North Korea’s ideology is built on song and dance

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

“So dear to all our hearts is our General’s glorious name; our own beloved Kim Il Sung of undying fame,” go the lyrics to considered one of North Korea’s best-known songs, “Song of General Kim Il Sung,” which honors the nation’s founding ruler and everlasting president.

“Tell blizzards that rage in the wild Manchurian plains,” it continues. “Tell, you nights in forests deep where the silence reigns.”

It’s a triumphant marching song that ethnomusicologist Keith Howard has heard numerous occasions since he first visited North Korea in 1992. Universally identified throughout the nation, it is performed on information broadcasts and sung by schoolchildren. Howard even noticed the lyrics etched onto rocks alongside mountain paths to be able to encourage walkers.

“It really sets out who Kim Il Sung is, and celebrates him as the person who fought the Japanese single-handedly and then got rid of them — which is the authorized picture of what happened,” mentioned Howard, a professor at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, in a telephone interview.

Performers at a live performance marking North Korea’s 70th birthday. Credit: Ed Jones/AFP through Getty Images

“It’s much more important than the national anthem, because the national anthem is essentially what you play to foreigners, whereas this is what you sing in (North) Korea.”

Despite dedicating years of analysis to the hermit kingdom’s musical traditions, Howard admitted that his work entails listening to an extreme variety of “mind-numbing” songs that “you probably wouldn’t want to listen to for more than five minutes.” But his new guide “Songs for ‘Great Leaders‘” is not merely a survey of music, dances and devices — it is an exploration of how they replicate and reinforce the state’s ideology.

If, as Howard’s guide suggests, North Korea “behaves as if its whole territory is a theater,” then it is one alive with song and dance. And given nation’s strict management over creativity, they’re nearly completely used as devices of propaganda — from the nation’s “mass games,” by which hundreds of individuals carry out in good unison, to highschool lecture rooms, the place youngsters are taught a repertoire of accredited songs from an early age.

Music’s evolving function

It’s a narrative the British professor traces again to the 1930s, when Korea was nonetheless underneath Japanese rule. As properly as introducing new kinds of music, Japan dominated East Asia’s recording business, and Korea’s skilled musicians would usually must journey to studios in Tokyo and Kyoto to be able to file. It was additionally on this period that communist guerrillas, who resisted colonial rule, started adapting — and usually immediately copying — songs from the area’s different revolutionary teams.

Students participate in a mass dance performance in 2019 marking what would have been Kim Il Sung's 107th birthday.

Students take part in a mass dance efficiency in 2019 marking what would have been Kim Il Sung’s 107th birthday. Credit: Ed Jones/AFP through Getty Images

“North Korea would deny this, and say the revolutionary songs were totally independent and written by people close to Kim Il Sung,” mentioned Howard. “But they all, to us, sound exactly the same as the equivalent ones from China or the Soviet Union.”

By the time Kim Il Sung — grandfather of present chief, Kim Jong Un — seized energy in 1948 following the division of Korea, he set about reshaping its arts traditions. In a 1955 speech, he mentioned that his nation had “failed to take measures for a systematic study of our country’s history and national culture,” and known as for “every effort (to) be made to unearth our national legacies and carry them forward.”

Instead of making new state songs from scratch, Kim despatched musicologists out to the countryside to doc the people music and poems already identified to many individuals. Despite millennia of shared tradition on the Korean peninsula, Kim prioritized songs that originated from the north. He then ordered them to be recast utilizing socialist themes, their lyrics rewritten to serve political ends.

By the late 1960s, the chief’s then-young son Kim Jong Il had “taken the reigns of artistic production,” Howard defined. This interval noticed the humanities play an more and more vital function within the development of nationwide id, with new operas, cantatas and stage productions recounting and glorifying the nation’s previous.

A girl plays the piano at a school for orphans on the outskirts of Pyongyang.

A lady performs the piano at a faculty for orphans on the outskirts of Pyongyang. Credit: Ed Jones/AFP through Getty Images

Chief amongst them are the so-called Five Great Revolutionary Operas, which supply revisionist takes on North Korea’s historical past, alongside communist messages and celebrations of the nation’s leaders.

The first of them, 1971’s “The Sea of Blood,” tells the story of a peasant who overcomes Japanese brutality earlier than becoming a member of the guerrilla battle in opposition to her oppressors. “The Flower Girl,” in the meantime, charts the struggles of a household indebted to a ruthless landowner, in a searing critique of pre-communist feudalism.

