Albanian traditional musical instruments

Albanian traditional musical instruments

Albanian traditional musical instruments

(The article below, written by R Sokoli, first appeared in issue No 5, 1971 of the magazine New Albania. It is reproduced here (slightly edited) to aid a greater understanding of some of the works of art that were produced during the Socialist period (1944-1990) of Albania’s past. Although folklore hasn’t been totally abandoned in the present-day capitalist Albania traditional dress and culture don’t hold the same important role in Albanian society as in the past.)

Musical instruments of our People

From the past our people have inherited various musical instruments which are of interest for their craftsmanship, their originality, the way they are used and the tones they express. The knowledge and study of these instruments are of special significance to our national art and culture for, through them, we delve deeper into the quality of our folk music and the peculiarities of the musical talent of our people. Now and then we hear the tones emitted by these instruments in every village or town quarter. Without them no social entertainment takes place.

Taking them in the order of the four main scientifically established genres, we have in the first place those of the idiophonic genre like (1) the two pebbles hit together in order to lure the swarm of bees which have abandoned their original hive, (2) ‘rrakataket’ which children make out of corn blades cut lengthwise, (3) ‘rrekezat’ made of twigs plaited together in a spherical shape with round pieces of wood or pebbles inside used to entertain small children when the device is shaken, (4) ‘gergerat’ made of a tapered wooden axis ending with an elastic square which bounces making a noise when turned around (5) the metallic tray which is used in northern and north-eastern parts of Albania to accompany songs and dances, (6) three dish spoons which are used to keep time, (7) ‘çaparet’ in the form of metallic discs tied to the fingers of dancers used in Central Albania to keep time by jingling them when dancing, (8) bells or gongs of various shapes, sizes and names used for ritual, practical or aesthetic purposes, (9) ‘trokeza’ or ‘çanga’ made of a board or metallic plate hanging down on a rope and used as a means of signalling, (10) ‘cungrana’ of the Albanian settlers in Italy pierced by a metallic rod in the form of a horseshoe which vibrates and emits sound when touched by the fingers.

Albanian traditional musical instruments - drum

Albanian traditional musical instruments – drum

From the membraphonic genre we have: (a) the tambourine, a shallow drum with loose metallic discs at the sides, (b) the drum or tympanic membrane, consisting of a hollow cylinder with a skin head stretched over each end, (c) the ‘kadum’ or ‘tullumbas’ in the shape of a half-cylindrical cup with a skin stretched over its ends, (d) ‘tarabuku’ in the shape of a jar with a skin stretched over its head. All four of the above instruments serve to stress the rhythm.

Albanian traditional musical instruments - tambourine

Albanian traditional musical instruments – tambourine

Of the aerophonic genre we have, first of all, some made from plants like the ‘picanga’, which children make out of grass blades, corn stalks, of apricot seeds (‘frysa’) or of the bark of young twigs (‘gezhoja’ or ‘bilbil’). These plant based instruments such as ‘lugefyllka’,’shtambushka’, ‘tuza’ and ‘kallami me leter’ are temporary entertainments producing some tune or other. But real tunes of good musical taste our popular masters can extract from the leaf of certain trees – blowing at its edge. A ‘pre-musical’ instrument of the aerophonic genre, so to speak, is the ‘bobla’ which is made of the horn of cattle or of the shell of a sea-snail. It is used in the southwestern part of Albania by farmers, shepherds, guardians of vineyards, millers, fishermen and others as a signalling device. Whereas the Albanian settlers in Calabria (Italy) use the ‘vronja’, made of a dried pumpkin, as a means of sounding an alarm. This category includes also the ‘kapza’ or ‘buria’ which children make in spring from the bark of trees in long strips which they wind into the shape of a funnel.

Albanian traditional musical instruments - flute

Albanian traditional musical instruments – flute

The most popular and the dearest aerophonic instrument of our peasants is the ‘fyelli’ (the flute) which is made in shapes, sizes and names different for each district. The key of this instrument depends on the number of holes and is blown either inclined at the lips or fixed on the tooth.

