On the prehistory of Moranbong Band
We know little about anything concerning the band, even less about the history of its members and of the events that lead into the establishment of the band. But there are crumbs of information here and there. Xinhua informs that most members of the band have graduated from the Kim Won Gyun Pyongyang University of Music, which is the cradle of high class North Korean music (http://news.xinhuanet.com/book/2013-12/18/c_125878504.htm). They thus can surmised to be highly talented musicians, who have a good education, and can move easily between classical and North Korean popular musical genres.
We also have an article by the North Korean art researcher Cho Un-chol (趙雄鈇 チョウンチョル; original Korean name unknown) titled 「牡丹峰楽団は朝鮮スタイルのユニーク新しい軽音楽団」[The Moranbong Band is a Korean style but unique new light music band] (Ritsumeikan Journal of Korean Studies コリア研究、第５号、２０１４年、１７３−１８２）。The issue was published in 31 March 2014, but as the last concert that the author refers to took place in July 2013, we can conclude that summer 2013 is likely to be the time of its writing, well before the Jang Song-taek troubles. This kind of publishing frequency is quite normal for paper journals. Japanese translation is by Matsui Sei’ichiro (松井聖一郎).
Cho deals mostly with Kim Jong-il’s art theories and descriptions of the band’s songs, but he also gives a few small pieces of new information. According to him, the band was established personally by Kim Jong-un in March 2012, on one hand to mark the beginning of the new century, 2012 being the year 101 according to the Juche count, and on the other to ”make art a powerful means for the creation of a new pattern of life (芸術は新しい生活創造の力強い手段) (173). This of course has to be understood in the sense of socialist realism, where – in opposition to classical Marxism – the superstructure is supposed to have a decisive influence on the base.
We also have other evidence of the timing of the establishment. Kwaximus, and a bit later Umutcan Dogan、 found that several members of MB were in the audience of an Unhasu Orchestra concert in 8 March 2012, http://youtu.be/m__vX3HOzmc. As they were sitting in the centre in the second row, they appear in the camera fairly often, but as they were not yet the main object of vision, there never were any close ups. Yet, some of the ladies can be recognized clearly.
From the left we have Kim Hyang-sun (grey), Kim Sol-mi (white), Pak Mi-kyong (red) and probably Pak Son-hyang (blue). The woman in brown dress cannot be identified at all. From then we continue to the next picture,
where from the right we have Yu Un-jong and Kim Yu-kyong. Besides Kim in a black dress is someone who at first sight looks like the guitarist Kang Ryong-hui, but only 4 months later Kang appeared on stage with a long hair, so she cannot be her. Also the lady in the red dress is not identifiable. Kwaximus’ guess is that there may have been several prospective members to the band, but not all of them were finally chosen. Or the unknown ladies can simply have been friends. The chair beside Yu is empty; perhaps someone did not make it to the concert. There are also other shots scattered throughout the concert, where one or two of the ladies can be seen a bit more clearly.
Anyway, we have here at least 5 or 6 MB members in the same row, both musicians and singers, watching the performance of the current national top ensemble. The location in the centre and front probably has a meaning. In such a location you can closely watch the stage behavior of established stars.
One more MB member was also present in the concert, namely Hyon Song-wol, the administrative leader of MB, who was dragged from the audience to sing at the stage.
She was pregnant at the time, and apparently gave birth between this date and the first MB performance in 6 July 2012. She might already have been nominated as the leader of MB. If that was the case, her singing could be thought of as the first public performance of a member of the Moranbong ensemble. Yet, perhaps not so. At the stage Hyon represented only herself as a former star singer who had been away from publicity for a while, not the Moranbong Band.
Cho also tells that Kim Jong-un considered Moranbong Band so important that in spite of his other demanding duties, he has participated tens of times (数十回も) in the rehearsals and concerts of the band (175). Rodong Sinmun gives the same information in its 1 January 2013 issue (help from Mizuno Naoki). Multiple sources claiming the same thing do not necessarily increase the reliability of the information, and probably only reflects the fact that Cho gets most of his information from Rodong Sinmun, but perhaps we can establish the idea that Kim Jong-un has been present in several rehearsals of the band.
