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First Foreign Band to Perform in North Korea Has Fascist Aesthetic, Artsy Ideas

The controversial Slovenian group Laibach will play Pyongyang in August. Critics say the group's music and performances glorify fascism, while the group says its critics don't understand its music or message.

by Avi Asher-Schapiro
Jul 15 2015, 5:45pm

Image via Laibach/Morten Traavik

The Slovenian band Laibach will tour North Korea in August, becoming the first foreign rock group to perform in the Hermit Kingdom. Critics of the group say the band's music glorifies fascism and totalitarianism.  Laibach says those critics don't understand its avant-garde industrial music and message, and called the concert a "historical event."

The band is slated to play at Pyongyang's Kim Won Gyun Music Conservatory on August 19 and 20, to commemorate the 70-year anniversary North Korea's break from Japanese colonial rule.

"Although our main mission is to give as many Koreans as possible the Laibach experience, we are also working hard to ensure that a certain number of foreign visitors, in the spirit of brotherhood and understanding between the peoples, will be welcome as well," the band said in a statement.

In its performances and music videos, Laibach members often wear fascistic costumes or military uniforms while covering such songs as Queen's "One Vision," "Life is Life" by the band Opus, and the entire Beatles "Let it Be" album, often to a rousing, martial beat overlaid with monotone, growling vocals. It is not always clear if the music is intended to be ironic or satirical. 

Laibach is the musical wing of the Slovenian art collective Neue Slowenische Kunst (New Slovenian Art), a controversial group that was formed in the 1980s. The North Korea concerts were arranged by Morten Traavik, the director of Laibach's recent music video, "Whistleblower." He has coordinated several foreign artistic performances in North Korea, and says the band's aesthetic should be well received in the authoritarian state.

"Laibach's music celebrates — seemingly shamelessly — militaristic feelings and mass energy...it's music you can dance and march to," he said. "So they are a combination of strange and familiar for North Korean audience." 

Traavik told the BBC in an interview that the band and North Korea have some things in common. 

"Both the country and the band have been portrayed by some as fascist outcasts. The truth is that both are misunderstood," he said. "North Korea is portrayed in the West as the world's most closed country, but in fact it is more open to the outside world than the prevailing media narrative suggests."

Traavik told VICE News the North Korea concert will include Laibach's interpretation of Beatles songs, a version of "The Final Countdown" by Europe, Laibach originals, and covers of North Korean folk songs. 

"They will make everything Laibach," Traavik promised, "including the Korean pop songs that they will be covering."

Traavik acknowledged that arranging the concert in North Korea involved some cajoling of the authorities. 

"They are very cautious about being mocked," he said.  Ultimately the North Korean government's decision to allow the concert shows, Traavik says, that engaging the country is more productive than isolating it. "Continued boycott and sanctions have gotten us nowhere," he said "To the critics: you've had your chance, what can be so bad about trying a subtle approach."

Traavik said that the announced concert is also generated a lot of publicity. 

"For any band . . . the attention of the public is essential," Traavik admits. "But we have no way of controlling if its positive or negative."

Related: Did North Korea Really Publish Pictures of a Biological Weapons Facility?

Watch the VICE News documentary, "Launching Balloons into North Korea: Propaganda Over Pyongyang."