These productions “enshrine everything you’re supposed to know” in regards to the nation’s foundations, Howard mentioned. “They’re fairly dark in terms of lighting and (storylines) — until the very end. Then, in the last 10 minutes, there’s a section where everything becomes light, and it’s the light of Kim Il Sung who has triumphed and rebuilt Korea.”

Kim Jong Il, who dominated North Korea after his father’s loss of life in 1994, is additionally chargeable for increasing the nation’s mass spectacles — extremely choreographed performances involving tens of hundreds of singers, dancers and gymnasts. Usually carried out on the world’s largest stadium, Pyongyang’s May Day Stadium, the exhibits inform North Korea’s story in a powerful show of shade and coordination.

Participants perform in a Mass Games artistic and gymnastic display at the May Day Stadium in Pyongyang.

Participants carry out in a Mass Games inventive and gymnastic show on the May Day Stadium in Pyongyang. Credit: Ed Jones/AFP through Getty Images

But, past the plain, the exhibits promote collectivism in unseen methods, defined Howard, who mentioned the choreography is usually “deliberately complicated.”

“It could be a lot simpler,” he mentioned. “(But the routines) are made complicated to the extent that if one person goes wrong, the whole team — the whole setup — will collapse.”

As Kim Jong Il himself told the producers of mass performances in 1987, “The schoolchildren, conscious that a single slip in their action may spoil their mass gymnastic performance, make every effort to subordinate all their thoughts and actions to the collective.”

Musical monopoly

The concept that an authoritarian regime may use music and dance as instruments is hardly a novel one.

After all, nearly each society institutionalizes songs that evoke shared values, nationwide myths and historic occasions, from “The Star-Spangled Banner” to “London Bridge is Falling Down.”

But the monopoly North Korea exerts over artistic expression makes the state’s songs — and thus their accredited messages — uniquely pervasive.

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“There’s no evidence that people are creating any of their own music outside of what’s centrally allowed,” Howard mentioned. “The only recording company is state-owned, and there are no performances that would be permitted outside what’s authorized.

“You do not even have the correct to create new phrases (to current songs), and in case you did, you’d must be extremely cautious, as a result of in the event that they have been deemed to be inappropriate you would be in bother.”

The government’s approach to music appears to have evolved in recent years. North Korea’s first contemporary girl group, Moranbong Band, debuted in 2012, the year after present-day leader Kim Jong Un became supreme leader. Perhaps influenced by the illicit arrival of pop culture from South Korea (smuggled in on DVDs or, more recently, flash drives), the band offers something comparatively contemporary.

The all-female Moranbong Band pictured at a performance in Pyongyang in 2016.

The all-female Moranbong Band pictured at a efficiency in Pyongyang in 2016. Credit: Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

Its members wear makeup and are dressed “barely provocatively,” as Howard put it. They are also pictured using instruments made by brands like Yamaha and Roland, whereas pop predecessors like Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble (which, in the 1980s, became the country’s first group to use electric guitars and synthesizers) had logos from capitalist countries hidden or removed.

Nonetheless, the lyrical content remains much the same. Moranbong Band may look like the North’s answer to K-pop, but its songs still center on praising the country’s leadership and military achievements.

Such strict controls mean that, as a rule, North Korean music makes for repetitive listening, Howard said. The state-sanctioned songs — even to someone with a deep understanding of their context, arrangements and instrumentation — can end up sounding much alike.

Army choirs and troupes perform at some of North Korea's biggest state events.

Army choirs and troupes carry out at a few of North Korea’s largest state occasions. Credit: Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

Yet, variety is in the ear of the beholder. It’s a point the ethnomusicologist demonstrated with an anecdote from a trip to North Korea in which he complained to his government minder about the “boring” music played each day in their car.

“The information mentioned to me, ‘Ooh I’ll convey you one thing utterly completely different tomorrow,” Howard recalled. “The subsequent day he arrived with two cassettes of kids’s songs. But it was simply youngsters singing the grownup songs — precisely the identical, however executed by youngsters.

“We then had a fascinating discussion where he tried to persuade me they were totally different.”

Songs for ‘Great Leaders’: Ideology and Creativity in North Korean Music and Dance,” printed by Oxford University Press, is obtainable now.

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