Cho adds that Kim Jong-un has also personally guided a multitude of practical issues related with the band, such as its basic principles, the themes of its concerts, and the way the band expresses itself on stage (原則・方法から公演のテーマ・ 表現要素に至るまで）(175). This sounds like a lot, and is rather typical of North Korean way of expressing the deeds of their supreme leader, but if even half of this is true, we can infer that there is a strong personal relationship between Kim Jong-un and the band, and that at least in their original shape the concerts of the band reflected rather directly Kim Jong-un’s mind.
The reason for the name of the band ー Moranbong means Peony Hill, which is a large park in central Pyongyang ー is explained that Kim Il-sung himself liked the park (175), where he gave his first address in 1945 after returning from exile. The park contains various revolutionary relics and monuments related with Kim Il-sung. The naming of the band is thus consistent with the names of former North Korean musical ensembles, such as the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble (보천보전자악단, 普天堡電子樂團) and Wangjesan Light Music Band (왕재산 경음악단, 旺載山輕音樂團 / 王在山輕音樂團), which both were named after places where Kim Il-Sung attacked Japanese forces during the 1930s. Both were established by Kim Jong-il in the 1980s; the former in 1985, the latter in 1983.
However, for some reason Cho mentions only the Pochonbo EE as a predecessor to Moranbong Band, while actually the Wangjesan LMB seems to have been more important. It was a large ensemble containing both musicians, singers and dancers, appearing on stage in many configurations, smaller and larger. They have also experimented with an all-female assembly, playing electric guitars, organs and drums, such as this fine version of the song Women are Flowers (녀성은 꽃이라네 女性は花だね), with Kim Yong-ran playing the lead guitar superbly (http://youtu.be/vzG-BR63oEI). Unfortutunately the year of the recording is unknown, but judging from the quality of the video it is not very old, perhaps from 2011 or 2012.
Wangjesan LMB gave a concert in 2011, where several future Moranbong Band members took part. Some numbers resembled the arrangement and choreagraphy that MB would a little later adopt. The following seven slightly edited screengrabs are from that concert (http://youtu.be/h3X72P5xjtw?list=PLqaaK-TcNgeOI34IVaJBagH7F3S9laBg6)
Especially during 01.11.11- 01.17.17 one has an eerie feeling that one is seeing a sister of the Moranbong Band, although the sound is clearly different. In the middle there is a violin octet, backed by a piano, guitars, saxophones, synthesizers, and two sets of drums. The violins sometimes play the role of main performers, although most songs are performed by singers, usually clothed in in chosenot, but here in Western style costume. Their coreography, including small delicate dances while not singing, is absolutely similar with that of later MB performances. Singers are always females, which is the usual North Korean style, but musicians are here both male and female. There is a screen at the back, displaying various forms and shapes, but they did not yet have at their disposal the advanced LED-displays seen later in MB performances. We can also recognize several familiar faces among the performers. The lady in white, below in a larger picture, is Jong Su-hyang.
In violin we have Cha Yong-mi, here at 01.21.36 playing Footsteps (발걸음). She also had a solo in Glorious and admirable (매혹과 흠모 魅惑と欣慕) at 00.25.40.
Another familiar violinist is Hong Su-kyong, also playing here Footsteps.
Kang Ryong-hui plays one of the guitars, on her way to become a virtuosa like Kim Yong-ran, even displaying a similar smiles after her solos like she does. Here at 1.18.18.
The last future MB member who can be discerned with certainty is Ri Hui-kyong playing synthesizer at the back row.
Finally there is the pianist, whose face was never shown, but who could be Kim Yong-mi, the first pianist of MB. 00.07.54.
