Moranbong Band: Joseon Style Electronic Music on a New Level

By | April 08, 2013 | No Comments

Could the Moranbong Band’s first concert last July, replete with the sounds of American film, demonstrate its potential to depart to foreign shores? | Image via KRCNR

Nearly nine months after the fact, the initial shock of the Moranbong Band’s debut concert seems a distant memory. Media rapidly moved on to Ri Sol-ju, the first lady accessorized with European luxury, and Pyongyang popular culture attracted the attention of not only high-brow cultural channels but also low-brow blogs as well. While the Moranbong Band has been out of the public eye since their New Year’s concert for 2013,  some speculate that the Band was called in for a private concert for a certain American b-ball hall-of-famer. When it comes to the possibilities inherent in the “slick PR stylings of Kim Jong-un,” the Moranbong Band is the ultimate test case. 

In this re-examination of the cultural turns that might be possible following changing tastes within the DPRK military and party, SinoNK’s Performing Arts Analyst Jimin Lee examines the Moranbong Band’s debut “Demonstration Concert” through the lens of its own name—that is, as a demonstration of its potential to act as bridge to the world with its “New Joseon Style” of pop musical performance. The author also examines whether, in the current tense political and military climate, a cultural tactic such as a foreign tour by the Moranbong Band could provide any relief. — Darcie Draudt, Assistant Editor

Neo-Joseon Style Music, Part I: Did the Moranbong Band Demonstrate a New Cultural Diplomacy?

by Jimin Lee

Lost amid the massive media hype surrounding the evening concert in Pyongyang of July 6, 2012, was the title of the event: “Moranbong Band’s Demonstration Concert” (모란봉악단 시범공연). Given that Kim Jong-un attended the performance with hundreds of North Korean government officials, we must ask the particularly alluring question: “Why is it a demonstration concert?” [Translation note: demonstration here (시범/示範) means “debut” or “exhibition,” not “protest.”] It is the first time North Korea titled a state performance only as a demonstration. The performance definitely grasped full attention from North Koreans. Following a Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) announcement that a recorded Moranbong rehearsal would be aired on TV on both July 11and July 12 of 2012, a Joseon Shinbo article from July 15, 2012 reported that hardly anyone could be found on the streets in Pyongyang on those two evenings—insinuating they were all inside, rapt with the performance on TV.

The Debut of DPRK Media Darlings | According to KCNA, Kim Jong-un organized the Moranbong Band as a calling of the new century, “prompted by a grandiose plan to bring about a dramatic turn in the field of literature and arts this year in which a new century of Juche Korea begins.” The report heralds the debut of the Moranbong: “the band, just several months old, raised the curtain for its significant debut performance proclaiming its birth before the world.” The same report quotes Kim Jong-un’s remarks on his ambition behind this music band:

The performance given by the band was one spurring the revolution and construction, a stirring and unique one reflecting the breath of the times and one which reached a new phase in its contents and style….The expectation and conviction that the creators and artists of the band would in the future also creditably fulfilltheir mission as a dynamic bugler, engine and genuine companion of the army and people in the efforts to glorify the country, the patriotic legacy left by President Kim Il-sung and Leader Kim Jong-il.

The fact that Kim Jong-un organized the band himself to bring a new turn in his term signifies the importance of the band to the regime, his leadership style, and the nation as a whole. Therefore, it is important to further investigate what the qualities of the concert may reveal about his political intention for future cultural diplomacy.

Since its appearance in July 2012, the Moranbong Band has ignited fervent debate over whether its existence signals a possible cultural thaw in the DPRK. Both western media and South Korean newspapers express speculation and concerns over the debut of Moranbong. Internally, the band may have been intended to consolidate the country around a Korean War narrative centered on the Kim family, celebrate the launching of the Unha-3 rocket (twice!) and draw international attention. If North Korea is interested in showing the highest quality cultural diplomacy abroad, this Moranbong group by far would do better than the previous national musical performance groups such as Unhasu Orchestra or the Sea of Blood Opera troupe, largely due to the global relevancy of electronic instruments in the West and familiar music selections for Westerners.