In various shapes, sizes and names appear also the ‘pipza’ which are usually made at harvest time from various stalks.

Albanian traditional musical instruments - pipza

Albanian traditional musical instruments – pipza

‘Surleja’ or ‘zunaia’ is another aerophonic instrument with a wooden cylindro-conical neck, some holes on the surface and a double tip at the end.

In Laberia we have the ‘bicule’ or ‘cylediare’ made of two tapered nozzles carved on a wooden block, one of the nozzles has only three holes while the other has four on the top and one hole on the opposite side.

In southeastern Albania we have the ‘gajda’ which is made of a sheepskin with two vents (‘pipka’ and ‘buçalla’) one (the shorter) for the melody and the other (the longer) for the refrain.

The genre of string instruments begins also with some children’s musical entertainments as, for instance, ‘lodergramthi’, ‘tingerringe’ ‘ugari’ and others.

Albanian traditional musical instruments - strings

Albanian traditional musical instruments – strings

The most widespread string instruments are the ‘çiftelia’, a stringed ‘bakllamaja’ (3 strings), ‘sharkija’ (4, 6, 8, strings) ‘sazeja’ (10 strings) ‘çyri’ and ‘jongari’ which have been almost abandoned now. This category of instruments possess some common characteristics in shapes, use, etc. but at the same time they are distinct from one another.

In addition to the above from this genre we have the ‘udi’ with four pairs of strings and in the shape of a pear cut lengthwise. Related to this instrument are the ‘bozuku’ (with from 6 to 8 strings) and ‘kalushun’ (with from 2 to 3 strings) which the Albanian settlers in Italy use.

Finally, from this genre we have the ‘lahute’ (with one string) used in Northern Albania and ‘laurina’ (with 3 strings) used in the Mati District.

Albanian traditional musical instruments - flute and tambourine

Albanian traditional musical instruments – flute and tambourine

In addition to these musical instruments made by our peasants, our folklore has been enriched by certain instruments manufactured abroad like the violin, clarinet, accordion which are being broadly used by our instrumentalists.

In short, these are the musical instruments used by our people.

Some of them are used only in certain districts while others are in use all over the country. Some of them are native and of old origin while others have been introduced under various historical circumstances but as years roll on have been adapted to the taste and musical peculiarity of our people.

Albanian traditional musical instruments - group

Albanian traditional musical instruments – group

Of the above instruments some are used solo while others are used in groups. The way they are grouped depends more or less on the occasion, districts and availability for their use. As a rule, our people prefer groups of few instruments. Many melodies have been created, preserved and developed by these instruments.

St George’s Hall – Minton Tile Floor – Liverpool

St George Window - Concert Hall - St George's Hall - Liverpool

St George Window

St George’s Hall is one of the most impressive buildings in Liverpool (in a city which has many) and gives an indication of the wealth that once passed through what was once claimed to be ‘the second city of the Empire’ – after London (although other cities claim this ‘accolade’, Glasgow and Bristol being two of them). The Minton Tile floor is an expression of this wealth.

I don’t want to go into too much detail about the building itself (I’ll do that in other posts) as here I want to concentrate upon the Minton tiled floor of the main concert room, which has recently been on public view for a couple of weeks. It wasn’t long after the building opened in 1854 that a decision was made to cover the sunken part of the floor to protect the tiles for posterity. In some ways a strange decision as the covering of the more than 30,000 tiles takes away much of the splendour of the hall itself. Don’t get me wrong, the concert hall is still very impressive, but it’s a bit like a book with part of the story missing.

However, that decision made so long ago does mean that on the occasions when the floor is uncovered visitors get an unparalleled idea of what was it was possible to achieve during the heyday of Britain’s industrial greatness. Comparing the protected tiles with the surrounds you are able to appreciate the way that the lack of protection has taken its toll in some places but also to realise that these tiles are incredibly hardy as many areas have survived quite well.