There is also another ensemble important in the prehistory of the MB, namely the Samjiyon (삼지연) classical music section of the Mansudae Art Troupe (만수대예술단). Although Hong Su-kyong in the 2011 video appeared as a member of the Wangsaesan LMB, in this video she can be seen as a member of Samjiyon, playing under the Russian conductor Pavel Ovsyannikov. The video was published in 21 March 2012. She appears briefly a few times in the video, at 0:40, 1:14, 1:23, 2:03, etc, in the second row of musicians (http://youtu.be/EQGPG3R_hLo). She can, however, be glimpsed at 1:45 also in an other video published in 28 August 2011, so that her association with Samjiyon appears long (http://youtu.be/_blyO6HOINs).
In both videos, and also in many other old Samjiyon videos in the net, in the front row, third from the left, not far from Hong, there is a lady in a rosé-coloured dress, who is Sonu Hyang-hui. The most well-known pre-MB video of her is her solo performance of Zigeunerweisen in Samjiyon band’s new year’s concert 2011 (http://youtu.be/u73Q4W-ft0Q).
Sonu appears in practically all Samjiyon videos published in Youtube, although usually only as an ordinary violinist. I happened to come into possession of a Samjiyon video of a concert given in 2010.09.09 on the occasion of the 62nd birthday of DPRK. This is thus far the oldest video found where the future band members appear. As the quality of the video is rather good, I’ll place here a couple of grabs, with some editing by me.
She played as an ordinary violinist, second to the last one at the extreme left front row, not being any kind of star at this time. Yet, she was not behaving too seriously, visibly enjoying the music, and smiling often. Below a close-up on her; half a year ago the oldest known photo of Sonu Huang-hui.
Umutgan sighted Sonu also in a 2011 news clip, https://youtu.be/3alWX7O9pBE, this time playing as a member of the Mansudae Art Troupe in a different costume. Apparently people were easily moved from grouping to grouping when needed. And of course the Samjiyon Band was only a specific section of the large Mansudae Art Troupe.
With luck, even older videos have been found. Here is a picture of her, from a joint concert with Unhasu Orchestra and Samjiyon Band in 10 October 2009. If the date of the earlier concert is correct, the same performance dress, ear rings and hair style were worn for a long time.
As an interesting detail it can be mentioned that in this concert Sonu Hyang-hui was observing the performance of the Moranbong on stage. This was the usually 6-member group of singers, whose name was Moranbong, or sometimes Moranbong Chorus. It performed several times with Unhasu Orchestra, but made its recordings with the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble (https://youtu.be/8JxkBOTGK50). Ri Sol-Ju occasionally sang as a member of Moranbong when she performed with Unhasu Orchestra. Whether this means something or not, I do not know. Yet, to use of the same name for two different female groups can be significant. Peony Hill is a beautiful park a little north of the centre of Pyongyang, full of Kim Il-song and Kim Jong-il memorabilia, as well as recreational facilities and restaurants (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moranbong). Pyongyangites go there to have picnics, dance in groups, sing karaoke with loudspeakers, have romantic promenades hand in hand, and simply to be seen. An occasional foreign visitor walking by can there be forcefully drawn to a dance by an insistent Korean lady. This will rarely happen anywhere else in North Korea, where people normally stay aloof. Moranbong has an exceptional aura, is eminently associated with the cultural life of the capital, and clearly is a suitable name for artistic groups of Pyongyang elite ladies.
The spirit of Samjiyon Band was visibly good, resembling the atmosphere in the early MB concerts. The playing was happy. There was smiling and friendly eye contact among the members, in the way Sonu here looks at her mentor, the conductor and chief violinist of SB, Ri Sune 리순애 (https://mirror.enha.kr/wiki/만수대예술단).
Behind Sonu we can see the shape and accordeon of Kim Hyang-sun, who played synthesizer and accordion in the original MB assemblage; below a whole picture of her.
Like Sony, also Kim has been sighted in various concerts of the time.
In the 2009 UO concert she did not play solo, but in the 2010 Samjiyon concert she played duo with an unknown virtuoso gentleman.
She played her accordion skillfully; keeping her ground well even against the older gentleman. Perhaps she can even be called a small star at this time; at least excellent enough to be placed in front of the stage.