Two Big Thumbs up for the Indomitable Spirit | By looking at the size of the concert and the quality of their performance, great time and consideration must have been allocated to organize the event. It might have taken at least three or four months to produce the Demonstration Concert, including music and performer selection, rehearsal, and staging. Counting backward from the performance, initial preparations must have begun not too long after Kim Jong-un’s inauguration following the death of Kim Jong-il in December 2011. The fact that Kim Jong-un organized the band and allegedly supervised the entire process of the concert enhances its significance. According to a KCNA report from July 7:

The performers showed well the indomitable spirit and mental power of the servicepersons and people of the DPRK dashing ahead for the final victory in the drive to build a thriving nation under the guidance of Kim Jong-un…After the concert, Kim Jong-un expressed great satisfaction over the fact that the creators and artists staged a performance high in ideological and artistic value by displaying revolutionary creative spirit.

Kim Jong-un gives a thumbs up after the Demonstration Concert, with First Lady Ri Sol-ju by his side. | Image via Chosun Daily.

Kim Jong-un gives a thumbs up after the Demonstration Concert, with First Lady Ri Sol-ju by his side. | Image via Chosun Daily.

After the Demonstration Concert, Kim Jong-un congratulated them on their successful demonstration performance with a “thumbs up” and extended thanks to the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army. A drastically different pose than his aloof posture during a performance of the all-male KPA Merited State Chorus in February this year, this is his second time praising the band in such a modern and youthful way—previously he gave the Unhasu orchestra a “thumbs up” following by his attendance at the Unhasu Orchestra’s signature concert, “The Hearts Following the Sun,” for the 70th anniversary of Leader Kim Jong-il’s birth on February 17, 2012.

The Bochunbo Electronic Band, Remixed | Electronic music is one representative form of modern music that contains rich tone and unique timbre. The history of the electronic music in North Korea originates with the Bochunbo Electronic Band  (보천전자악단) formed by Kim Jong-il in June 1985. At that time, North Korea appropriated the electronic instruments that elsewhere are used to play the “degenerated music” of capitalist societies in order to create their own North Korean style of electronic music by experimenting with traditional music in North Korea.

Compared to the Bochunbo Electronic Band formed 27 years prior, the Moranbong Band in 2012 definitely brought Joseon-style music to the new level. In terms of the theme of the concert, musical arrangement, instrumentation, programming, and staging, the band boldly innovates what Joseon-style music means in the Kim Jong-un era. Kim Jong-un reorganized all the factors that entail in concert and music and made it different from the conventional music style.

What is remarkably different about the Moranbong Band is its instrumentation, which drastically departs from previous North Korean performance groups. The Band is comprised of sixteen musicians including three electrical violins, one electric cello, two electric keyboards, two electric guitars, one piano, one drum set, one saxophone, and five singers. The formation is centered to electronic violin and cello along with other electronic instruments such as piano, drum, and saxophone.

In the past, there were no electronic violins and cellos in the older Bochunbo Electronic Band, and electronic guitars, keyboard, and drum sets were only used for instrumental accompaniment. The Moranbong Band, however, adopted new instruments such as electronic guitars, keyboard, and violins, boldly signaling a new turn of the North’s musical accompaniment style. On May 30, 2009, the Unhasu Orchestra created a “Joseon-style” pop orchestra combining orchestral music with Western instruments and Korean instruments. However, that singular incidence is markedly different from the latest performance of the Moranbong Band, which now performs in diverse combinations with various musical instrumentations and staging with unconventional performance outfits in a North Korean spectacle.

Music Politics and Innovation in Joseon Electronic Music | Attention should also be paid to how the state performance style had evolved and how Moranbong band is different from the previous concerts. Not only the instrumentation was changed: the electronic instruments were used to segue from Western classical music to global pop music. The KCNA reported on July 16 that “the band took the stage with Korean popular songs, such as ‘Arirang,’ ‘Let’s Learn’ and ‘Victors’ as well as globally famous songs, including ‘Song of a Gypsy,’ all of which were arranged in a new style.” In an interview that appears in the same KCNA report, Choe Dan, a teacher at the conservatory, said:

I am very pleased to see the nation’s musical art in robust development…the performance reminded me of the dear respected Kim Jong-un’s remark that foreign music, suitable to Koreans’ emotions, should be introduced and developed in the Korean style. I will devote all my wisdom and energy to steadily developing in a balanced manner the traditional and popular music to suit the emotions and aesthetic sense of the Korean people.

The Demonstration Concert was divided into two parts and comprised 26 pieces, including thirteen light music pieces, three light pieces combined with singing, and three vocal ensemble pieces. As another point of comparison, the Unhasu Orchestra singers had performed with orchestral music accompaniment in the Bel Canto style, an Italian singing style that focuses on generating clear and bright sounds by reducing the vocal cords, whereas the Moranbong Band singers sing in global pop music style along with electronic instruments.