So a few facts and figures. St George’s Hall, built in the middle of the 19th century, is classified as a neoclassical building. That means it takes its architectural influence from the buildings that remain from ancient Greece and Rome – and the Hall mixes the two. Not strictly so, but more or less Greek on the outside and Roman on the inside, especially in the main concert hall where the inspiration for the architect, Harvey Londsdale Elmes, came from the Baths of Caracalla in Rome.

At the time when it was unveiled the floor was the largest pavement of its kind in existence being some 140 feet long and 72 wide and was constructed using more than 30,000 tiles. The part of the floor that is normally covered is sunken and is a couple or feet or so below the walk way that goes around the edge of the hall. When uncovered it’s possible to see the grills that were all part of the central heating (and cooling) system that was all part of the original design and one of the first of its kind in the modern world – we have forgotten much of what the Romans had learnt. However, the covering of the floor meant that the imaginative innovation came to nought, at least in the main hall.

In the centre there’s the Royal Coat of Arms, measuring 5 feet in diameter. On both sides of that design the rest of the floor is basically symmetrical, along the length of the hall. Within those two areas are found: the Liverpool Coat of Arms; the Star of St George; the Rose; the Thistle; and the Shamrock. I’m afraid for the Welsh there is nothing, even though the Welsh had a huge influence on the early development of Liverpool and it’s more than likely that many of the men working on the site would have been Welsh, the building trades being where they tended to gravitate. Between these picture designs there are large swirling arcs which are made up of flower designs and filling the gaps geometric designs following a regular patter. At both ends of the hall there are semi-circles that have the face of Neptune at the apex and on both sides are sea satires and nymphs in amorous embrace, together with dolphins and other sea creatures. The dominant colours are buff, brown and blue.

To give an idea of how the tiles were made I can do no better than reproduce a description from one of the local Liverpool newspapers which carried a long story about the Hall at the time of its opening in 1854:

The antique practise of tile making, as appears from the existing remains of ancient works, confined the manufacture of the use of few colours or tints. The method commonly used seems to have been this: – A piece of well tampered clay having been prepared, of a proper size (usually about six inches square and one inch in thickness), a die, having some ornament in relievo was pressed upon it, the indented pattern thus produced was then filled in with clay of some other colour, generally white, the tile was then covered with a metallic glaze, which imparted to the ground (usually red) a deeper and richer colour, and gave the white ornament a yellowish hue. These tiles were often arranged in sets of 4, 16, or more, and sometimes intersected with bands of plain tiles, of a self colour, such as black, red and white, and frequently displayed great geometrical skill and beauty of effect. Good examples may be seen in the churches of St Denis and St Omer, in France, and specimens from the abbeys of Juvaulux, Westminster, and other buildings in England. The modern process of encaustic tile making, as adopted by Messers MINTON, HOLLINS and Co, enables them to produce not only a far greater variety and brilliance of colour in the general effect of a pavement, but admits of several colours being placed upon a single tile, thus producing a soft effect of fine mosaic work, in a much more durable and less expensive material.

From The Liverpool Mercury, September 19th, 1854

In the more distant past the floor was only uncovered at very long intervals, 10 years or more, but it looks like this event has set to become an annual affair. In 2012 it was ‘revealed’ for two weeks in January but in 2013 for two weeks in August. Next year, who knows.

There have been suggestions to try and construct a glass floor over at least a part of the sunken area but so far they have come to nought. And anyway that might allow an understanding of the skill of the craftsmen and the beauty of the design but not of its scale, which can only be appreciated when fully uncovered. To keep the floor on permanent display would bring into conflict the preservation of a unique architectural attribute with the desire to use a major City Centre public indoor space.

I hope the slide show below will provide an idea of what is hidden from view 51 weeks of the year.

