Songs for "Great Leaders": Ideology and Creativity in North Korean Music and Dance

Keith Howard
Pub date
Mar 2020
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Famously reclusive and secretive, North Korea can be seen as a theatre that projects itself through music and performance. The first book-length account of North Korean music and dance in any language other than Korean, Songs for "Great Leaders" pulls back the curtain on this theatre for the first time. Renowned ethnomusicologist Keith Howard moves from the first songs written in the northern part of the divided Korean peninsula in 1946 to the performances in February 2018 by a North Korean troupe visiting South Korea for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games. Through an exceptionally wide range of sources and a perspective of deep cultural competence, Howard explores old revolutionary songs and new pop songs, developments of Korean instruments, the creation of revolutionary operas, and mass spectacles, as well as dance and dance notation, and composers and compositions. The result is a nuanced and detailed account of how song, together with other music and dance production, forms the soundtrack to the theater of daily life, embedding messages that tell the official history, the exploits of leaders, and the socialist utopia yet-to-come. Based on fieldwork, interviews, and resources in private and public archives and libraries in North Korea, South Korea, China, North America and Europe, Songs for "Great Leaders" opens up the North Korean regime in a way never before attempted or possible.


1 Songs for the Great Leader
Songs, for the people and of the people
Songs, and song composers
Songs, assembled for the concert stage
Songs to build the state
Songs, built on the foundations of folksongs
2 Instruments of the People
Kaeryang akki: improving Korean instruments
Soviet and/or Chinese influence?
North Korean particularity
The chang saenap
Winds of change
The hand wind zither
3 Pulling at Harp Strings
Discarding the old?
Retaining the national zither, kayagum
Creating string instruments, from old to new
Discarding and creating lutes and dulcimers
Drums of persuasion
A new harp, or zither, or both?
4 Opera for the Revolution
Preface: juche ideology
Introducing revolutionary operas
Sea of Blood
A True Daughter of the Party
The Flower Girl
Oh! Tell the Forest and The Song of Mount Kumgang
5 Contextualizing Revolutionary Operas
Are revolutionary operas revolutionary?
Guided by the leaders
Before revolutionary opera
Beyond revolutionary opera
6 What Revolutionary Operas Do
Revolutionary operas as song operas
Song constructions
Portable songs
Operas as ideology, and opera as spectacle
7 From Spectacles to Dance
Watching the 50,000
Spectacles, calisthenics, gymnastics
Notating dances, prescribing spectacles
Chamo p'yogibop
A pan-Korean notation?
Ch'oe Sunghui and the development of dance in North Korea
North Korean dance, an overview
8 Composing the Nation
Learning to compose
Songs, as foundations
Upscaling songs ...
... Back to symphonies
Yun Isang, from South to North
9 Songs for New Leaders
Authorized pop
Pop as state telegraph
Footsteps of the general
Onward towards the final victory
Rolands and Yamahas

About the author: 

Keith Howard is Professor Emeritus at SOAS, University of London, and Leverhulme Emeritus Fellow. From 2017 to 2018 he was Kent R. Mullikin Fellow at the National Humanities Center, North Carolina, and before that he served as Professor and Head of Department at SOAS, and Professor and Associate Dean at Sydney Conservatorium of Music, University of Sydney. He has held visiting professorships at Monash University, Ewha Women's University, and Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, was editorial chair for the SOAS Musicology Series (Ashgate/Routledge) for nine years (2008-2017), and founded and managed the SOASIS CD and DVD series as well as OpenAir Radio.

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