvest Overflows Amidst the Song of Mechanization”.
Unfortunately, YouTube has no videos of this groundbreaking work so we’ll just have to go with their more showbiz-y, Broadway like latter-day incarnation. It’s “Toast to the Victory”, it’s Wangjaesan, and you’ll watch approximately 25- 35 seconds of it. Time well spent. Off we go:
And that’s it. Not really. OK, there’s also this:
On the surface it seems cutesy, but it’s actually subversive considering it’s illegal and you can spend the rest of your life in a forced labor camp for the offense of playing foreign “jazz”, even if it’s the internationally beloved and completely harmless A-ha. But hey, maybe things are changing and for the better! Or maybe not.
I could go into the (yawn) evolution from 1940’s era revolutionary folk songs following the realignment with communist China in the 1950’s to the 1980’s focus on industrial production and farming triumphs leading up to the modern era’s bent on deifying the reigning Kim clan. But you know all that already from 6th grade social studies.
Instead I leave you with this, from happier times, when ‘lil Kim was just your average son and heir of an insane, megalomaniac dictator, obsessed with the NBA and awkward around girls. Times sure have changed, but we can always look back fondly to more innocent days when men were men, ladies were horse-like, and one man could control the weather .
BONUS! For all you children’s guitarist enthusiasts out there. You know who you are. Enjoy! -