What was New about the Content of the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble’s Music
By Alek Sigley.
In the last instalment of this blog post series we talked about the innovations Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble brought to the North Korean music world in terms of style. In summary, they made heavy use of electric guitars, synthesisers, and infused North Korean music style with elements of popular music from Japan, the West, and other members of the Communist Bloc such as China and the USSR.
But it wasn’t only the style of their music that was a breath of fresh air in the North Korean music world, the content of their songs and music videos were also often markedly different to what had come before. Many of their songs, especially those composed when they started out in the mid-80s, and again towards the mid-90s when the Soviet Bloc was collapsing, were very ideological in nature. For example, “Let’s Defend Socialism”, apparently composed in response to Gorbachev’s “betrayal” of socialism around 1991, speaks of the need for the masses to unite more closely together around the leader to counter the “dark clouds gathering” (an obvious metaphor for capitalism, revisionism etc.). “Sovereign People”, which might be a cover of an older song, speaks of the world revolution and the workers and the peasants. “Chollima Gallops”, which was an original Pochonbo song (as are all the following unless explicitly stated), also speaks of the advance of Communism. “I waited” talks of waiting for a very special person dear to one’s heart, which turns out to be Kim Jong Il, who is likened to a father. “Shine, Jong Il Peak”, “I Want to See You” and “We Cannot Live Away from Your Embrace” also extol Kim Jong Il. “Are We Living Like We did Back Then?” reflects memories of the Korean War, referring to the Korean People’s Army going South and fighting at the Rakdong River near Pusan.
However, many of their songs were relatively light in ideological content. “Don’t Ask My Name”, “Bonfire”, and “The Whistle” are basically love songs for example. They still each contain an obligatory nod to politics in their lyrics. In “Bonfire” for example, a starry-eyed lover sings of finding their (these songs are sung by female singers but the persona isn’t really gender specific) partner in life, who in one line near the end are referred to as someone they are united with “under the calling of the Party”. In “Don’t Ask My Name”, which is also a love song, the dynamic is a little bit different. The narrative voice talks of focusing on work, and how they have made considerable achievement despite being young. They tell the person pursuing them that they have no right to ask their name—the suitor must understand that they are devoted to “giving all their loyalty to the party” which raised them.
That being said, such love songs are relatively light in ideological content compared to the paeans to the leaders, marching songs, or odes to socialist revolution that came before. Indeed, themes of romantic love between individuals were for a time considered “bourgeois” under Kim Il Sung’s cultural policy. As touched upon in the last instalment, Kim Jong Il led a movement to encourage the creation of more accessible cultural products to help re-engage the public. By the late 80s people had perhaps become tired of the standard fare. Also, as North Korea’s rate of urbanisation increased, people began to develop more sophisticated tastes.
Within this context also happened a movement in literature called the “Hidden Heroes Movement” (숨은 영웅 운동). Formerly stories focused on romantic, fictionalised, rhapsodic biographies of Kim Il Sung or his fellow guerrilla fighters (the people who fought alongside him against the Japanese in Manchuria during the 20s, 30s, and 40s). With “Hidden Heroes” stories began to move the focus back towards everyday protagonists, workers, farmers—ordinary people.
Indeed, a directive from Kim Jong Il was given to musicians in the early 90s, emphasising the need for “Accessible songs that anyone can hum and sing along to, and that embody a philosophy of life and rich emotion”, around the time of the 1992 “Second Revolution in the Arts”.
Thus, in summary, Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble’s impact on North Korean music was that they led a trend away from what was essentially a more austere, unabashedly ideological Stalinist cultural paradigm, towards a new one that was more tolerant of ordinary, everyday life themes, including significantly love and romance. This was part of a top-down campaign initiated by Kim Jong Il to create culture that could reach out to and inspire a new generation. And it seems to have worked. The Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble’s songs can still be heard on the lips of North Koreans today. Karaoke rooms also apparently first appeared around the time that Pochonbo did. And their songs can still often be heard in them today. This also speaks to the fact that North Korean culture isn’t static. Just like in any other country, it changes in response to the wider historical context.
In the next parts of this series, we will look at some interesting trivia about the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble, and analyse some of their songs and music videos.
If you haven’t yet, read Part 1 in this series on Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble.
Interested in North Korean music? Check out our new Music and Performance Tour of North Korea!