In pictures: North Korea’s first ever rock concert

Laibach perform on 19th August in Pyongyang, North Korea, marking the first ever rock concert to be held in the country. Photo: Dita Alangkara/AP/Press Association Images

Last August, Slovenian avant-garde neoclassical dark wave outfit Laibach became the first band to give a rock concert in North Korea. For issue #20 of Delayed Gratification, we spoke to band member Ivo Saliger and Daniel Miller, the founder of the band’s record label Mute who joined as a photographer. Here are some photos taken during Laibach’s single stop tour, with highlights from the feature we published in our latest issue.

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Laibach pose in a square in Pyongyang. Photo: Daniel Miller

Laibach’s North Korean debut was the result of two years of negotiations between the DPRK’s cultural exchange committee and the band’s musical director Morten Traavik. In the end it was the 70th anniversary of the Korean peninsula’s liberation from Japanese colonisation that brought the project to fruition. The DPRK wanted to mark the event – and what could commemorate throwing off the yoke of Japanese occupation better than two hours of Slovenian avant-garde neoclassical dark wave? The decision was made and Laibach and its 26-strong crew were on their way.

It took Laibach and its entourage the best part of 24 hours to reach North Korea and there was little time to recover from the journey. The band was whisked straight from the airport to technical rehearsals and from there to an official dinner. “We had to do several toasts to ourselves and to our hosts,” says Saliger. “Finally we ended up in a hotel bar, where we had to continue with toasting until the early hours.” “The Koreans are quite into drinking, and so are the Slovenians,” observes Daniel Miller. “So there was quite a lot of bonding there.”

A choir from the Kum Song music school practises to accompany Laibach. Photo: Daniel Miller

A choir from the Kum Song music school practises to accompany Laibach. Photo: Daniel Miller

“There were two days of rehearsals in Pyongyang, and there was quite a lot of editing and censorship,” says Miller. “There are two options with North Korea – you either embrace the process and make the most of it, or you don’t go. Personally, I think not to have gone because of censorship would have been an extremely bad decision. If Laibach get 10 percent of their show across that’s still 100 percent more than anyone in the audience could have imagined.” Still, some of the censor’s suggestions left the band on the back foot. “There was a point during rehearsals when Milan [Fras], the lead male vocalist, began to sing,” says Miller. “The leader of the censorship committee raised his hand and the band stopped.”

The official politely asked if it would be possible if Milan could “not do that during the concert.”

“What?” asked the band.

“Sing,” he replied. “It might scare people.”

The audience at Laibach’s concert soak up the spectacle. Photo: Dita Alangkara/AP/Press Association Images

The audience at Laibach’s concert soak up the spectacle. Photo: Dita Alangkara/AP/Press Association Images

Whether the audience actually enjoyed the show is difficult to assess. As the final note rung out around the Ponghwa Theatre the band was met with no more than a gentle ripple of applause. “They reacted politely,” remembers band member Ivo Saliger. “But it was probably the same way they would applaud at the opera.”

“At the end of the show they did give us a standing ovation, but maybe they were just happy that it was over,” says Saliger, laughing. “The Syrian ambassador certainly didn’t like the show much. He said that it was ‘too loud – almost like torture’.” An elderly Korean member of the audience gave them their best review. “I didn’t know that such music existed in the world,” he said. “Now I know.”

This is an excerpt from ‘Pyongyang Rocks’, which was published in issue #20 of Delayed Gratification. You can buy the issue here. Or take out an annual subscription today and we’ll send you the issue for free. Just use the promotion code ‘SOCIAL20’ to claim your free issue. 

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