Minton Tile Floor Reveal 2018

This year the floor will be uncovered between Friday 3rd and Sunday 12th August. Entrance is via the Heritage Centre on St John’s Lane from 10.00 – 17.00 everyday. Entrance to the Great Hall is £3.00 (under 16s normally get in free – but no information on webpage this year). This allows the visitor to get an overall view of the floor from the balcony.

There are opportunities to walk on the floor, obviously providing a closer view of the art work, as part of a guided tour. These will take place at 10.00 and 16.00 each day the floor is uncovered. In the past the demand has been so great that an extra slot has been created – so check back of the ticket site for an update, especially after the 3rd August. Each group is limited to a maximum of 30 people. Only bookable online by visiting the TicketQuarter website. Tickets cost £12.00 per person, this year there’s no administration fee. 

There’s another option to get a closer look at the floor if you book for the event known as ‘A Night on the Tiles’ which takes place daily at 18.00, 18.45, 19.30 and 20.15 each day the floor is uncovered. This allows you to walk on the floor, you get a class of something fizzy and costs £14.00 per person. Get tickets in advance, online, at the TicketQuarter page. 

Neptune and The Liver Bird - Concert Hall - St George's Hall - Liverpool

Neptune and The Liver Bird

Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum – Pyongyang, DPRK

Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum - Panorama

Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum – Panorama

The complex that is the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum contains one of the largest collections of Socialist Realist art in Pyongyang, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Comprising of ten slightly more than life-size tableau, stand alone statues, bas reliefs and mosaics these amazing works of art tell the story of how the people in the north of Korean peninsula stood up against the invading forces of the United Nations – puppets of United States imperialism – during the just over three years (25th June, 1950 – 27th July, 1953) of what the west calls ‘The Korean War’ but which the people of the north call the ‘Victorious Fatherland Liberation War’.

(The other large concentration of Socialist Realist Sculptures are at the Mansudae Grand Monument where the two huge statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are flanked by two tableau, comprising 228 bronze figures which depict, on the left, the War of Liberation and, on the right, the Construction of Socialism. This is considered the most sacred site in the DPRK and photographing, in detail, the tableau is not really possible.)

From the introduction to the book ‘Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum’ (Foreign Languages Publishing House, DPRK, 2014):

The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum is located on the bank of the picturesque Pothong River in Pyongyang, the capital of the DPRK.

Under the auspices and energetic guidance of Marshal Kim Jong Un, the museum was renovated in July Juche 102 (2013) on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the victory in the war in order to hand down to posterity the brilliant tradition of invincibility and immortal patriotic exploits performed by Generalissimos Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and the indomitable fighting spirit and heroic feats displayed by the DPRK service personnel and people in the struggle for national defence.

Covering an area of 93,000 m², it comprehends the protracted history of the Korean people’s struggle, ranging from the periods of the anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle and the Fatherland Liberation War to the anti-imperialist, anti-US showdown in postwar years. On display there are over 300 revolutionary relics, 120,000 war relics, materials and data in their original state.

With a total floor space of 51,000 m² its main building consists of three storeys above and one storey under the ground.

In the central hall stands the colour statue of Generalissimo on Kim 11 Sung who is acknowledging enthusiastic cheers of the Korean service personnel and people in the plaza of war victory in July 1953.

On the first floor are a hall displaying the materials relating to the anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle which was organized and led by Kim Il Sung, especially those relating to main operations and battles fought in those days, a hall displaying the materials about the building of regular armed forces for the first time in Korea after its liberation, and a hall displaying material evidence that the US imperialists who had occupied southern half of Korea committed, in collusion with the south Korean puppet army, armed provocations against the north and at last unleashed the Korean war.

On show on the second floor are the materials relating with the strategic policies for every period and stage of the Fatherland Liberation War advanced by Supreme Commander Kim Il Sung, brilliant military strategist and iron-willed commander, main battles and heroic struggle of soldiers and civilians who defended every inch of their country at the cost of their lives to carry out the orders of the Supreme Commander and other relics.

