When North Korea’s Samjiyon Band took to the stage on the first night of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, the 800-strong audience may have expected the orchestra to perform a repertoire designed to extol the virtues of life in the People’s Republic. Perhaps they would start with No Motherland Without You, a well-known standard about the country’s former leader, Kim Jong-il? Or something about the current incumbent: He’s Our Comrade Kim Jong-un being the obvious choice.
But instead of musical agitprop, the 140-member band – comprising an orchestra and a troupe of highly choreographed dancers – kicked off their 90-minute performance with the North Korean pop song Glad To Meet You – a catchy tune familiar to many in the South. From there it was a mix of traditional Korean tunes, some 1980s South Korean pop, and a bit of Western classical music thrown in for good measure.
The Samjiyon Band is a well-known fixture on North Korea’s cultural scene. It is part of the larger Mansudae Art Troupe, formed in 1969, and is reputed to be a particular favourite of Kim Jong-un.
The group is not a conventional symphony orchestra, notwithstanding that it uses many of the same forces. Familiar string, wind and brass instruments abound, but they are frequently combined with synthesizers, drum kits, saxophones and electric guitars, to produce a “classical crossover” sound that mixes classical music, arrangements of traditional Korean songs and, unsurprisingly, lashings of patriotic propaganda music.
Korean girl power?
The YouTube videos uploaded by North Korean state media, the matching and fashionable costumes, the saccharine musical arrangements, the garish colours and soft-focus camerawork, all serve to underpin a distinctively middle-of-the-road musical orientation, of the kind that James Last or Bert Kaempfert might have produced had they been secretly smuggled to North Korea in the 1970s.
The orchestra frequently supports small groups of female soloists, who display particular technical competence alongside their slightly revealing – by North Korean standards – costumes.
The stage layout of the orchestra further emphasises the display of femininity for the male gaze. Whereas symphony orchestras generally use a loosely semi-circular stage layout with the conductor at the centre, the Samjiyon Band puts the string players – comprised mainly of young woman, attractively dressed – in a line at the front, with the winds and brass – largely comprised of men – in lines behind them.
The gendering of the musical instruments is stark, even more so than in Euro-American contexts, and the stage layout deliberately forefronts the women, perhaps particularly for the one male gaze it must especially satisfy, that of Kim Jon-un. And for all the female emancipation seemingly on display, the conductor of the orchestra is, as ever, male.
It is easy to mock this obvious display of patriarchal control over collections of female bodies for musical ends, but similar cases are easily found in the West. For example, groups of female musicians were widespread in the vaudeville and dance band era.
Groups such as The Ingenues, an all-girl band based in Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s, were similarly skilled multi-instrumentalists whose curiosity value arose in part from their femininity. And like the Samjiyon Band, notwithstanding the prominence of the female performers, it was the men behind the scenes who were calling the shots, particularly their agent and manager, William Morris.
There are also more contemporary resonances. One YouTube clip of the Samjiyon Band shows several of the soloists performing on electric string instruments, thus replicating the same mix of feminine allure, classical/popular music crossover and modern music technology as today’s more familiar Bond Quartet.
There are also many differences with these comparisons – the main one being that, while groups such as The Ingenues and Bond Quartet are undoubtedly musically skilled, they are also at the service of a music industry whose primary motivation is to increase the profits for its corporate shareholders. Musical quality may be important, but only inasmuch as it can be used to underpin financial success.
The Samjiyon Band is certainly popular. The online lottery to buy tickets for its South Korean concerts was heavily oversubscribed. And their popularity with North Korea’s ruling elite is especially evident – another resonance with symphony orchestras in the West. But the group’s principal function is surely to portray the ideological glories of the North Korean state.
This seems a particular aspect of totalitarian regimes. Following the demise of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, we perhaps forget how widespread this state manipulation of both classical and folk music used to be among similar regimes in Eastern Europe. The longstanding Soviet support for the USSR State Symphony Orchestra – now officially the State Academic Symphony Orchestra “Evgeny Svetlanov” – provides one well-known example. The manipulation for political ends of Romanian folk music ensembles by the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu provides another. There are many more.
Music, sex and politics: a heady brew. But not one that is unique to North Korea, nor to the personality cult surrounding Kim Jong-un.