By Alek Sigley
If you’ve ever been curious about North Korean music, you may have ended up on Youtube listening to the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble’s songs. From its inception in 1985 and well into the 21st century, the band remained the biggest, most well-known, popular and influential group in the North Korean music world. Although since 2012 they have been superseded by the Moranbong Band as North Korea’s premiere pop act, the Ensemble’s songs are still very popular in North Korea and continue to be a karaoke staple North and even South of the DMZ.
Not a whole lot is known about the group in general, and even less of that information is available in English. Here I’ve tried to fill in that knowledge gap with some interesting facts and context about the group that I’ve gathered mostly from Korean-language sources.
For those of you who’ve never listened to Pochonbo, I’ve embedded below a video of what is arguably their most famous song, “Nice to Meet You” (반갑습니다). People who’ve come on our tours will be familiar with this one, they love singing it to welcome their foreign guests!
The Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble’s Formation
Much in the way that the Moranbong Band was reportedly founded under Kim Jong Un’s personal auspices, the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble was founded under the guidance of Kim Jong Il, who led a series of initiatives in not just music, but also film, theatre and other artistic media. He is well known for his patronage of film but he saw music as equally important. He’s even reportedly listed the “Three great idiots of 21st century” as: “smokers, the computer illiterate and people who don’t understand music”.
Indeed, much like other socialist governments, the North Korean leadership saw art and culture primarily as a means to educate the masses in the party line– in North Korean official discourse this is related to the concept of the “ideology-ness” 사상성/思想性, or the appropriate ideological content of a cultural product. Cultural production was and still is controlled by the state, and cultural policy is decided from the top down.
That being said, popular accessibility also has to be emphasised. If novels, films, and music contained nothing but long monologues on why potato production needs to be encouraged (an actual propaganda campaign from the 90s) etc., then people might become bored and tired and the party would thus have problems getting across its all-important political message to the people. Thus the North Korean official discourse also speaks of the importance of popular accessibility or mass appeal, which is related to discussions of the notion of “people-ness” 인민성/人民性 in North Korean cultural policy.
Kim Jong Il had a very keen understanding of this. He himself was a connoisseur of the arts and began his political career helping his father from within the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Korean Worker’s Party, where he paved the way for a series of innovations to North Korean cultural policy (and such changes may not have been possible unless initiated from the top either). The economic context should perhaps also be considered—North Korea’s economy, which experienced miraculous growth in the 50s, was beginning to slow, and the old-style mass mobilisation techniques used to encourage political loyalty and economic productivity from the Chollima Movement were beginning to become less effective.
The Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble’s Stylistic Innovations
Thus, Kim Jong Il perceived the need to give the people more varied entertainment choices that are more in step with world trends, which would in turn help continue to inspire them to follow the party on the path towards revolution (the Moranbong Band can be seen in a similar context too). The Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble was formed in this context in 1985, out of the electronic division of the Mansudae Art Troupe, from which the Wangjaesan Light Music Band also emerged. Pochonbo was the first major group in North Korean to use electric guitars and synthesisers as well as saxophones—which were previously seen as a symbol of bourgeois and decadent jazz music.
Stylistically their music appears to bear the influence of Japanese enka music (called “trot” in Korea where it was introduced during the Japanese colonial period), and some of the popular music that was coming out of the Soviet Union and China around that time, and perhaps even a few traces of Japanese and Western pop music too. A subset of their songs in particular known as “saenghwal kayo” (생활가요; 生活歌謠), meaning “everyday life songs”, featured faster tempos and more of a Western pop influence, and became very popular.
However that’s not to say that there was nothing North Korean or Korean about them either. The way the group members came out and sang one by one is a very North Korean hallmark. The singers also sing in a high pitch and have a clear singing voice. In addition to this, the group performed covers of Korean folk songs and (the female performers) often wore Korean traditional dress on stage (the chosonot 조선옷, known as hanbok 한복 in the South).
Korean folk music was revived and promoted during the 90s when it became useful for the government to promote nationalism (as opposed to socialist internationalism—although this never stopped being a part of North Korean ideology) as the Soviet Bloc collapsed. It also gave the people more variety in their cultural consumption, and spoke to them in a very profound way by evoking their time-honoured traditions and long history. The Korean folk song Arirang became popular again around this time, with Pochonbo singing several different regional versions (and modern versions such as the “Prosperity Arirang” 강성부흥 아리랑 and “Unification Arirang” 통일 아리랑 appearing later).
That’s it for Part 1 in this series. In the next part we’ll discuss the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble’s innovations in terms of the content of their music.
Interested in North Korean music? Check out our new Music and Performance Tour of North Korea!