On the same floor are also halls dedicated to the Chinese People’s Volunteers who participated in the war upholding the slogan “Resist America, aid Korea, safeguard the home and defend the motherland,” to the peoples over the world who rendered selfless material aid and moral support to the Korean people, to the materials about brutal atrocities committed by the US forces during the war and their bitter defeat, and to the brilliant victory won by the soldiers and people in the hard-fought war for national defence. On this floor are the halls of peculiar style dedicated to the anti-Japanese revolutionary fighters, leading commanding officers of the Korean People’s Army during the Fatherland Liberation War and internationalist fighters.

On the corridor linking the main building with the hall dedicated to the battle for liberating Taejon are exhibited the photos showing war heroes’ feats that would go down in national history and their relics.

On the third floor are the halls displaying the materials relating with Party political work Kim Il Sung conducted energetically to enlist all the soldiers and people in the effort to achieve victory in the war and those showing the struggle of the officers and men of services, arms and corps and the brave activities of the people in the rear.

In the hall dedicated to the Liberation of Taejon there is a large-scale panorama showing the victorious battle, which was recorded as a “living example of modern encirclement battle,” fought in line with the original tactics and under the adroit command of Supreme Commander Kim Il Sung.

The museum has also a hall that comprehensively shows the immortal exploits of Generalissimo Kim Jong Il who adorned the history of anti-imperialist, anti-US showdown with victory on the strength of Songun-based revolutionary leadership.

On show outside the museum are the merited weapons in the war, enemy military hardware captured during and after the war, and the Pueblo, a US armed spy ship which was captured in 1968 while committing espionage acts in the territorial waters of the DPRK.

The museum, built in a characteristic way in conformity with the architectural and aesthetic demands of the new century, will remain a structure representing the unshakeable faith and will of the Korean service personnel and people who are determined to defend the exploits of victory performed by the Generalissimos and carry them forward through generations under the wise leadership of Marshal Kim Jong Un, and a symbol of eternal victory of Songun Korea with great traditions.

The uniqueness of Korean Socialist Realist sculptures

Those of you who have visited this site before will be aware of the respect I hold for the art that’s represented in the Albanian lapidars – and that respect remains undiminished. But (why is there always a but?) the examples you will see in the DPRK are different. They tell the same story – more or less – but the images (and this is in all the main sculptural fields – sculpture, bas reliefs and mosaics) seem, in a sense, to be more refined. There’s a, dare I say it, finesse to the images in Pyongyang and the rest of the country which is missing from those in Tirana and other parts of Albania.

I’ve discussed this difference between different Socialist countries and the ‘feel’ you get from observing those images which were produced during the period of the construction of Socialism. For example, although both fine sculptures in their own right there’s a marked difference in style between the two bronze statues of Comrade JV Stalin which now stand neglected behind the National Art Gallery in the centre of Tirana.

As I consider the matter more I believe it’s possibly a difference between European Socialist Realist Art and that produced in Asia. The art traditions of the far east were finer than those of the west even before the first Socialist Revolution in Russia in 1917. The fine prints that have been produced on all sorts of materials in Asia are reflected more in some of the examples of British realism of the early part of the 20th century rather than the work of the Soviet Union or the paintings inside the actual National Art Gallery in Tirana.

When it comes to sculptures I believe the Asian examples, of both the DPRK and Socialist China, have been able to capture emotions in a manner that was much more subtle than their European counter-parts. The finest example I know of in China is the series of clay statues which were produced in 1968 (during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution) depicting the suffering of pre-revolutionary peasants. This series of statues telling the story of how poor peasants had to make payments in kind to oppressive and exploitative landlords is called ‘Rent Collection Courtyard’ (with the interesting Introduction to photographic version) which were displayed in what used to be a landlord’s house in Szechuan Province.

