Musical exchange with North Korea

Who has not seen the video yet of the performance of five young North Korean accordionists playing A-Ha’s Take on me on Youtube? This weekend the quintet from the Kum Song (Gold Star) Music School Ensemble played at the Barents Spektakel in Norway. It’s rare to hear or see anything from the most isolated country in the world. Even after the death of the Great Leader Kim Jong-Il and the succession by his youngest son Kim Jong-Un, North Korea remains an extremely secluded communist dictatorship. What made this musical exchange possible?

by Charlie Crooijmans

The invitation of the North Korean musicians to Norway is part of multi-genre project The Promised Land by director and artist Morten Traavik. Traavik frequently goes to North Korea. He met the accordionists at the music school Kum Song. Traavik: “When I was in North Korea, I lent them a CD of Take on Me on a Monday morning. By the following Wednesday morning they had mastered the song, with no annotation and no outside help. It showed incredible skill.” (BBC News). The accordionists played at the Barents Spektakel festival that Mr Traavik organized this weekend in north-east Norway near the Russian border, itself an isolated, militarised area during the Cold War (see picture above).

As mentioned before, the performance isn’t a stand-alone. It’s part of a bigger project named Promised Land, ‘a project that brazenly aims at the opening of minds over a divide of mutual suspicion, challenging established truths and prejudices about ourselves and each other.’ Traavik wants to challenge the visitors of the festival to participate a huge human mosaic of shifting pictures. “Are we western individualists able to subordinate ourselves to the collective discipline necessary to act together as one?” (Barent Spektakel) North Korean instructors were present to help out.

Is this participation simply a propaganda tool? Speaking of propaganda: even though most of the people in North Korea do not have access to the internet, uriminzokkiri (meaning: on our own as a nation), a government-run website, has a Youtube channel containing videos to glorify the system, but also a facebook and a twitter account. It’s weird for the ones who can understand the language but, except for the South Koreans, are not able nor allowed to use social media.

However it shows the need of North Korea to communicate with the world. One can tell, for there is a Spring Friendship Art Festival annually held in Pyongyang to celebrate the birthday of Kim Il Sung. The festival brings together international and national artists. In the year of 2009 the Dutch jazz musicians: Chris Caldwell and Pete Whyman (Delta Saxophone Quartet), saxophone player Frank van der Kooij and author Henk Weltevreden were invited. Jazz and improvisation in a country where even composing of music is state controlled? Read more about this on this page.