A cut of the 20100909 concert appears in the Chinese Youku; video is not very good, but audio is ok. The name of the song is Tedong River Sunrise. http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XMTk5NjU3ODA0.html
She can be seen also in Youtube, in a concert that the publisher claims took place in October 2011 concert. She can be seen in 00.40, 00.55 playing small solo, 02.16, and 02.40. Sonu is also present. http://youtu.be/QMIFFVMQnUA
There exists also a connection with Unasu Orchestra, found out by Mizuno. Pak Mi-kyong, one of the singers of MB, sings here Royal Azaleas in Taehongdan in an Unasu Orchestra concert in 19 July 2011, with the camera focusing on her at 00.50, 01.24, 01.47, 02.25. She is the first one on the left in the beginning, and moves then to the centre. Her name can also be seen on the screen in the beginning, although not too clearly. http://youtu.be/1TOe7R2wCtc
It thus appears that Kim Jong-un received in spring 2012 a fairly advanced concept of a new type of band from Wangjesan LMB, including several core members, who were then strengthened with promising young musicians from other groups, especially Samjiyon, but also Unasu Orchestra, and perhaps others. It is even hard to say how clear the divisions between different North Korean musical ensembles are. Artists move between them, different ensembles give joint performances, and also separately they often perform the same songs.
Kwaximus found Kim Yong-mi playing piano in an Unasu Orchestra concert. There exists a small video by koryomedia of the song http://youtu.be/pMSjBuhVKZI, called 흰눈덮인 고향집 Hwinnun tŏphin kohyangjip, which translates as ‘Home covered by white snow’. It is cut from the Unasu concert celebrating posthumously the 70th birthday of Kim Jong Il in 16 February 2012, titled ‘The Hearts Following the Sun’.
Kim Yong-mi appears in both videos; the picture is from 00:40/00:09:54. She plays also a 50 s piano solo from 03:41/00:12:59 onwards, and can be glimpsed again here and there. The curious questions are 1) why was she chosen to play in this special concert honouring the memory of KJI in the most lavishly constructed stage ever seen in any concert. On the stage had been built a winter scenery of Mount Pektu with Jongil Peak as the highest point. 2) why was her name displayed on the video? It simply was not the custom to display the names of orchestra members, even if they performed solos. She received a special treatment. This may have been a chance happening, or she, or her family, may have been somehow connected with the theme of the concert. Her surname probably means nothing here; Kim is the most usual Korean surname.
The special treatment awarded to Kim Yong-mi can be seen also in the fact that she travelled with UO to Paris in March 2012. She was not a regular UO pianist, and many others could have been given the honour of a foreign trip, but she is the one who received it. She cannot be recognized in the actual concert video, whose French director concentrated on the conductors, strings and horns, the pianist appearing only as a vague gestalt occasionally, but Umutcan found a press photo from the rehearsals, published in the Pakistani journal Dawn http://www.dawn.com/news/702800/n-korean-orchestra-opens-musical-bridge-to-europe :
Also the second MB pianist, Kim Jong-mi, debuted in the Unhasu Orchestra. It is difficult to tell exactly when she started to play there, because the pianist was seldom shown, but she appears there in the 30 August 2012 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bnrrWf-wDqg), and in the 10 October 2012 (http://youtu.be/YkPRmIvMXwA at 43.22) concerts. Next we saw her in the MB as the pianist in the December Concert 2012.12.21, when Kim Yong-mi was absent, and was not seen for roughly half a year, until she reappeared to play the synthesizer in 2013.04.11. Musicians were moved easily between orchestras, sometimes also instruments, while the moves were never explained anywhere. Simple changes in the work place? … as MBfan comments, this lady can actually as well be Yo Sim, pianist of the later Chongbong Band. As there are no facial pictures of her, and her profile resembles that of both, it is difficult to tell.
What was added to the Wangjesan LMB concept from Samjiyon and Unasu were elements of light classical music. Occasional pieces of popular foreign music, and the styles of rock, jazz, and European disco could then be added to the package easily. The core programme of MB, like that of WLMB, would consist of North Korean party and military songs, but the miscellaneous elements would add a clear measure of novelty and creativity into the playing.