(I don’t know the fate of this collection of 114 statues. They were reproduced and put on show in Beijing but the politics represented by this story of the peasantry doesn’t fit with the present capitalist regime in China. The post 1976 (the date from which all the revolutionary achievements of the People’s Republic of China began to be reversed) regime even has an impact upon the public art, witness the tableau outside of Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum in Beijing – impressive in many ways but lacks the passion of the likes of ‘Rent Collection Courtyard’. Their sense of aesthetics also doesn’t bode well – just have a look at what they used to celebrate the Anniversary of Chairman Mao‘s Declaration of the People’s Republic in October 2017.)

Tienanmen Square - October 2017

Tienanmen Square – October 2017

It’s revolutionary passion that determines the feeling and impression the viewer gets from the tableau at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. The artists believed in what they were creating. Believed in the story they wanted to tell. Believed that it had a purpose over and above their own personal vanity. Yes, they should be proud of what they had created but their names will not be found on the results. They subsume their personal ego to the common good – which should be the aim of artists, as with all other workers, in a Socialist society. Celebrity status is an anathema to Socialism. All of these artists work out of the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang.

This finesse means that you get a much better impression of the emotions that the artists have wanted to create in their characters – anger, jubilation, compassion, determination, struggle, happiness and joy, etc.

The sculptural aspects of the complex

To enter the museum grounds you go through a triumphal arch. On the left side is a statue of three males representing the three military services – army, navy and air force. Above them is the number 1950, the year the War of Liberation started. They are dressed and armed with the weapons of that time. On the opposite side are three other males, of the same military services, but now everything has moved on a few years and their weapons and clothing have been updated.

1950-1953 - How things had changed

1950-1953 – How things had changed

Above the vehicle entrance to the site, carved into the stone, are partially unfurled ceremonial banners, and in between the two sets of three banners is a campaign medal, the star in evidence.

Going higher there’s a long, rectangular metal plaque with gold lettering where it is written in Korean (obviously) the words ‘Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum’.

On the highest point of the arch, in the middle, is a large, metal rondel with a large star in the centre. Flanking the star on either side is an almost semi-circle of ripe ears of rice. This follows the format established by the Soviet Union where the rice would have been replaced with ears of grain but in both cases stresses both the idea of providing the staple food as well as a reference to the importance of agriculture. On either side of this rondel is a DPRK National Flag, also of metal. This flag in reality is a red star inside a white rondel which sits on a red background. A blue strip, about a fifth of the width of the flag, is above and below the red portion. This design was adopted in 1948.

Once through the arch you enter a large, open esplanade. This, I assume, is where formal events take place at the location, especially anniversaries of the Liberation War, as this is the start of what is officially designated as the ‘Monument to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War 1950-1953’. This was created in 1993 in time for the celebrations of the 40th Anniversary of the end of the war and extends from this esplanade to the single statue of the ‘Victory’ just before the entrance to the Museum building itself. This monument is dedicated to the Korean People’s Army and Korean People who defeated the US imperialists and its allies in the Fatherland Liberation War.

(I can understand why nations celebrate the end of wars but haven’t been able to get my head around the obsession that has gripped officialdom (and some of the population) in Britain over the start of the 1914 World War – the war that was supposed to end all war – and at every possible opportunity in the subsequent (almost) four years. I can only assume it’s part of a propaganda battle to keep the population numb with the idea of war and allows the country to threaten, and often take action, against other perceived enemies. There is only one year (1968) since the end of the Second World War in 1945 where British armed forces have not been involved in killing people in other parts of the world. On the other hand the DPRK has not invaded any country and they are branded as the aggressors. But then, why should we take facts into account?)

There’s a large, metal schematic of the complex, at the edge of the grassed area.

Schematic of the Museum Complex

Schematic of the Museum Complex

On either side of this plaque there are two Korean Soldiers – effectively on sentry duty to the monument. Standing to attention, with a rifle hanging from a strap over their right shoulders, they stand in front of huge stylised red flags, constructed of marble. They are looking slightly to their left, therefore covering the space between them. The soldier on the left stands underneath the symbol of the Korean Workers’ Party – the hammer, sickle and ink brush – and the soldier on the right stands beneath the emblem of the DPRK. At the top is a large red star, radiating light to all below. Beneath that is the outline of Mount Paektu, the highest mountain in the country and one which has had symbolic importance for centuries. Next is a schematic representation of a hydro-electric dam with a pylon taking the power to other parts of the country. Supporting these images, on both sides, are ripe ears of rice. Finally, in gold lettering on a symbolic red scroll is written the words ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’.

