Rock Gospels: Analyzing the Artistic Style of Moranbong Band

By | March 04, 2014 | No Comments

Kang Ryong-hui rocking with her guitar in a female version of the Kim Jong-un hairstyle | Image: Moranbong Band concert 25 April 2013/Youtube.

Kang Ryong-hui rocking with her guitar in a female version of the Kim Jong-un hairstyle | Image: Moranbong Band concert 25 April 2013/Youtube.

The Moranbong Band hasn’t publicly performed since last October, prompting speculation that Kim Jong-un has disbanded the ensemble. Pekka Korhonen, professor of world politics at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland and visiting scholar at Kyoto University, suggests that we examine the entire corpus of the band’s aesthetic rather than wondering if the band is finished playing for good or delving into cesspools of Jang Song-taek related rumor. Here Pekka investigates the ties between the band and the military (from the Eternal President to the beloved Marshal, hairstyle included), the artistic rock gospel style of the band, and the position of the band within a larger regime of art. — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

Rock Gospels: Analyzing the Artistic Style of Moranbong Band

by Pekka Korhonen

It seems that the Moranbong Band has ceased performing publicly, at least for the time being. This may be a proper moment to take a look at the short history of the ensemble, and try to understand its meaning in North Korea. Fourteen concerts have thus far been released on YouTube, one of them apparently censored totally (the July 27, 2013 concert), and another one partly (June 23, 2013 concert; first installment here). Using Rudiger Frank’s analytical methodology presented in his “The Arirang Mass Games of North Korea,” and comparing published and previous North Korean messages, we can now take a look at the forms of communication of the band.

Problems of Analyzing North Korean Music | There has not been much research on Moranbong Band; practically the only venue systematically interested in it has been Sino-NK. Even at Sino-NK the general frame of analysis has been rather critical or belittling; whatever comes from the evil kingdom, must be evil, or at least in some way participate in evil. This may be so, but the band is nevertheless important.

Most commenting has concentrated only on the extraordinary debut concert in July 6, 2012. Sherry Ter Molen found that the style of Moranbong Band is old-fashioned according to contemporary US standards; Darcy Draudt and Jimin Lee considered it “merely a display of femininity on official stage, packaged and controlled by the masculine state;” while Adam Cathcart lambasted it for not being politically edgy and not displaying irony at the stage, categorizing the band simply as old revolutionary wine in a new aesthetic form. Only after the ending of public performances by the band has he shown some nostalgia for it.

I feel that these commentators are looking at the wrong aspects, and asking for too much. Irony, and its more blunt partner satire, are the rhetorical tropes for oppositional political expression (see: Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, Princeton University Press, 1957). They work exactly by taking something previously expressed and adding a new angle to it, transforming the meaning to something that is intellectually amusing, funny, ridiculous, or outright blasphemous. Moranbong Band cannot do this in North Korea; romance is the only proper narrative plot in a totalitarian cultural system.

Anyway, if the band were so harmless, why would it now have been prohibited from appearing in public? We have to look for much smaller details.

One problem is the category of ”pop culture” under which Moranbong Band has been placed. It creates the wrong associations. The ensemble should rather be understood as a military orchestra. They dress in military uniforms and wear one, two, or three small stars on their shoulders, symbols which according to Wikipedia make them all officers, with ranks of sangjwa (상좌), chungjwa (중좌), and sojwa (소좌), corresponding with captain, first, and second lieutenant in US Army rankings. This does not necessarily mean that band members have gone through long military training in addition to their intensive musical studies: in North Korea it is possible to be promoted to a military rank, such as general or marshal, without previous experience.

Notwithstanding, Moranbong Band is a military band, and there is no reason to think that its members would not be good patriotic citizens of their state, proudly and willingly performing all the military and political songs that we hear. This is rather normal in all states constantly prepared for military conflict.

It is apparent, though, that there have been clear symptoms of control by the ”masculine state,” although, in point of fact, we do not actually know the gender of the architect.

The original female version of the Kim Jong-un haircut; Kim Yu-kyong. | Image: Moranbong Band concert 10 October 2012/Youtube.

The original female version of the Kim Jong-un haircut; Kim Yu-kyong. | Image: Moranbong Band concert 10 October 2012/Youtube.

Controlling the Visual Aesthetics of Moranbong Band | There has been a severe drive to unify the outlook of the members to the point where all individuality disappears. While the band’s debut was not explicitly connected to the Korean People’s Army, in performance, the band members have been clothed in military uniforms since late summer 2012. During spring 2013 they were placed on a diet, which made all of roughly equal thinness. Jewelry and make-up were minimized at the same time; bourgeois wealthy individuality displayed in the early concerts was thus erased from the band.

Cutting down long hair started individually during autumn 2012, but by the eighth concert in February 1, 2013 everybody had received the same treatment. The string quartet wore from then on hair of neck length; ladies’ fashion in Samjiyon Orchestra, where they hailed from, had been long elaborately arranged hair that fit well with evening dress and classical music. All the others wore their hair much shorter.