If we have a personnel connection between the Moranbong Band and Unasu Orchestra, the question whether Ri Sol-ju has anything to do with arranging the band becomes relevant. However, what follows is only speculation and conjecture, based on associations; no hard evidence. Notwithstanding, Ri Sol-ju had a brief career as a visiting singer in UO during September 2010 and February 2011. What is distinct in the videos published in Youtube is that she sang light popular type of songs there, as also the Moranbong Chorus did:
타오르라 우등불아 Burn up, campfire! (also a MB hit) in September 2010 http://youtu.be/aff6aG_j1lg?list=PL54AF5044AC5020E2
내이름 묻지 마세요 Don’t ask my name in October 2010 http://youtu.be/6_KJyDAzowA
병사의 발자욱 Footsteps in New Year 2011 http://youtu.be/FXaxv0wwhdk
아직은 말못해 I can not talk yet / 멋있는 사람 Elegant person in February 2011 http://youtu.be/LvQd7yAjfwg
With another course of events, she could have been one of the singers of Moranbong Band, and, say, Pak Mi-kyong of Unasu Orchestra the wife of Kim Jong-un. Her musical style and repertoire resembles that of MB rather closely. Her marriage with KJU was published in North Korean TV in July 2012, but it is not known when it actually took place, and how long their relationship had been before that. Especially we do not know what it was in March 2012, when the Moranbong Band ostensibly was established. Her influence in it is, however, a real and even likely possibility.
If we watch the end of the 2014.05.20 concert, we see the surprising scene of the Moranbong Band members running to KJU to receive his public congratulations. The ceremony is like a blessing, perhaps even like a protective gesture. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CLqqtzpbUg0&feature=share ; 01.11.14 onwards. The band members show respect to him, bowing in front of him, but yet there is a clear aura of familiarity and friendliness in their meeting, not the kind of formal, nervous and sometimes fearful jumping and screaming that we see when KJU meets ordinary North Korean citizens.
Another interesting piece of information is a photo of the event. It was published in May 2014 at the now extinct DPRKMusicChannel Facebook site, and I have here cut one corner out of the larger picture. The significance of this picture was also pointed out to me by Mizuno; I did not notice this by myself. Thanks for him once again.
To the left of the picture we have MB members shaking hands and bowing to KJU, after which they moved on to greet Ri Sol-ju, Ryu Jina as the first one doing so. She lowers her upper body slightly, but it is not a real bow, and they are saying something to each other like persons familiar with each other. They probably are on familiar terms, with the same background in North Korean musical elite and age. Some band members could even be Ri Sol-ju’s former classmates, and some concert programmes may have been put together at the Kim family breakfast table – but I emphasize again that all this is pure speculation.
Yet, I think we can establish at a more general level that there is a measure of familiarity between the Kim spouses and the Moranbong Band, that KJU established the band, has reportedly taken a keen interest in all particulars related with, participated in numerous rehearsals, and strongly and openly supported it throughout its career, at least till the end of spring 2014.
We could also consider the education of the band members. As far as we know, it has taken place in elite institutions in Pyongyang. We have a short video in Youku found by suki jin where the singer Kim Yu-kyong 김유경 appears in 2010 as a student at the Kim Won Gyun Pyongyang University of Music. She could be approaching graduation at this time.
Thus we have evidence that at least she and Pak Mi-kyong with her opera singer education have passed through that institution. As Pak debuted in 2011 with Unhasu Orchestra, quite likely not long after her graduation, she could be of similar age with Kim.
Kwaximus found an old video showing Kim Hyang-sun. It can be found at https://youtu.be/bVtLUgbTfI8 , and it appears to have been published originally in the Chinese Tudou site. In the comments section of the YouTube video Svyatoslav Ivanov (Святослав Иванов) informed that the video is Kim’s Graduation Concert Presentation aired by the Pyongyang Central Television. The number she is playing is ”Sound of horse hooves in Mt. Paektu”. According to Ivanov, she did not study at the Kim Won Gyun Pyongyang University of Music, where most other musicians of MB had studied. Kim Hyang-sun is a graduate of the musical school of the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang, majoring in accordeon. It is not known when she graduated/how old the video is, but she looks clearly younger here than in the earliest dated video of her, shown above, namely 20091010. Her hair is about 10 cm shorter than in that picture. I would estimate that the video was taken perhaps in 2007 or 2008, if not earlier. This is thus far the oldest picture of any Moranbong Band member that I have seen.