From here on symmetry rules – as it does in many of the monuments in Pyongyang, both their construction and the relationship they might have with other structures in the city. One of the consequences of the blanket bombing of the North’s capital between 1950 and 1953 was that during reconstruction the architects were provided with a, more or less, blank canvas as there were virtually no buildings that survived intact in the city. That US bombing campaign saw more tons dropped on the north of Korea in those three years than were dropped by all combatant nations in the Second World War. That unenviable ‘record’ was broken when the US decided that it had the right to determine the future of yet another Asian people, when they interfered and invaded Vietnam in the 1960s.

Down the centre is an immaculately manicured lawn with seasonal flowers in the beds. There are also a couple of large and ornate fountains which are connected by a tunnel of water when operating. This whole area looks impressive at night (see the front of the booklet on the museum, link below) but, unfortunately a night time visit wasn’t on the cards when I was in the country.

However, for me, the main interest is the collection of ten, large tableau which seek to tell the story of the Liberation War. There are four of these on each side of the lawns, then there’s a smaller esplanade where two others flank the large statue of the male allegorical representation of ‘Victory’.

Some of those tableau represent specific battles or campaigns but in general they represent the whole nation’s struggle against the invading, imperialist forces. The three main strands of the armed forces, the army, navy and air force, are depicted as well as the ever important guerrilla forces and the role of the work carried out in the rear. Women are shown (although in a minority) both armed and taking part in battles as regular fighters or guerrillas, but also in supplying the front with necessary equipment and materials. As in the various battles and wars that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the People’s Republic of China, the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam had to fight to achieve and then construct Socialism women played a crucial role in the final victory.

The group statues also illustrate those values that a Socialist country wants to celebrate from those who have fought in the past as well as to instil such values in future generations.

The People's Liberation Navy

The People’s Liberation Navy

People's Liberation Army

People’s Liberation Army

Liberation Air Force

Liberation Air Force

Women in the Liberation War

Women in the Liberation War

Three Generations

Three Generations

Compassion

Compassion

Civilians are warriors too

Civilians are warriors too

Liberation

Liberation

Sweat of her labour

Sweat of her labour

Behind the group sculptures on the right (as you walk towards the museum building) is a mock-up of trench warfare that leads to open sheds where captured military hardware of the invaders is stored. On the left hand side, behind other plastic trenches, is a collection of the hardware used by the People’s Liberation Army, including the likes of Russian MIG jets and T34 tanks.

The capture of The Pueblo

January 1968 wasn’t a good month for the US President Johnson or the USA in general, when it came to their foreign ‘adventures’. On the 23rd their spy ship, The Pueblo, was boarded and captured by the forces of the DPRK whilst carrying out surveillance activities in the East Sea of Korea/Sea of Japan. A week later the Tet Offensive began in Vietnam – the one single event in that murderous war that showed the US imperialists that – however much they spent, however many Vietnamese they killed and however many of their own troops would return in body bags or scarred for life – they would be unable to win.

The Pueblo - US Spy Ship

The Pueblo – US Spy Ship

The DPRK, obviously pleased to have achieved such an important propaganda coup, didn’t flinch under pressure from the US to return the boat and its crew and it wasn’t until 11 months later, when the US admitted its espionage activities, that they got their crew back. The ship, no. It is moored on the banks of the River Potong and is now a permanent part of the exhibits of the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum and a visit is always on the itinerary of all visitors to the museum.

However, this episode didn’t deter the US from maintaining spying activities over the country and they faced another disaster on April 15th 1969 when one of their spy planes, EC-121 was shot down and all 31 Americans on board were killed. Now, I’m sure, a number of satellites regularly monitor what’s going on in the DPRK.

