Slovenian band turns to Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical for concert in Pyongyang
North Korean censors cut program from 18 songs to 9 in 45-minute show
"It was a polite and formal reaction," said the band's artistic director, Ivan Novak
“You can’t really censor Laibach,” said Ivan Novak, the Slovenian rock band’s artistic director, after the group touched down in Beijing on Friday after a two-concert tour to Pyongyang.
It wasn’t the first time a Western rock band had performed in North Korea. In 1999, U.S. President Bill Clinton’s brother Roger and his band toured Pyongyang, while several pop singers, a Christian rock group and even bands from South Korea have entertained audiences in the reclusive state.
So how did the crowd of 2,000 officials, diplomats, foreign embassy staff and guests react to Laibach’s set?
“It was a polite and formal reaction. Most of this was something strange for them,” Novak told CNN, adding that at times some audience members appeared to be nodding off.
Slovenian rock band Laibach performs in Pyongyang
To be fair, Laibach are considered “something strange” even to audiences in the West. Formed in the 1980s, the aging rockers are mainly criticized for their outrageous use of fascist and Nazi imagery and uniforms.
The band’s title itself refers to the name used by Nazi Germany during its World War II occupation of Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia.
Forsaking their usual authoritarian approach to onstage costumes, band members dressed in North Korean national costume, and said their cross cultural version of a traditional Korean folk song called Arirang seemed to be appreciated.
It was one of nine songs performed from an original list of 18, which was cut down by Pyongyang censors, reducing the show from 90 minutes to 45.
In a distinct move away from their normal repertoire, the avant-garde industrial rockers also included famed songs from the “Sound of Music,” including “Edelweiss” and “Do-Re-Mi.”
Performing cover versions of songs from a musical might seem an odd choice but the 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein hit is one of the few Western movies permitted in North Korea, so the songs were familiar to the audience even though the performers were not.
The band’s program, performed at Pyongyang’s Ponghwa Art Theatre, also included the ban’s version of the Beatle’s hit “Across the Universe” and “The Final Countdown.”
‘We don’t need to defend ourselves’
Novak said the Pyongyang “Liberation Day Tour” will stand out as one of the groups most memorable concerts in their 35-year history because of where they performed and the opportunity to introduce their style of music to a North Korean audience.
He dismissed “accusations” that Laibach and North Korea are fascist outcasts, saying the band and the nation are often misrepresented.
“If any group in the world is used to those accusations, it’s Laibach. But you know we don’t need to defend ourselves,” Novak said.
The concert came amid rising tensions between North and South Korea. On Thursday, the two sides traded fire, triggered by an attack by North Korea on loudspeakers in the South that were blasting propaganda across the border.
Laibach’s gigs were part of the secretive nation’s 70th anniversary celebrations of the Korean peninsula’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule.