Moranbong band, 2013
|Past members||Kim Hyang-sun (김향순)|
Kang Pyong-hui (강평희)
Ri Sol-lan (리설란)
Ri Yun-hui (리윤희)
Seon-u Hyang-hui (선우향희)
|Revised Romanization||Moranbong akdan|
The Moranbong Band (Korean: 모란봉악단; RR: Moranbong Akdan, lit. "Tree Peony Peak Band"), also known as the Moran Hill Orchestra, is an all-female music group in North Korea whose original members were selected by the country's supreme leader Kim Jong-un. Performing interpretive styles of pop, rock, and fusion, they are the first all-female band from the DPRK, and made their world debut on July 6, 2012. Their varied musical style has been described as symphonic because it is "putting together different kinds of sounds, and ending in a harmonious, pleasing result."
The need for a modern pop band in North Korea has been attributed to the regime's necessity to please important social strata: Pyongyang elites, military and technical professionals, women,:167 and in particular, young people.:165 The existence of the band suggests the acceptability of fashion items such as mini-skirts and high heels for women,:167 and their short hairstyles have become popular among middle-class Pyongyang girls. The band quickly became a cultural symbol of limited openness to Western influences to the young of North Korea.:167 In addition to the targeted elite groups, the band's exposure has concerned virtually the whole population with TV sets.
The founding of the new, more modern band can be seen as an acknowledgement that several other light-music bands, such as the Wangjaesan Light Music Band and Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble, have gone out of fashion. Features of the Moranbong Band suggest that it's a response to the success of South Korean hallyu, Korean Wave, of contemporary pop music. Sherri L. Ter Molen goes on to say that the band's debut roughly coinciding with the release of Korean Wave star Psy's "Gangnam Style" was not incidental. With the advent of the Moranbong Band, groups created by Kim Jong-un's father Kim Jong-il have diminished in importance. The Unhasu Orchestra has disappeared and the Sea of Blood Opera Company demoted.
According to KCNA, "Kim Jong Un organized the Moranbong band as required by the new century, prompted by a grandiose plan to bring about a dramatic turn in the field of literature and arts this year in which a new century of Juche Korea begins".
The band was set up to perform regular televised concerts as entertainment.:166
The band debuted on July 6, 2012. Their first performance featured Western popular culture imagery and music, including Disney characters Mickey and Minnie Mouse and Snow White, Winnie the Pooh, the "Theme from Rocky" and Frank Sinatra's "My Way". Other Western music included "Czardas", "Zigeunerweisen", "La Reine de Saba", "Menuet", "Penelope", and "Serenade de l’Étoile", as well as "The Duel", described as "a popular song"; '"Victory", introduced as "a rap song"; and "Dallas": "a country music selection." Twelve cartoon film scores were also presented in a piece called "The Collection of World Fairy Tale Songs". Kim Jong-un's wife Ri Sol-ju, made her first public appearance in the audience. These two novel policies — openly celebrating Western popular culture and publicly acknowledging the leader's spouse, along with considerable coverage of the event in the West — is thought to have served Kim's agenda. The event allowed Kim to flaunt openness while not making any substantial promises about changes in policy.:166 As the debut was also officially set up to inspire textile workers, it can be seen as carrying a message of improvement of living-standards.:167 As South Korean media raised questions about a fundamental opening up of North Korea's culture being foreshadowed by the concert, North Korea responded that "there would be no such policy shift as expected by enemy countries", and that the performance followed Kim Jong-il's maxim to "plant feet in our land, and lift eyes to see the world."
Since its debut, the band's extremely Western look has been toned down considerably. The band's second appearance, at a Korean War commemoration, acted as a reminder that the exceptional repertoire of the debut was not a complete shift in North Korean cultural policy. In August 2013, the band disappeared from public in midst of rumors of a purge of classical musicians in Pyongyang. When the band returned after four months, they performed alongside the much more conservative State Merited Orchestra and Chorus.:166 Differences in style are highlighted by the joint performance of Moranbong Band's arrangement of "Without a Break", originally a military march, the rhythm of which the State Merited Orchestra and Chorus had trouble maintaining. During the 2013 New Years concert, at the end of the song "Without a Break" videos are shown behind the band of nuclear missiles being launched and destroying the United States of America and the crowd stands and cheers during the launch and subsequent destruction of the U.S. In the first of the two joint concerts, the State Merited Orchestra and Chorus dominated. However, by the second concert the Moranbong Band was again the more prominent one.
The band just several months old raised its curtain for its significant demonstration performance proclaiming its birth before the world." The repertoire of the performance divided into two parts included colorful numbers such as light music "Arirang", female vocal quintet "Let's Learn", light music "Yeppuni", light music and song "Victors", female trio "Silk Weaving Girl of Nyongbyon", string quartet "We Can't Live without his Care", foreign light music "Chardash", "Victory", "Song of Gypsy", female sextet "Fluttering Red Flag" and light music and song "Suite of World Fable Songs." The July 7, 2012 audience was composed of Choe Ryong-hae, Jang Song-thaek, Kim Ki-nam, Hyon Chol-hae, Kim Yang-gon, Kim Yong-il, Kim Phyong-hae, Choe Pu-il, Kim Myong-guk, Kim Yong-chol, Jo Kyong-chol and "officials, creators, artists, writers and journalists of literary and art, media and art educational institutions".
