Avant-garde industrial band, which describe themselves as “a music and cross-media group“, known for playing eclectic cover versions of famous western songs. Could you imagine such band on the scene of North Korea, the most secretive country of the world? No kidding, Laibach became the first-ever Western rock group to perform in North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang.

The visit was back in August 2015, as a part of the celebrations of the 70th Liberation Day, the anniversary of Korea’s independence from Japanese imperialism. It’s not a surprise that this Day is very important for Pyongyang citizens and for North Korea as a whole. However, there was no military parade for the 70th Anniversary of Freedom, as anyone could expect it, only people dancing and celebrating everywhere on the streets and parks of Pyongyang. Such an important day, and this day the avant-garde industrial group Laibach became the first-ever Western rock band to perform in front of thousands of people of all ages in North Korea’s capital. The band performed a short setlist at the Ponghwa Theatre and also played an acoustic set at the Kum Song music school.

What’s On The Setlist

Here should be a quick flashback to the band’s roots, which helps to imagine the whole bizzarity of the tour: Laibach is one of the most influence industrial rock bands, which formed in 1980 in the ex-communist country Yugoslavia, which is Slovenia now. They were an inspiration for Rammstein and other provocative industrial bands, always with their recognisable military style. The next question should be asked then: what could have been possible to be on Laibach’s setlist in Pyongyang?

The setlist back in 2015 was mostly composed of songs from The Sound of Music, including Edelweiss, Do-Re-Mi and The Hills Are Alive. It is not the first time they have performed the songs, but there were deliberate reasons to sing them in Pyongyang. One of the reasons is the film’s popularity in the country, It is very well-known in North Korea. Moreover, the musical, shoot in 1965, is one of the few western films people are allowed to watch in the communist state. Korean people watch the film to learn English in university, so they know those songs for sure.

However, setting up the list of songs haven’t been such an easy work. Besides songs from the musical, Laibach played other covers and some band originals. Furthermore, they have chosen three North Korean songs to play, but only one of them have been approved. The censorship has found the lyrics too different from originals. The fact is that Korean people deeply fond of their national songs, so playing their covers could made tricky issues of friendly intentions.

Nevertheless, the decision to play a traditional Korean folk song went down very well with the audience in Pyongyang. They played the Arirang, well-loved Korean folk genre of songs, which have been placed on Unesco’s list of “intangible cultural heritage”. Unesco says the songs “speak about leaving and reunion, sorrow, joy and happiness” and “function as an important symbol of unity”.

Visual Part of The Show

The group’s video for a song “We Are Millions and Millions Are One” seems symbolic for the communist country in the ideas of unity. Along with national treasures of North Korea Laibach played such popular western songs as The Final Countdown by Europe and Across the Universe by The Beatles. Nevertheless, every song was accompanied by images styled in North Korean propaganda posters projected on to a screen, with translations in Korean. Even if some part of them have been banned, most of videos have seen the show. Finishing with the visual part, yet the most important here is music.

The huge work have been made along the tour by Morten Traavic. Morten is Norwegian artist and filmmaker and the person who made this tour possible. He had already worked with Laibach for one of their music videos, and driven by curiosity he has worked a lot in cultural exchange projects between Europe and the North Korea. Since his first visit in 2008, Morten has been back more than 15 times. Blaming has not bypassed Travic and he has been criticised for artistic collaborations with the overtly authoritarian country too.

Audience Reaction

Morten Traavic said: “It’s very easy to have your prejudices confirmed because on the surface, everything which we see – the military parades and the bizarre three-quarters religious leader cult – all of this is true, it’s happening. So I’m not saying that our conception of North Korea is built on a lie, because it isn’t – but it’s very distorted, and it’s very one-sided. That is one of the first things you discover when you go there.” We know so little about the country, then what the reaction should we expect of Western show in North Korea?

The question if Laibach’s setlist went down or not is controversial. The images from the show may not seem that people enjoyed their evening. Simon Cockerell, general manager of the Beijing-based North Korean travel agent Koryo Tours said: “They seemed to really enjoy it.” People clapped after every song, and “It wasn’t an audience pulling faces of distrust or confusion.’

We can imagine very well that most of the people there really had no idea what to expect. It also has been told that older people didn’t like much the loudness of music. But anyone would agree that such reaction is pretty typical for all the old and tired people no matter the country. Whether or not, official state news agency said, that “performers showed well the artistic skill of the band through peculiar singing, rich voice and skilled rendition.”

 

We Are the One

Morten believes it was natural to see Laibach and North Korea coming up together. One of the ideas arguing in the film, which Morten have been shooting along the tour, that the band and the country are “both misunderstood”. Military inspiration unites their images when music unites all the people. Thanks to Morten we can watch the movie Liberation Day and see the real “inhabitants of this communist Utopia” and “the collective “Truman show” with our own eyes.

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