There’s something special and extremely memorable about the DPRK’s unique style of ‘pop music.’ A hint of Soviet-disco-inspired, 1980’s space-aged synthesizer tones, nationalistic lyrical content delivered in sickly sweet harmony over impeccably produced, ear-worm pop songs. Music is a huge part of North Korean culture and it’s rare to find a Korean who’s not only more than enthusiastic to get up on the mic at karaoke, or confidently dance during national holiday celebrations – but can do so at a near professional level.
You’ll be lucky to leave even the briefest visit to North Korea without hearing the Fatherland’s distinctive melodies permeating throughout every restaurant, hotel lobby, train dining cart or karaoke bar. This includes melodies that are likely to stay with you for a very long time. After which, you’ll excitedly start ranting to your bemused mates back home about “…the serious catchiness and pop genius of “The Moranbong Band! ….no for real, listen to this!”
Whether you’re taking a stroll down a musical memory lane of a tour come and gone, or preparing for your first (or second) tour to the DPRK, here’s our personal recommendations for the top 5 essential DPRK bangers.
“Arirang” (아리랑) – Traditional
New York Philharmonic Orchestra performed the piece
Quite possibly the quintessential starter to not only North Korean music, but often referred to as an “unofficial national anthem” for the entire Korean peninsula. “Arirang” is a traditional folk song with it’s earliest known recording dating back to 1896, with over 60 different versions and 3,600 variations in existence. It’s a song that was used as a resistance anthem against Imperial Japanese rule, the namesake of Pyongyang’s legendary “Arirang Mass Games” and acted as one of few cross-cultural artistic exchanges between the U.S. and the DPRK when the New York Philharmonic Orchestra performed the piece as an encore at their only performance in Pyongyang in 2008. It’s an easy chorus to master and one of the songs you’re most likely to hear one of your friendly Korean guides masterfully belt out on the mic at karaoke.
4. “The Whistle Song” (“휘파람) – Hye-Yeong Jeon
You’ve never heard insanity until you’ve experienced an entire bus of travellers and Koreans alike whistling the hook to ‘the whistle song’ in unison while driving through the streets of Pyongyang. With a melody eerily and suspiciously similar to Abba’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” the accompanying video clip is a charmingly innocent and distinctly DPRK-kitsch illustration of a romantic courting session in a non-descript era of time.
“Please Let the Snow Fall on New Years Day” (설눈아 내려라) – The Moranbong Band
The unofficial New Year’s party anthem of the DPRK. The Moranbong Band at their absolute finest. Who can resist that absolutely mammoth instrumental intro and build-up in excess of over three minutes long! An unassumingly mellow violin section opens the track, followed by the closest thing you’ll get to “a drop” in DPRK-music, as live drums and electronic drums drive the beast forward in unison. That’s when the members of the Moranbong Band really get their time to shine. They start with starting with a synthesizer solo, a ‘shredding’ guitar solo (Boss Metal Zone guitar pedal, anyone?!), a percussion and subsequent bass-slap solo, before bringing it back to a killer sax-solo and the whole number snapping together as the Moranbong Band’s frontwomen benevolently enter the stage and launch into the vocal section. Think it can’t get anymore epic? Just wait for that key change at the 4-minute mark. You just know those Koreans in the audience are losing their minds and going mental to this certified banger of a track!
“We Will Go To Mt. Paektu” (가리라 백두산으로) – The Moranbong Band
Quite possibly the biggest “smash hit” the DPRK has seen in some years. This track is one of the most popular and consistently-played songs you’re likely to hear during your travels in the DPRK. If you’ve ever been on any of our North East tours, there’s no way you’ve got off a bus ride without an extremely involved lesson from the enthusiastic Korean guides up there in how to sing this song. Like all great DPRK pop songs, it’s got a catchier-than-catchy chorus that I’m sure has some of the great songwriters of our time thinking “goddamn, why didn’t I think of that?”. A great off-time hi-hat disco beat and a huge key change in the second last chorus with some seriously heart-melting and soulful vocals wrapping the number up. “We Will Go To Mt. Paektu” was infamously covered by Slovenian rock group Laibach (the first European band to ever perform in the DPRK) when they visited Pyongyang in 2015, but their version was deemed ‘too scary’ for the Korean people, so they opted for cover versions of numbers from ‘The Sound of Music’ instead.
If you’re joining our once-a-year, special pilgrimage tour to Mt. Paektu, learning this song before is essential.
Quite possibly the most memorable and archetypal North Korean pop song that will likely stay with you long after the tour’s over. For this writer, it was the song that made me officially fall in love with the people of the DPRK and with the sound of those frantic guitars and synthesizers and ‘pyew! pyew! pyew!’ sounds. They instantly makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. For the uninitiated traveller to North Korea for the first time, learning at least the chorus to this song, which translates as “nice to meet you,” is always a well-received surprise for your Korean guides. Not only that, the song is catchy as hell and the sentiment behind the lyrics goes a long way in providing a positive cultural exchange between the DPRK and us as their visitors.