The repertoire of the performance started out with light music “Arirang” that is rearranged into an electronic version. This “Electronic Version of Arirang” is as nice as the latest rearrangement of combined string version by Maestro Jong Myong Hun in his Paris concert with the Unhasu Orchestra on March 14, 2012. “Arirang” is widely known internationally as one of the most representative pieces of Korea. When Moranbong Band played “Arirang” there was a world map centered on the Korean Peninsula as a live video background with a sunset over Baekdu Mountain around the waves of the sea. The purpose of this visual narrative exemplifies Kim Jong-un’s remarks emphasizing the reasoning behind the virtuosic performance: to reify the regime’s Juche ideology, which is ofen connected to to the geography and landscape of the Korean peninsula at the center. The visual representation of North Korea in the background provides a clue of Kim Jong-un’s strategy of music politics.

American Pop on a Pyongyang Stage | Besides these visual elements of the performance, the Moranbong Band definitely surprised the international media not only because they employed electronic instruments but also they played non-traditional national pieces. Kim Jong-un has emphasized the need to create and develop North Korea’s own culture for the contemporary era by adapting other cultures’ styles. With this purpose and intention, Kim Jong-un opened up the stage with foreign music through the Demonstration Concert.

In contrast, the Bochunbo Electronic Band played mostly pieces of rearranged traditional music with only the occasional foreign song.  Surprisingly the Moranbong Band came out with very unconventional forms and substance. The band played only three Joseon light music pieces at the debut concert, drastically fewer than the eleven foreign pieces it performed. The three domestic pieces were “Arirang,” “Yippuni,” and “Can’t Live without Him;” “Arirang” and “Yippuni” were played with everyone in the band, while the last one was played with only four string members.

Considering what North Korean music ensembles have played in the past, it is important to unpack the importance of the international sensation caused by Moranbong’s playing eleven foreign music pieces. From the full concert video on YouTube the list of foreign pieces they played are as follows: “Czardas,” a traditional Hungarian folk dance; “Zigeurnerweisen (Gypsy Airs),” a musical composition for violin and orchestra written in 1878 by the Spanish composer and virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate; and four French pieces )including “La Reine de Saba (The Queen of Sheba),” “Menuet,” “Penelope,” and “Serenade de l’Étoile (Serenade of the Star).”

Not only are the pieces foreign—what is more surprising is the number of American music pieces played. As a nation vehemently opposed to all aspects to debased American culture, it is quite striking the North had staged American popular music in a positive light in the spectacle that aired throughout the nation through KCNA. Of course, the pieces may have been presented as merely “foreign music” imported in the New Joseon Style, rather than as “American music.” The Moranbong Band arranged foreign music in their own style; the band staged American popular music including “Gonna Fly Now,” Bill Conti’s theme from the movie Rocky. Also, the piece “My Way” is a popular song sung by American pop icon Frank Sinatra and arranged by Paul Anka.

According to a KCNA report from July 7, 2012, the Moranbong Band actually had played three more foreign songs in addition to the eight pieces seen in the KCNA broadcasts.  The demonstration concert does not include the three pieces above; it is assumed that these were exempted in the editing process.

There were few more foreign songs only reported, not recorded, on KCNA report on July 7: “The Duel,” a popular song; “Victory,” a rap song; and “Dallas,” a country music selection. In addition to this, twelve American children’s cartoon film songs were performed in a piece titled, “The Collection of World Fairy Tale Songs.” As such, the Moranbong Band played not only American popular music but also rap music and country music—both styles whose histories are firmly rooted in the American cultural landscape. Usually the music in North Korea is developed from revolutionary songs or folk music. This shift should not be read as merely a cosmetic shift; we must also deal with the question of possible ideological implications.

Live (Inter)Nation: Tour Dates TBD | As discussed earlier, it is impossible to play American popular music in North Korea. The news agency is in complete control of the State, and the content is the State’s voice. Also, the fact that US-Sino relations have been shaky of late raises the question of what might be the intention of playing American pop music in an official DPRK state spectacle. Considering this situation, the Moranbong Band playing American popular songs is quite a radical gesture of Kim Jong-un.