Especially singers Kim Yu-kyong and Ryu Ji-na, as well as guitarist Kang Ryong-hui and drummer Ri Yun-hui wore a female version of the Kim Jong-un hairstyle. It is far shorter than ordinary military female hair, cut also in the neck and above the ear, but leaving hair amply at the top of the head, so that the person appears simultaneously ascetic and tall. It may be a symbol of allegiance to the monarch. The others wore their hear a bit longer. By the last published concert in October 15, 2013, even the hair of the string quartet was cut very short, and hats, which hid all the small individual differences in hairstyles, capped the head of all members.

Notwithstanding, although this appeared as a form of increased discipline placed on the band, it was a new stylistic element, emulated by fashion conscious North Korean ladies. Even when made to conform to a strict code, the Moranbong Band ended up creating a new fashion. The band is difficult to control; it has effects in the North Korean society.

I agree with all the commentators that Moranbong Band has to be regarded as a symbol of a new era, giving a distinct aura for the reign of the new monarch. Ostensible audiences of its live concerts have been the Pyongyang political elite and targeted groups of military and technical professionals meriting special recognition, but the real audience has been the whole population with an access to a TV set.

Among the North Korean population the band became immediately extremely popular, an object of talk and admiration. The band had style, it promised something new, had a foreign aura even when playing familiar military marches, and made music that truly inspired people. Visitors tell about people dancing in public while listening to Moranbong Band DVDs, or shops closing and streets becoming deserted when the group’s concerts were broadcast on national TV.

The important thing that should be analyzed is the style of the political concerts, not the Disney and Rocky tunes of the first concert, which are rather irrelevant in the whole picture. Foreign political messages have been searched from it, like Jimin Lee has done, sensible at the time, but with hindsight it perhaps was just a whim, with no particular deeper meaning. In 2012 we still could assume that North Korea was ”under control,” whoever then did the controlling, but all the executions and forms of repression in 2013, as well as the treatment of Moranbong Band, have rather pointed to frantic efforts at regaining control.

Regimes of Art | Jacques Rancière’s concept of regimes of art may work as a usable tool to analyze the musical aspects of Moranbong Band (see: The Politics of Aesthetics. The Distribution of the Sensible, London and New York: Continuum, 2006, pp. 20-22). Ethical and poetic regimes are relevant here. The ethical regime is a totalizing political system: all arts, in the plural, are seen as serving the educational ethos of the state; raison d’Etat defines ethical principles.

Arts, such as music, are used for teaching citizens the teleological goals of the state, and the proper roles of citizens in fulfilling them. Arts that are not useful in this sense are not necessary, and thus banned. This is the art regime of socialist realism, still in force in North Korean popular media, at least until the emergence of the Moranbong Band. The poetic regime instead considers art as a singular, regarding it as an essential element in fulfilling human life, and as an autonomous form of existence separate from the state. The concept of fine art, referring to objects of art enjoyed solely because they are “art,” explicates the poetic regime.

We have seen also this type of art in North Korea, namely in certain performances of musical ensembles like the Samjiyon and Unhasu orchestras, which have performed traditional European classical music, and have been used for cultural exchanges with Russia and European countries, as Adam Cathcart and Steven Denney analyze here. They are important because of the high international prestige value accorded to elite forms of poetic art. These orchestras have been subsumed under state interests, but what is important here is that the education given in this field has directed artists towards poetic expression.

There exists an interesting video from 2011 where Suno Hyang-hui and Hong Su-kyong appear as ordinary violinists in a Samjiyon concert conducted by Pavel Ovsyannikov (Павел Овсянников), director of the Orchestra of the 21st Century of Russia (Русскийсимфоничейский “Оркестр XXI века” им. С.С. Прокофьева). Ovsyannikov also exemplified in person how a true artist should behave freely on stage.

However, the poetic regime is not limited to elite circles. It can exist equally in all forms of public producing of art, also popular music, because its essence is artistic creation and innovation. It is hard to define in an exact manner, but we recognize it when we see or hear it: the quality of doing whereby a creative, new, and inspiring element is added to the production.

Moranbong Band Style | Moranbong Band works within the ethical regime, singing the songs of the state, but in its activity it also continuously explicates the poetic regime. Its music is not ”pop,” nor is it typical ”military music.” The music it performs is rather technically difficult, containing complicated arrangements, as well as constant changes in melody, tempo, instrumentation, and singing.

Because the composition of the ensemble is so heterogeneous, there is an endless variety of possibilities in their disposal. They also change rapidly the types of music played, moving from military marches to classical music, throwing in a sweet pop hit or two, followed by political and religious songs.

All songs related to the Kim family have to be taken as gospels. They declare the good message (evangelium) of earthly but immortal gods, who over the boundary of death still give guidance and encouragement to their faithful congregation members, most touchingly exemplified by the sermons that the Eternal President Kim Il-sung delivers in videos during some Moranbong Band concerts.

The band plays softly while he speaks, transforming the historical video to a phenomenon of the present moment; the audience stands and listens reverently, breaking in the end into thundering applause. An example of this particular hymn was presented in the August 3, 2013 concert.


