Improvisation in Pyongyang?

by Aad van Nieuwkerk

Frank van der Kooij gets an award

Frank van der Kooij gets an award

Some years ago, by the end of 2010, Dutch Radio 6 – the national radio station for Jazz & Soul music – aired a program about an amazing visit three horn players and a journalist paid to North Korea, in the spring of 2009.
They went there to partake in the 26th April Spring Arts Friendship Festival in Pyongyang, which was – this year it is off schedule because of the country’s war rhetoric –  annually organized in honor of the late Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader of North Korea.

Two members of the British Delta Saxophone Quartet, Chris Caldwell and Pete Whyman, Dutch saxophone player Frank van der Kooij, and journalist, novelist and philosopher Henk Weltevreden had managed to get an invitation to the festival through the efforts of a North Korean representative in London. Is the festival a propaganda-vehicle?

It sure is, says Chris Caldwell – it’s nothing but! But on the other hand, Henk Weltevreden stresses, culture has more than once proven to be the weapon to free the mind, to start getting people to feel the need to take action to eventually free themselves from dictatorship. It has always been through writers, musicians, artists, actors, that resistance and revolt was initiated. It is in the minds of artists where the first seeds of sense of liberty are found.

In the radio show, Chris, Frank and Henk tell about their operetta-like experiences, about the tragic fate of a country which is victim of an absurdly detailed degree of control and direction, and about the first tiny cracks in the system and in the stifling protocol. The musicians were to play their music (in effect they were improvising on themes from old Soft Machine records!) while Henk was supposed to read texts (in Dutch).

At the scene, reading texts proved impossible – it was bluntly forbidden. Whether the audiences in North Korea were fully up to appreciating improvisation seems highly improbable. Even a simple “good evening” spontaneously uttered on stage was a surprise not heartily welcomed by local authorities…

On this page you can find three audio files: 1.the broadcast De Wissel, 2. an interview with Chris Caldwell and Frank van der Kooij (in English),  and 3. an interview with Henk (in Dutch)

The music in the broadcast:
• Soft Machine: Facelift
• Delta Saxophone Quartet: Facelift
• Delta Saxophone Quartet: Dedicated to you
• Airkraft: Dedicated to you & improvisations recorded in North Korea
• fragments from cd Korea’s Epic Vocal Art, sung by Kim So-hee
• Chung Woong Ensemble for traditional Korean music, fragments
• Delta Saxophone Quartet: Mousetrap
• Soft Machine: Mousetrap
• Soft Machine: Virtually pt 3 & 4
• Hugh Hopper: Minipax (from “1984”)
• Hugh Hopper: calmozart (from “Jazzloops”)

This is a compilation of the 26th April Spring Arts Friendship Festival in Pyongyang in 2009. At 1:08 you can see the musicians in one second.

More radio on North Korea can be found here at the blogsite by Walter Slosse (in Dutch).

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