Here, we explore the accordion in North Korea in various contexts using images inside North Korea.
Relatively easy to master, the accordion is a mobile orchestra packed into one instrument.
It’s loud enough to fill a room without amplification, portable enough to take to the fields for breaks during harvest, and offers a multitude of unique sounds.
There appear to be three factories in the DPRK making accordions. This is; Un Bang Ul (the most famous one), as well as Yongyang, and Ryong Nam San.
The occasional imported model appears also. Many date from before the 1990s. This was a time when there were more exchanges between Russia and other accordion-producing nations.
Different systems exist for the right-hand side of an accordion, which is normally used for playing the melody (while it can also play chords).
The North Korean-made accordions use the piano-style keyboard. There are also a few imported button layouts arranged in one way or another. Each system has different benefits and attributes according to those who prefer their own ways.
The following is a sequence of photographs showing how, since our trips to North Korea began, we always seem to come across the instrument…
This is the ubiquitous accordion in all its glory!
The photo to the left shows a schoolgirl who comes in for extracurricular group music lessons at the Mangyongdae Schoolchildren’s Palace.
The instrument is the property of the Palace itself and has a red metal label which shows it was presented as a gift by one of the Leaders.
The child prodigies who reach the heady heights of mastering their instrument perform a solo at the weekly performance of the Schoolchildren’s Palace to the applause of local kids and tourists.
There are also group performances.
The schoolchildren’s performance typically features showboating of instruments, competing with a girl on a harmonica. The girl on the right is playing the button variation as opposed to the keyboard version played by the boy on the left.
These photos show photographs from 2003 whilst filming ‘A State of Mind’.
At home with the mother of the protagonist Hyon Sun with her own accordion. She would play whilst her daughter danced.
The sister of the other protagonist Song Yon (from ‘A State of Mind’) amongst schoolmates.
They are all slightly overshadowed by their adult-sized instruments.
Our favourite North Korean troupe was not the famous Moranbong Band, but the waitresses at the rest stop on the way to Kaesong.
Sadly now disbanded, these young women were from the nearby town of Sariwon. They would come to this rest stop for the day waiting for the occasional customer who was cruising down the usually-empty motorway.
They rehearsed for their own entertainment. But, on one trip, we heard them play and asked them to come out and perform. Since then they often made use of their fifteen minutes of fame in front of our tourists.
This shows school girls in Kaesong practising in the park.
One instrument (the Convallaria brand) is clearly an import from Italy.
A performance at an orphanage for blind children in the countryside outside Pyongyang which we help support with our ongoing charity project Koryo Kids.
They have a wonderful band with a slightly out-of-tune piano, but all played with gusto!
This photo is a family snap form early 2000s.
Tourists who have been to the co-operative farm on the outskirts of Wonsan will recognise this family. They are the ones who live in the house pen for foreigners to visit for a taste of daily life in this farm.
Here, we have another orphanage that is also part of a project we help support.
These young kids all have a nap in the afternoon. The accordion is a part of their musical life. If you want to support this charity please do contact us.
Currently, due to sanctions, it is very difficult to provide direct help. But we are holding funds for when it is once more possible. This will be very much needed and appreciated.
This is a 1981 linocut Going to a Congratulatory Performance by Kim Un Hui, 1981.
The linocut shows kids performing to inspire the workers during the construction of the Juche Tower which was completed and opened in 1982.
In 2015, we took photographer Matjaž Tančič on one of his several trips to take images of the country. He took two remarkable photographs of girls with accordions.
The first was of Kang Hyon A. She is a 13-year-old student with her 38-year-old teacher Myong Ju at the little-visited Kaesong Schoolchildren’s Palace.
This amazing photo was taken at the Chollima Steelworks. Again, it is another piece by Matjaz. Here, he stepped into the cavernous building housing the furnaces and smelters. He was hit with the noise of industry…
But also the sound of music being blasted out loud through speakers.
He turned around and lo and behold; against a wall there was a group of young women and an accordionist playing for the workers.
This photograph of the light and delicate propaganda unit stands in contrast to the almost apocalyptic scene of dark faces, fierce noise, and flames.
It was such a highlight of what was an amazing journey.
We have Matjaž’s work featuring accordions.
We can offer these prints with 10% discount.
The film ‘Songs of Memories’ provided an opportunity to bring out the accordion.
You cannot have a sailor and a war without the accordion to inspire the troops!
The featured art is a mosaic mural deep in the Pyongyang Metro that portrays jolly workers heading out for a day’s harvest.
The imagery of the man with the accordion is used to express the joy of teamwork. ‘Farming is a fun social activity’ (such is socialist realism expressing only the good bits).
A foreigner on the accordion?
This is a 2002 poster for the April Spring Friendship Festival held annually over Kim Il Sung’s birthday (April 15th). Guests and performers at this event are mainly performers from ex-Soviet/non-aligned countries.
Anyone bringing in an accordion will be particularly welcomed. Especially if they play something a little daring…
Something the Koreans have not heard before (ie anything other than folk, polka etc).
This piece is titled With Affection Linocut by Kim Kuk Po, 1992.
The workers here are sending provisions to the army for the celebration of the ‘Sixtieth Anniversary of the Korean People’s Army Foundation’. This, while preparing an artistic performance for the soldiers.
This piece of art is from the Koryo Studio collection by Hwang In Jae. The piece is a 2002 large linocut of a propaganda unit inspiring workers with song.
We love the workers all coloured in revolutionary zeal red. No doubt off to over-fulfil some quote or campaign.
We had just ten of these pieces made by Hwang In Jae, who was one of North Korea’s most talented and famous linocut artists. The lead singer has a red armband: Propaganda Artists.
A painting from the Koryo Studio Collection with the handsome accordionist getting all the admiration from those on board. The way the artist portrays the two young women eying up the performer is enough to inspire any young man to take up the instrument.
Supposedly, disgraced former politician Jang Song Thaek was a rather good player and impressed a certain leader’s sister…
This is one of the posters we have in the Koryo Studio Collection.
Need we say more than the slogan: Dear Creators and Artists, Jump into the Boiling Reality!
We love the colouring in this poster. The accordionist in a bright casual outfit which you would rarely see in North Korea. The artist is resplendent in a grey official art studio jumpsuit. And the cameraman sporting a cool revolutionary cap.