As we might glean from his remarks in a KCNA report on July 7th, Kim Jong-un has a grand ambition to promote Joseon-style electronic music on the world stage. After Unhasu Orchestra’s successful performance on March 14, 2012, in Paris, this time it seems that Kim Jong-un may seek to bring the Moranbong Band to the global level beyond Pyongyang, and even beyond Paris. In order to advance Joseon Style electronic music abroad, the Moranbong Band should grasp the attention of Americans, the center of the international electronic music scene. There has been a persistent effort from a group based in the United States called Global Resource Service, Inc., (GRS) that is trying to invite the Joseon National Orchestra to the States, but the group faces opposition from the U.S. government. GRS, a non-profit, non-governmental organization based in Atlanta, has in the past coordinated limited cultural exchange between the U.S. and North Korea.

In fact, GRS has already sent three other groups to North Korea, including the Grammy Award-winning group Casting Crowns, a contemporary Christian rock band. The Sons of Jubal, one of the GRS groups, was invited to perform on April 28 at the Spring Friendship Arts Festival in Pyongyang by the Korea-America Private Exchange Society, which provides a relationship with U.S.-based non-governmental agencies. Considering some track record of successful cultural exchange, the Moranbong Band may be prepared to become the next step for North Korean performance groups onto the world stage with Joseon-style pop music. Thus, the designation of the July 12 concert as a “demonstration” may be more apt than “opening” or “debut,” as it may function to demonstrate the potential for concert organizers worldwide. The Moranbong Band Demonstration Concert may be read as a soft signal indirectly showing America how it might open up its door to cultural exchange. Their song choices were likely carefully calculated to be relevant to Americans as a welcome deviation from typical rhetoric from the DPRK.

Unlike the State Symphony Orchestra of DPRK (SSO) or the Unhasu Orchestra, the fact that the Moranbong Band only has 16 members would ease travel, with lesser expenses. The SSO can be seen as a corps army cultural mission outfitted with traditional instruments. The Unhasu Orchestra can be seen as a division army cultural mission equipped with traditional and electronic instruments. Extending the analogy, the Moranbong Band would be a guerrilla unit armored with the latest electronic instruments ready to perform on behalf of the regime. If a North Korean classical music mission was able to play a concert in March 2012 for the first time in Paris, the center of European culture, the destination for this New Joseon-style pop group might be envisioned as the capital of electronic music and the center of international politics: the U.S.

Redirecting the Course of Cultural Diplomacy | According to a KCNA report on July 30, Kim Jong-un intended for the Moranbong Band’s premiere on July 27 to coincide with Fatherland Liberation War Day (조국해방전쟁승리 기념일), a national holiday in North Korea that marks the 1953 signing of the armistice at Panmunjeom. Every year North Korea observes “Month of Joint Anti-American Struggle” (반미공동투쟁월간) during the period from June 25 to July 27in order to promote an anti-American sentiment as part of North Korea’s identity. The term for this holiday first appeared in state media in 1955, and did not appear in North Korean press again until 1996. It reinforced its celebration in 2012, when it appeared again in  a June 29 KCNA article last year that declared the DPRK’s determination to seek revenge against America during the celebration of this “Month of Joint Anti-America Struggle”. However, Kim Jong-un commended that Moranbong concert would perform on Fatherland Liberation War Day again. July 27, 2013, will be the 60th Anniversary of the armistice. If Moranbong Band continues its playing of American pop songs in the celebration of Fatherland Liberation War Day, it may be interpreted as urging the US to recognize the possibility for cultural exchange that might overflow into prospects for new developments in diplomacy.

From February 23 through 24, 2012, right before Kim Jong-un would have formed the Moranbong Band, North Korea and the U.S. held high-level exploratory talks in Beijing culminating in the announcement of the “Leap Day Agreement,” under which the US would provide food aid if the North denuclearizes. However, the events since then—including a long-range rocket launch in April 2012 and another nuclear launch in January in 2013—have already put the deal at risk less than a year after the agreement. Despite their apparent reneging, the DPRK continues to pressure the White House to carry out its end of the Leap Day Agreement. Following this sequence of events, the Moranbong Band may likely provide a measure of cultural diplomacy to allow the problematic Leap Day Agreement fade behind a new chapter in relations.

Full Video:

Further Readings:

Adam Cathcart, “Juche Pop: New Assessments of the Morangbong Band,” SinoNK, September 28, 2012.

Jimin Lee, “Soft Power on a Hardened Path: On DPRK Musical Performance,” SinoNKAugust 2, 2012.

Adam Cathcart, “Let Them Eat Concerts: Music, the Moranbong Band and Cultural Turns in Kim Jong-un’s Korea,” SinoNK, July 12, 2012.

Jimin Lee, “Rehearsal, Propaganda, Unity: Documenting the DPRK Unhasu Orchestra’s Performance in Paris,” SinoNKMarch 24, 2012.

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