There are no photos, but a textual evidence of even older history. In a Rodong Sinmun article on the Pyongyang Taedongmun Kindergarten it is mentioned that MB violin players started their education there.
http://www.rodong.rep.kp/ko/index.php?strPageID=SF01_02_01&newsID=2015-01-25-0034&chAction=S . Taedongmun Kindergarten is in the centre of Pyongyang, neighbouring the Taedongmun Park, very near the Kim Il Song Square, which is the absolute centre of Pyongyang. It is specialized in violin and kayagum education. Also the former Unhasu Orchestra concert master, first violin Mun Kyong-jin, who performed solo in Paris in March 2013, started his career there as a child. A glimpse inside of the institution can be seen here https://youtu.be/PB965kCG0n4.
Another elite kindergarten, where some of the members of MB could have been educated as children, is the Kyongsang Kindergarten 경상유치원, situated between Mansudae Hill and Tedong River near Okryu Bridge in central Pyongyang, being specialized in musical education of pre-school age children. It has an underground wading pool with warm water, is visited by KJU http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2012/201207/news15/20120715-01ee.html, and foreign diplomats https://youtu.be/2dGnxIWkljk .
When the girls had become a little older, Pyongyang Ryulgok Middle School (평양률곡중학교 平壌リュルゴク中学校 ), also called ”The Nightingale School”, would have been a fitting educational institution for them. It is specialized in musical education, and has provided children’s voices to over 3500 songs used in animations, films and other recordings (counted in 2008 for a KCNA article). The school works closely with the party and the military, and talented children continue their musical education in higher establishments. http://www.kcna.co.jp/calendar/2008/11/11-13/2008-1112-015.html https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ySK4f6kJ6VA
Some of them might have continued to the Mangyongdae Revolutionary College (만경대혁명학원 万景台革命学院 ), an institution established by Kim Il Song in 1947 for the education of the children of his fellow partisans, who became the central leaders of the WPK. Despite of its English name, the children there appear definitely younger than bachelor level students in universities. It has since produced many of the top level cadres for the party, state and military organizations. Children also sing a lot in that school; they appeared occasionally in Unhasu Orchestra concerts. http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/万景台革命学院
If the future MB children did not go to these institutions, they were likely to have hurried after their ordinary school day to the Pyongyang School Children’s Palace (평양학생소년궁전 = 平壌学生少年宮殿), established by Kim Il-song in 1963. It is situated a little north of the Kim Il Song Square; again the very centre of Pyongyang. https://youtu.be/0MMjwskxdFQ . Or they could have gone to the Mangyongdae School Children’s Palace (만경대학생소년궁전 万景台学生少年宮殿), which is a bit north of the centre, established in 1989 by Kim Il-song. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mangyongdae_Children’s_Palace https://youtu.be/iU5eK2lM7is / https://youtu.be/x9LtmwmtbaY
Both are institutions where musically talented children go after school to practice singing and playing musical instruments. There are also other institutions for extracurricular activities in Pyongyang. A career in the arts would be perfectly fitting for the daughters of lots of Pyongyang elite families.
Whatever the road, finally most of the girls would have entered Kim Won Gyun Pyongyang University of Music (김원균평양음악대학 金元均平壌音楽大学) (known in English with a variety of different names, such as Pyongyang University of Music and Dance or Kim Won Gyun Conservatory). A lot of singing and playing would have taken place also there. https://youtu.be/HvemH-5rQyY . The Japanese Kyodo News agency made a video of the university, claiming there that since the establishment of the Moranbong Band, interest especially in light music education has increased in the university, because that kind of music had become so popular. https://youtu.be/44jySgkKHTs . Even if the Moranbong Band was disbanded one day, there would exist lots of highly educated young talent to create two, three or more similar ensembles in the future.