Rocking out to Edelweiss at North Korea's first foreign gig

Slovenian avant-garde music group Laibach performing in North Korea.
Slovenian avant-garde music group Laibach performing in North Korea.AFP

SEOUL (AFP) - With a 45-minute set that included cover versions of Edelweiss and Do-Re-Mi from The Sound Of Music, the avant-garde Slovenian group Laibach on Wednesday became the first foreign rock band to play a gig in North Korea.

Foreigners who attended the evening concert in Pyongyang said the Slovenian rockers were accorded a warm, if slightly muted, reception by the 1,500-capacity crowd at the capital's Ponghwa Arts Theatre.

"They seemed to really enjoy it. It wasn't an audience pulling faces of distrust or confusion," said Simon Cockerell, general manager of Beijing-based Koryo Tours which arranged a special trip for foreign tourists to see the show.

It was the first of two Laibach gigs in Pyongyang arranged as part of 70th anniversary celebrations of the Korean peninsula's liberation from Japanese colonial rule.

Apart from around 150 foreigners - including diplomats, NGO workers and tourists - the rest of the audience was made up of North Koreans.

"Hard to say exactly who they were, but it wasn't a load of military uniforms or high-ranking officials," said Cockerell, who spoke to AFP from Pyongyang after the concert.

Founded in 1980 in the former Yugoslavia, Slovenia's best-known music export has courted controversy with its deliberately ambiguous use of political and nationalist imagery.

While some accuse the rockers of being fascist, others argue that their work is a critique of totalitarian ideology.

Either way, their stage persona and gutteral sound made them a surprising choice as the first foreign rock band to perform in one of the world's most isolated states.

The North Korean popular music scene, such as it is, is largely limited to state-approved bands making state-approved sounds, although foreign music - especially from South Korea - is becoming more accessible with the spread of portable media players. These can play music smuggled into the country on CDs or USB sticks.

Deviating quite significantly from their normal repertoire, Laibach offered the Pyongyang crowd a medley of songs from The Sound Of Music, which is well known in the North.

As well as Edelweiss, Do-Re-Mi and The Hills Are Alive, they also sang the best-known Korean folk song Arirang - accompanied by a North Korean pianist.

The lyrics to the group's original songs were subtitled in Korean onto a screen above the stage.

"Everyone sat in their seats the whole time and there wasn't really any clapping along or singing along, but then that's the norm at concerts here anyway," said Cockerell, who has been to North Korea around 150 times.

"I imagine most of the people there really had no idea what to expect, but the whole show seemed to be well received," he added.

Pyongyang's official news agency lauded the unusual concert, noting: "Performers showed well the artistic skill of the band through peculiar singing, rich voice and skilled rendition".