When I was visiting North Korea, I didn’t think I would come back with songs that I would cherish for life. Not because of the song itself, but for the circumstances I heard them in – North Korea being the unlikeliest place of all and for being sung by a citizen of DPRK whose best chance at recognition as a singer came from the encouragement from the few tourists she got to guide a couple of times a year.
I will call her Ms Deer – for the reason that she was beautiful, spoke perfect English, was well mannered and had a voice that was best described as silken.
On that gloomy and overcast evening when were returned from the DMZ and going to check in to Hotel Yanggakdo on the island, Ms Deer in an attempt to cheer the tired and gloomy tourists on the bus she was the guide of, suggested singing. And without much coaxing, picked up the mike and launched into a folktale. As every other folktale, it started and ended with two lovers separated over a misunderstanding. While the tourists mulled over this story and hearts softened towards the estranged lovers, Ms Deer began singing.
I had the good sense to record that song.
This followed the best rendition of Danny Boy…
Back at the hotel that night, I played the song on my phone. I think I paid more attention to Ms Deer’s soft face and her voice rather the song itself, which was, very melodious but I couldn’t understand anything.
Danny Boy, one of my favourite Irish songs, was a known devil, except in that setting it had sounded exceptional – hearing her sing that had sounded as though there was nothing strange or different about being in North Korea – that a song was a bridge between the two worlds and because of that, somehow everything was normal, same. If Danny Boy had permeated the hard layers of regime, then it was a matter of time that McDonalds and Starbucks and internet itself would appear -or so my heart wished.
When I returned home, I looked for Aariang and added Danny Boy on a loop – I couldnt let go. When in DPRK, Danny Boy was the connection to a civilised world but back in a civilised world, these songs seemed as though I wanted to remain connected to a world I had just come from, that was like nothing I had even before or wished to see again.