Radio Pyongyang

Anna Lindgren explores some music from north of the DMZ

Radio Pyongyang coverTwo years ago, I found myself browsing the homepage of Seattle-based label Sublime Frequencies. They offer some really interesting CDs and DVDs, but with my interest in most things related Korea the CD called “Radio Pyongyang: Commie Funk and Agit Pop from the Hermit Kingdom” was the one that got me most curious. I got myself a copy and finally – here’s a review!

From Sublime Frequencies:

Schmaltzy synthpop, Revolutionary rock, Cheeky child rap, and a healthy dose of hagiography for Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, this is the now NOW sound of North Korea!

A hermit kingdom with a rich folk history and an even richer tradition in over-the-top praise for the ruling House of Kim, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains a diplomatic thorn and a culture never Neverland. Boasting a heady mix of Stalin opera, Tokyo karaoke and brooding impressionism, the sound of present-day Pyongyang distills into warped agit-pop and lost-in-time commie funk.

Radio Pyongyang is an audio collage of various North Korean music and other sounds gathered from North Korean CDs, live performances, TV and the actual “Radio Pyongyang” (though now called “Voice of Korea”) radio station. All compiled by Christiaan Virant. The concept is brilliant! Although I can’t help to think that this doesn’t go very well with the “respect other countries’ copyright the way copyright is implemented in your country’s law” thing WIPO has imposed on everybody abiding WIPO rules. And I’m very curious to know how the American music industry would react to somebody selling a US audio collage…

While I really, really like this audio collage there are some things about this release that don’t make me all satisfied. I think it’s really poor that there’s hardly any information at all about what is actually on the CD. Sure, what I said above about where these audio pieces comes from was information I got from the CD folder, but apart from that there’s nothing much. I want to know the title of the songs featured in the tracks on this CD. I want to know who sings those songs. I want details on where it was recorded. I would’ve also appreciated some personal take on every track from Christiaan Virant himself, but I would’ve been satisfied with the basic stuff I mentioned first. Just about everything I know about the songs on here I learnt from downloading and listening to every song featured at this site (which is the reason why there’s some North Korean music quite high on my charts…). Another thing that kinda bothers me is the condescending names on some of the tracks. Sure, I can understand there’s some humour in it, but I find it to be more mocking than funny.

First some brief background info:

Both have released 100+ albums over the years.

Now, onto the actual contents! There are eight tracks in total and here’s a little something on them all:

1. Motherland Megamix (5:13)
The first track is like a taste of things to come – some army choir singing, some trot, some radio talk and more. It takes off with a woman and man talking pompusly about Kim Jong Il, soon followed by a piece from 당신이 없으면 조국도 없다 (No Motherland Without You). Then there are lots of random short clips preceeding a longer cut from a song I assume is performed by Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble. That one is followed by another upbeat instrumental song in the same style that actually features some italo beats! The ending is all spots from Voice of Korea by male and females in rather poor sound quality.

2. New Model Army (5:58)
The second track opens with the incredibly cheerful 통일무지개 (Reunification Rainbow). After a while it’s changed for the mellower 내 마음 즐거워라 with a solemn male voice talking to Kim Jong Il towards the end. Next comes a song with an intro that reminds me of the All In OST (probably another Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble song) followed by a woman talking about something juche-related in English while some mixed grand choir song takes off in the background with a pretty instrumental intro.

3. Numbers Game (6:38)
Something that was actually mentioned in the booklet was these number readings: “An eerie, detached female voice reading endless lists of Korean numbers” that transmitted “coded messages to foreign spies”. (Learn more about it here) Here’s some of the Korean melancholy. First the lady reading her thing without sounding too thrilled about it, then some song sung by a female that sounds really depressing. Towards the end a male talks in Korean and this continues for a while with a more dramatic soundtrack like instrumental background, sometimes mixed up with the sound of guns being fired. When this is over another song reminding me of the All In OST, this time it’s all instrumental with a trumpet taking the lead. Before the song comes to an end, there’s an almost instrumental clip with a guitar solo (!) which I’m guessing is from Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble.

4. Pride of the Nation (9:03)
Pride of the Nation opens with first a man and then a woman saying just that. To some background music the male then says in English that today is Kim Jong Il’s birthday and that the Korean people is proud to have hime as a leader. 바다의 노래 is the first song on this track and a woman actually has the lead part in this quite melodramatic piece. After this comes more army in the shape of 병사들은 대답했네. When they’re done a sad female voice is talking solemnly in Korean with some strings playing in the background. The final three and a half minutes are designated to a melancholic song with a female lead and a quite dramatic instrumental part.

5. Start ’em Young (5:34)
This track is a collage with a bunch of songs sung by kids. The first song appears to be part of a play (there’s applause at the end) with some dialogue and militaristic wit. Then some clip with some kid singing alone, traditional style and a children’s choir singing something cheerful (I can’t really tell whether there’s a change in songs or if it just takes a different turn every now and then). The last piece starts of sung in minor with some amazing a-a-a-a melody sung in the background – I love that part!

6. Arirang (5:02)
Arirang is the name of a Korean folk song with several hundred years behind it available in a plethora of versions. This collection of Arirangs takes of with one and a half minute of 밀양아리랑 (Milyang Arirang). Next comes a minute with some other upbeat trot rendition of an Arirang I don’t recognize, but they do say 통일아리랑 an awful lot (still, it doesn’t seem to be the Tongil Arirang from the lyrics I’ve found). The last half of the song consists of a male giving info on the Arirang 2002 mass gymnastics performance in English, accompanied by a an orchestra playing Arirang in Hollywood 40s/50s soundtrack style.

7. Commie Funk? (3:38)
Like the title say this is actually quite funky, at least in the beginning. The first half is some song that I’m, again, guessing is performed by Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble (just because they appear to be featured the most on here). Same goes for the middle song. The last song is 내 이름 묻지 마세요

8. Motherland Redux (6:29)
First a couple of really upbeat trot songs: 간호원의 노래 soon followed by 젊음은 급행렬차. Then a quick spot in English for Voice of Korea by a male followed by the more solemn 우리의 총창우에 평화가 있다, which is easy to tell was originally for a grand choir despite Pochonbo’s electronic sound and female lead vocals. The grand finale of the entire album is 당신이 없으면 조국도 없다 (No Motherland Without You) – very grandiose.

My favourite track would be either Numbers Game, because of the beautiful melodrama, or Motherland Redux, since it contains so many good songs. I really like all of the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble songs on here (as well as the ones I’m only suspecting is them) since they have this (South) Korean oldies style going on that I feel so comfortable listening to.

This article first appeared in October 2006 in Anna’s journal at Last.fm, and is reproduced here with Anna’s kind permission

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