By Alek Sigley.
In the past two instalments of this series we talked about the significance of the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble first in terms of the stylistic innovations, and secondly in terms of the thematic innovations they brought to the North Korean music world.
In this instalment we’ll look at some interesting bits of trivia relating to the group that are not very well known outside of North Korea.
Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble on International Tour in Japan
Given North Korea’s reputation for being isolated, the fact that the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble went on an international tour in Japan in 1991 may surprise some out there. Not a whole lot is known about this performance, but live videos are available on Youtube, and clips from the performances feature in the music video for “Nice to Meet You” (반갑습니다). A reference to it is also made in this more recent Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble performance, where at the beginning the screen features the line “Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble– Who Shook Japan” (일본땅을 뒤흔든 보천보전자악단).
The performances were likely organised and aimed mainly at ethnic Koreans or Zainichi Koreans residing in Japan, who today number over 800,000 and are Japan’s largest ethnic minority. Many of these Zainichi Koreans also attended schools run by DPRK-affiliated organisation Chongryon, or The General Association of Korean Residents in Japan. However, I have heard that at the time many a non-ethnic Korean Japanese person also ended up becoming a fan through this tour in 1991. After this the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble reportedly were swarmed with letters of adoration. Indeed, we can see from the live video of the concert that the audience was really getting into it, clapping and dancing along to upbeat tunes like “Nice to Meet You” and shedding tears to an ethereal, melancholic rendition of “Arirang”.
Not Just Japan: Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble almost Played in Seoul too
In the period that the Sunshine Policy, which led to a general warming in ties between North and South Korea, was in effect between 1998-2008, quite a few cultural exchange projects took place between the North and South. For example, the Pyongyang Circus performed in Seoul in 2000, and a concert with several big name South Korean popular musicians was held in Pyongyang in 2003.
Around this time in 2002, future South Korean president (and daughter of former leader Park Chung-hee) Park Geun-hye travelled to North Korea as director of the Europe-Korea Foundation, philanthropic arm of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in Korea. There she met Kim Jong Il. Together, they agreed to arrange a Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble concert in Seoul. However, after band member Jon Hye Yong became pregnant the concert was postponed. It ended up being postponed several more times and eventually nothing became of the plans.
However, even if this Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble concert had happened, it wouldn’t have been the first time North Korean musicians performed in South Korea. In 2000, the Mangyongdae Schoolchildren’s Palace Troupe (whose performances you can view on our tours) performed in Seoul.
Meet Ri Jong O, the Composer Behind Pochonbo’s Greatest Hits
While Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble had several composers working to write songs for it, most of their biggest hits were penned by one of these composers in particular, who has made quite a name for himself in and outside the DPRK. This is Ri Jong O (리종오). Ri Jong O was born in 1943, and passed away just last year. He graduated from the music school that became Kim Won Gyun Conservatory (which you can visit on our Music, Theatre and Performance Tour, or on a private tour, tourists can now take music lessons in both Korean and Western instruments there too), now the DPRK’s top music university, in 1960.
From 1979 he began writing songs for the Korean People’s Army Merited Choir, and the Mansudae Art Troupe, before beginning to write for Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble in the late 80s. For the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble he composed “Nice to Meet You”, “The Whistle”, “Women are Flowers” (he may not have been a feminist), Nation and Destiny film theme, “My Country is the Best”, and eponymous theme from the romantic comedy film “City Girl Comes to get Married”—all very well-known songs in the contemporary DPRK today still. He also composed other songs for the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble such as “I Waited”, “Let’s Meet Again”, “Blessings to You”, and “I Still Can’t Yet Say”.
He has also composed “Long Long Live Generalissimo Kim Il Sung”, “Without You there is No Fatherland” (a paean to Kim Jong Il), and “Footsteps” (a paean to Kim Jong Un). He is known to have written about 140 songs in total. He has been given a series of the DPRK’s highest artistic titles and awards, from the “People’s Artist” title in 1989, to the Kim Il Sung Prize in 1991, to the “Labour Hero” title in 1992 and the “Order of Kim Il Sung” in 1994.
In the next part of this series, we will analyse some of the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble’s songs and music videos.
Interested in North Korean music? Check out our new Music and Performance Tour of North Korea!