North Korean A-ha accordionists 'destined for stardom'

By Alastair Lawson
BBC News

  • Published
Media caption,

"These musicians are among the best I have ever encountered" - Morten Traavik

A group of North Korean accordionists who took the internet by storm with their version of 80s pop tune Take On Me are destined for stardom, a Norwegian director says.

Morten Traavik, who posted a video of them playing on YouTube, told the BBC their version of the A-ha hit had attracted more than one million hits. The video went viral earlier this month.

A-ha achieved worldwide fame in 1985 with Take On Me.

The single made them Norway's most famous band.

"These musicians are among the best I have ever encountered," Mr Traavik told the BBC.

"They are talented enough to be successful anywhere in the world.

"When I was in North Korea, I lent them a CD of Take on Me on a Monday morning. By the following Wednesday morning they had mastered the song, with no annotation and no outside help. It showed incredible skill."

Image caption,
Mr Traavik travels regularly to North Korea to arrange cultural exchanges

The accordionists will be playing a leading role in the Barents Spektakel festival that Mr Traavik is organising over the weekend in north-east Norway near the Russian border, itself an isolated, militarised area during the Cold War.

'Brilliant' students

Mr Traavik met the musicians from Kum Song Music School while in North Korea to develop an arts project, in which he introduced them to classical and popular music.

"It was pretty obvious from the outset that they were brilliant students, with great technical skills. They were interested in all forms of music, especially music from Norway including works by the classical composer Edvard Grieg."

Mr Traavik says that he thinks the reason why their A-ha song has proved so popular is because people in the West are intrigued by the idea of musicians in a collective society - using traditional instruments - genuinely enjoying their performance of a 1980s Euro-pop classic.

"People [in Norway] are amazed by their skills and also by the fact that you can have fun in North Korea. I think that insight really rocks a lot of people's established preconceptions about the country," he said.

Image caption,
Kirkenes shipyard - an unusual concert venue

He said that the accordionists have already played several concerts in Norway, including for ambassadors, the culture minister and shipyard-workers.

The director - who arranges artistic and cultural exchanges across East Asia - says he also plans to hold a North Korean-style coloured card picture spectacle at this weekend's festival.

He has arranged for two directors from North Korea to teach about 250 Norwegian border guards to create a similar sight - but on a smaller scale - as the mass card rallies staged in Pyongyang.

The card carrying performance will be set against the picturesque backdrop of the Norwegian-Russian border area, with the accordion ensemble providing the soundtrack.

The display is entitled "the Promised Land".

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