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“Jazz” in the DPRK: Autumn Whispers and the forbidden fruit of Richard Clayderman

Dear LeaderI’ve just finished reading Jang Jin-sung’s memoir, Dear Leader. It’s a real page-turner that will appeal to many types of readers, including people who like a good adventure story (the passages describing Jang’s evasion of Chinese and North Korean security forces once he has fled from the North Korean capital are genuinely exciting) and of course to amateur and professional Pyongyangologists (for the eye-opening passages about in the ins and outs of North Korean politics and the fascinating details about the regime and North-South relations).

For me, what I found equally interesting were the passages of the book that dealt with Jang’s artistic background. He ended up as one of Kim Jong-il’s favourite poets, but originally he was destined to be a pianist. How he had a career change as a result of reading a Korean translation of Byron’s poetry deserves an article in its own right. Literary translators will take heart that poetry in translation can literally change someone’s life.

But back to music. Once Jang Jin-sung had crossed the border into China and had spent all his money, he needed to find a way of earning some cash to enable him to travel to Beijing (where he hoped to present himself at the South Korean embassy). To do this, he ended up getting a job as a piano tutor. And what did he do to convince his employer that he could play? He sat down at the piano and played a piece of Richard Clayderman.

Richard Clayderman

This was a bit of a shock to me, given that earlier in his life he had been an avid fan of Dvorak. And presumably also he was well-trained in all the less aesthetically pleasing but more politically acceptable music that praises the achievements of the Kim dynasty. But Richard Clayderman? A proponent of the decadent Western style of music apparently classified in North Korea under the generic heading of “jazz”?

Jang gives some clues as to how he might have come across Clayderman’s music. As a member of the United Front Department, he had access to all sorts of media from South Korea (one of which was his undoing). And in the noraebangs of Pyongyang one of the songs that did the rounds was the South Korean protest song Morning Dew. So the musical diet of the inner circle is not as restricted as one might think.

But of course, Richard Clayderman has, strangely, appeared as the central item in one other significant defector story: pianist Kim Cheol Woong, so the story goes, left North Korea so that he could play Clayderman whenever he wanted to. Back in 2001 he had to write a 10-page self-criticism for playing Clayderman’s A Comme Amour (L for Love) at a private concert, and he fled to earn himself greater artistic freedom.

In the NY Times version of Kim’s story (an essential read), there’s even a suggestion that it was he who “brought” Clayderman’s music to North Korea in the first place, given that he “discovered” it in Moscow when he was studying there in the late ‘90s. “[The police] asked me where I first heard the music, what my feelings were, what my intentions were when I brought the music back to North Korea.”

Clayderman, as the NYT mentions, is “especially popular in East Asian countries like China, Japan and South Korea,” so it’s not surprising if North Koreans find it appealing, too, when they have a chance to hear it.

But if it was Kim who brought Clayderman’s music to Pyongyang, did he bring more than one tune? Were there other sources of Clayderman’s music? In his memoir, Jang mentions that it was Clayderman’s Autumn Whispers that he played to his new employer in Shanyang. He explains that he had also once played the piece at a private concert for friends on a public holiday in Pyongyang – though he doesn’t say what year this was. Rather as Kim Cheol Woong experienced, an officious neighbour ratted on him and a security officer came to break up the party (though after a glass of wine he was happy to sit and listen). Here’s the passage:

Once, on a state holiday, I had played “Autumn Whispers” in a mini-concert I had put on for guests at our home. The security agent responsible for my residential area, who must have received a complaint from nearby, came to break up the party. In North Korea, you were not allowed to enjoy or share foreign culture unless the performance was authorised, as in the case of students studying Western music at university level for example. But even for them, this was supposed to remain a restricted privilege. Putting on a performance for laypeople, as I had been doing with my private concert, was strictly prohibited. The security agent pleaded with me, saying that he would have let us continue on any other state holiday, but this was the occasion of the General’s birthday. He really could not risk others finding out about our concert on such a day, he said. Someone in the audience offered the agent a glass of wine, and he finally relented, sitting down among the guests. After hearing one piece, he was the one who paid me the most enthusiastic compliments, saying that the sound of the piano was beautiful.

Now, “Autumn Whispers” is a troublesome title. If you hunt on iTunes for Kim Cheol Woong’s party piece, Richard Clayderman’s A Comme Amour, you are deluged with multiple hits from various compilation albums. But not so with Autumn Whispers, which does not exist as an official title. If you hunt on google, most of the links lead you to dodgy file-sharing sites. Hunting through YouTube, I did come across one odd-looking video from China with that title, but the track was actually A Comme Amour. And when (for research purposes only) I clicked on “Autumn Whispers” on one of the mp3 sharing sites I found the same thing: it’s actually A Comme Amour. Maybe the alliterative western title doesn’t translate well across borders and in Asia they came up with an alternative name. One thing’s for certain: I have limited appetite for listening to Richard Clayderman videos, so I don’t think I will resolve the question of whether the two pieces are different or actually the same track with two different titles.

But I’ll conclude with one final observation. When the New York Philharmonic came to Pyongyang, the Dvorak and Gershwin met with a puzzled reception among the audience. “How do you sing it?” was a common question.1 No such problem with Clayderman. The infuriating tune of A Comme Amour and maybe Autumn Whispers too has been going round my head ever since I started writing this post.


  1. Anecdote from John Everard, Only Beautiful PleaseLKL review here []

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