The Eternal President addressing his followers in summer 2013. | Image: Moranbong Band concert 3 August 2013; Youtube.

The Eternal President addressing his followers in summer 2013. | Image: Moranbong Band concert 3 August 2013/Youtube.

All these complicated harmonies created by the Moranbong Band – whoever then acts as the art director – are backed and carried forward by a rock beat, creating a rhythm that easily catches on and quickly makes the songs hits, but the arrangements contain so much detail, that one does not tire easily on the songs. These rock gospels are the artistic essence of Moranbong Band, and should be the principal subject of scholarly analysis, not an object of derision and mockery. These songs contain more than is visible at first sight.

This distinct style has continued despite personnel changes. Apparently there exists a large pool from where to draw talented musicians. The original members have been introduced by Darcie Draudt and Jimin Lee. By the April 11, 2013 concert bass player Ri Sol-lan and synthesizer player Kim Hyang-sun had disappeared from the ensemble. Kim Yong-mi, who had been playing piano thus far, replaced Kim Hyang-sun in one of the two synthesizers. Kim Jong-mi (김정미) became the new pianist. Jon He-ryon (전헤련) came to play bass. By the April 25, 2013 concert an eighth singer joined the choir for four concerts, but her name was too unclear to be deciphered. She did not appear in the last 14th concert.

However, these changes did not have any noticeable effect on the style; they rather increased the artistic qualities of the band. Presumably they were simply considered better musicians.

The distinct Moranbong Band style, simultaneously catchy and intricate, is clearly created by people used to the refined modulations of sound in classical music. It is not Unhasu Orchestra style, but resembling it at a more popular level. It can be called a symphonic style, in the Greek meaning of the word σύμφωνος, putting together different kinds of sounds, and ending in a harmonious, pleasing result. This poetic creation is continuous. Practically all of their versions of the national hymn Aegukka are different, although there would be no ethical social realist reason for this. They simply create art.

It is important to notice that also the choir strongly participates in this. They may sing sweet melodies with swaying bodies and appear very feminine on stage, but their singing skills, the constant interplay between singers, their concerted movement at the stage, and their small well-composed dances, are all true artistic creations, both musically and visually. All this can be seen clearly, e.g. in the two concerts given together with the State Merited Choir. The February 1, 2013 concert was not very good, because the SMC dominated, and its size drowned much of the Moranbong Band sound.

The only exception was the song Without a Break (단숨에). It was a military march turned into a contagious disco dance celebrating Kim Jong-un’s leadership in the successful launch of the Unha-3 carrier rocket on December 12, 2012, and an emblem of the national spirit that during 2013 came to be known as the revolutionary Masik Speed campaign in all fields.

At the time it was such a great new Moranbong Band masterpiece that it was presented also in this concert; with Moranbong Band lyrics and tempo, not with the original style more suitable for a large military orchestra and choir. The interesting detail was that it made even the military choir behave in a non-standard way, as they tried to keep up with the Moranbong Band tempo.

The October 15, 2013 concert was much better, because then Moranbong Band dominated, both in terms of allotted time, occupation of space at the stage, and in general style of the concert. The contrast between ethical socialist realist performance and poetic artistic performance can be seen in this concert with absolute clarity. This does not mean that SMC would be a bad choir; it is not. It simply is much narrower than Moranbong Band.

Thus, even though the Moranbong Band performs reverent political gospels in military uniforms, it nevertheless also constantly explicates an artistic regime that is different from the typical art regime of totalitarian North Korea. The stability of an ethical regime presupposes one-dimensionality and monotony, because the message that is repeatedly delivered must of necessity be simple, unambiguous, and unifying. Poetic art is a danger for it, because it continuously declares that there is change, imagination and continuous creating of new forms of expression. We have in music the same phenomenon as in hair style: the more the Moranbong Band does its best to conform and express loyalty to the Kim Jong-un regime, trying to create as effective political gospels as possible, the more it ends up creating something admirable and inspiring for the populace of North Korea.

Of course the political power of this kind of pure art cannot be considered very strong, or too obvious. If it were, we would not have heard about Moranbong Band as long as we did. But it is there, and it became problematic in North Korea when the atmosphere turned chilly in autumn 2013. At the moment only Kim Jong-il era type of music is being presented publicly, and, according to the KCNA, Kim Jong-un praises the musical skills of the Military Band of the Korean People’s Army, not those of Moranbong Band. Inspiring and creative forms of expression are not allowed in present North Korea. It is a rich country, and even liberal in one sense. It can afford to waste artistic talent liberally.

Wasting talent is an ominous expression regarding today’s DPRK. There is, however, an eyewitness’ assurance by Koryo Tours that Moranbong Band has not been purged or executed among the amounts of people affected by the Jang Song-thaek purges; they have been seen skiing at the Masik Pass Ski resort in mid-January. But this is the only good news from North Korea recently. This also means that besides losing the support of Jang, as New Focus International argues in its series of analyses, Kim Jong-un has lost also the ability to use the huge popularity of an apparently totally loyal musical ensemble for his support.

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