On April 27 or 28, 2015, the Moranbong Band performed for the first time in nine months. The concert marked the last public appearance of Minister of People's Armed Forces Hyon Yong-chol before his apparent purge later that month. Band leader Sonu Hyang-hui was also absent from the band's ranks despite the performance featuring highly technical instrumental pieces. The songs performed were noticeably non-political and influenced by Western popular music leading Adam Catchart to conclude that the performance was "uncomfortably approximate to the nightclub experience". However, the band also sported a new song directly in praise of Kim Jong-un: "We Will Go to Baekdusan" (Korean: 가리라 백두산으로).
From July 15 until September 7, 2015, the band were not seen in public or live on television sparking rumours that they had disbanded or 'disappeared' and been replaced by the Chongbong Band. However, on September 7, the band performed in front of a state delegation from Cuba together with the State Merited Chorus in Pyongyang, including the popular North Korean song "Pyongyang Is Best" and "Guantanamera" for their Cuban audience, quashing these rumours.
In December 2015, Kim Jong-un sent the band to perform in a series of shows in Beijing to improve relations between China and North Korea; these would have been the band's first performances outside of North Korea. However, the band left Beijing on a scheduled flight to Pyongyang only a few hours before their performance was scheduled. China's Xinhua news agency stated that all of the band's performances had been cancelled due to "communication issues at the working level." The Korea Herald reported that North Korea had cancelled the tour because China had requested that North Korea's missiles should not be shown during performances.
The Moranbong Band has brought forth many propaganda songs in praise of Kim Jong-un, many of which feature Songun, or military-first, themed lyrics,:166 and music videos. In one video they show a nuclear missile being launched and exploding over and destroying the United States. Another song promotes attacking South Korea. The party organ Rodong Sinmun printed full notation of such songs on its first page as a signal for service people of the Korean People's Army to memorize the tunes and lyrics. The drastic changes of key in the musical composition of the songs has been interpreted to carry a message "that rapid change is coming, and things may end very differently than where they began".:167
Unlike any other North Korean orchestra, the Moranbong Band consists of only females. In contrast to South Korean girl bands, the members of the Moranbong Band play their own instruments. Due to North Korean musical education aspiring for precision and accuracy, their playing abilities are described as "very accomplished and tight". The large number of members has enabled them to play a variety of different styles of music as well as some technically challenging arrangements. Changes in the lineup have not changed the musical style of the band, suggesting that members are swapped because of their technical ability rather than artistic input. Members of the band hold high ranks in the military and, with the exception of the debut, have appeared in public in uniforms and with insignia. Thus the band is in fact a "military orchestra" instead of a "pop band". After the debut, the extravagance of the clothes and jewelry was toned down, hairstyles shortened, and the band members reportedly were placed on a diet to make them appear uniform in size.
- Son-u Hyang-hui (선우향희) – First Violin and Band Leader (previously a violinist in the Samjiyeon Band in the Mansudae Art Troupe)
- Hong Su-kyong (홍수경) – Second Violin
- Cha Yong-mi (차영미) Third Violin
- Yu Un-jong (유은정) – Cello
- Ri Hui-kyong (리희경) – Synthesizer
- Kim Yong-mi (김영미) – Synthesizer
- Choe Jong-im (최정임) – Saxophone
- Kim Jong-mi (김정미) – Piano
- Han Sun-jong (한순정) – Drums
- Kang Ryong-hui (강령희) – Guitarist
- Jon Hye-ryon (전혜련) – Bass
- Kim Yu-kyong (김유경)
- Kim Sol-mi (김설미)
- Ryu Jin-a (류진아)
- Pak Mi-kyong (박미경)
- Jong Su-hyang (정수향)
- Pak Son-hyang (박선향)
- Ra Yu-mi (라유미)
- Ri Su-kyong (리수경)
- Ri Myong-hui (리명희)
In 2017 Hyon Song-wol (현송월), the leader of the band, was appointed to the Central Committee of the Workers' Party. In 2018, she led a four-person team which visited South Korea to discuss arrangements for the Winter Olympics.
The band is immensely popular in North Korea, and visitors to the country have reported people dancing to Moranbong Band's songs in the streets and shops closing during television performances.
One reviewer said, "The Moranbong girls are not what you’d expect from an unfashionably totalitarian regime where grey is the new grey. Their skirts are short, the hair is trendy, the music danceable. It could just about pass as a Eurovision entry from Azerbaijan."
Another reviewer said, "We must take care, however, not to see these talented performers dressed in flashy costume as new archetypes for the New Modern Woman in the DPRK. According to Nicola Dibben’s theorizing of the female representation in popular music, “It would be hopelessly naïve to declare that such tactics are exclusively empowering in their influence.” Rather, the gender division of the performance as a whole—from the stage through the audience space—should be examined for context.
A third commentator said, "If state propaganda is to be believed, the Moranbong Band’s first performance was also meant to stimulate production in the textile sector, an important node of which Kim Jong Un and his female companion had visited the day before the ensemble’s premiere in Pyongyang." "Consider the jewelry line-up on the Moranbong singers..."
Another commentator said, "If a candidate exists that might represent the edge of a possible NK-pop invasion, it is surely the Moranbong Band, which debuted at a concert for Kim Jong-un in July 2012—not incidentally, the same month in which Psy’s “Gangnam Style” was released."
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