Sunday, May 7, 2017


Many of the musical traditions in North Korea today has stemmed from its own folk traditions but has changed drastically since the two Koreas split apart in 1945. For the most part, the types of music heard after Kim Il-sung took over in 1948 were highly restricted. Most of the genres allowed had to follow the strict guidelines of supporting the regime and upholding the idea of juche. A type of patriotic song called taejung kayo emerged in the 1980s. Basically it combined traditional Korean folk tunes with Western classical styles. Marches, Western instruments, and choirs were heard as well. Genres like jazz and rock were strictly not allowed. Movie music was quite popular, though. One of the leading film score composers was Isang Yun, who was born in South Korea but ironically lived most of his life in Germany. 

Many of the folk instruments have been adapted and tuned in order to perform alongside Western instruments; many modern ensembles do this. They also have instruments that remain in folk tuning in order to perform with traditional ensembles. One instrument that has been modernized is a type of zither called an ongnyugeum. A four-stringed fiddle called a sohaegeum is another. Other instruments heard in traditional music include the gayageum (a 12- to 21-stringed zither), the ajaeng (a type of zither played with a bow), and the janggu (a type of double-head hourglass-shaped drum).

North Korea is famous for what they refer to as its “mass games” called Arirang Festival. If you watched one of the videos I posted a few days ago like you should have (Inside North Korea Part 3, I believe), it shows part of the mass choreographic display of Arirang. Think of it like a cross between an Olympic opening ceremony, a dance recital, and a gymnastics competition. Thousands of performers fill a stadium on the floor and in the stands and do amazing feats of coordination. It’s quite something to see, even though they are chanting their praises to Kim Il-sung, the government, and the ideology of juche. (That’s great and all, but can they do the wave?)

If you look closely, those are people holding up colored cards to make the picture.
When Kim Jong-il came to power, he lightened up on the musical restrictions of his father and predecessor. He actually encouraged jazz music and other genres that previously were shunned, and even allowed Korean pop music and girl bands. However, the songs still had to pass the juche test. Film music remains popular to this day. 

There’s not a lot to write about when it comes to modern popular music. In recent years, there have been some pop music come onto the scene, inspired in part by the more dominant South Korean pop music scene. Several years ago, Kim Jong-un himself handpicked 16 women to form North Korea’s first girl band called Moranbong Band. Many of the members perform in some kind of military uniform while the singers appear in sleek dresses. Because of North Korea’s extremely high level of music education, all of the women here play their own instruments. The music is mostly in a pop/dance style with overtones of 80s music.

I haven’t come across any rock or any other styles so much, and it’s not surprising that I haven’t. I think it’s baby steps for them right now. There are a number of orchestras, choirs, and bands like the Wangjaesan Light Music Band. That’s about as good as we’re gonna get on this.

Up next: the food

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