‘Victory’

'Victory'

‘Victory’

The statue of ‘Victory’ is posed in a manner which is common in Socialist Realist military monuments, a soldier going forward but looking behind and calling for others to join him/her in the advance. Here he holds a DPRK flag, his right hand high on the flag pole, with his left arm outstretched behind him, his hand adding urgency to his call for others to join the fight. Hanging from a strap around his neck is a Soviet Shpagin PPSh-41, sub-machine gun, millions of which had been produced in the Soviet Union for the defeat of the Hitlerites in the Great Patriotic War and which were now used in another war against an aggressive, invading force.

The Museum Entrance Façade

Entrance to the interior of the museum is by a door in the centre of the concave façade just behind the statue ‘Victory’. Before going inside have a look at the 17 large bas reliefs that take up the whole of the frontage. These tell the story of the Fatherland Liberation War, some images reflecting actual events whilst others episodes of warfare that would have taken place during the three years of the conflict. Only one of them has a date, (7 27) the 7th July, and that’s the one on the extreme right, which shows an image of the celebration of the end of the war in 1953. If you have had a look at the statues in the Memorial Park you will notice that certain images are repeated in a slightly different form, but as with the statues all the armed forces are represented and the role of the regular and guerrilla fighters, the old and the young, of men and women are all represented and their achievements and efforts commemorated and celebrated.

All the images in the centre of these bas reliefs are different but the surround are in common – apart from the slogan written at the top. A folded, ceremonial scroll creates the border at the top and to about half way down on both sides. Then, on the right hand side is a furled national flag which just shows the star. On the left hand side a similar banner is folded to reveal the symbol of the Korean Workers’ Party – the hammer, sickle and ink brush. (The Party Foundation Monument is a huge representation of this symbol.) Above and below these two banners ears of ripe rice poke their way into the light.

At the bottom there’s a busy scene. There are three, partially furled banners on each side which rise from the bottom centre to each side of the bas relief, forming a V for Victory. All these banners have a spear shaped finial at the top. At the point where these banners cross there’s a large red star surrounded by ears of rice – similar to the star over the main triumphal entry arch. On the banner closest to the viewer on the left hand side is a large star and on the right the emblem of the DPRK – as described above. Finally, at the very bottom are more ears of rice.

Female guerrilla activity and the Red Star

Female guerrilla activity and the Red Star

Mosaics

At the right hand edge of the concave facade the wall becomes convex and here there’s a mosaic depicting a victory of the People’s Liberation Army over the US imperialist forces. Flags of the DPRK flutter in the wind and the largest, which dominates the mosaic, is attached to the central figure’s rifle (again another trope that can be seen in Albanian lapidars, for example the statue at Fier Martyrs’ Cemetery). In celebration of their victory the men (strangely all men in this image), some of them wounded and bandaged, have their arms in the air, weapons in hands as they cheer themselves for their success. At the base of the image a tattered Stars and Stripes (the US flag) of the defeated aggressor lies in the dirt. To its left is a discarded helmet of an absent US soldier, the skull and crossbones image indicating that they have brought death to a country where they have no right to be.

US = Death

US = Death

There are many fine mosaics, some of them very large, in Pyongyang and other locations in the DPRK (some of which I will be posting at a later time) but this one at the museum is slightly different. Most of the mosaics use small pieces of coloured stone. Here, on the other hand, the image is almost monochrome as the image is created by a handful of colours (a couple of shades of brown, black, white and a slightly bluish off-white) on rectangular tiles. Some of these are broken but the majority of the image is constructed by a technique that is similar to brick laying, the tiles in a regular pattern. From afar it’s difficult to even realise that it is a mosaic but getting close you can appreciate the artistry of those workers from the Mansudae Art Studio who created these images.

On the left hand side of the bas reliefs there’s another large mosaic. This is, again, a victory scene but this time a group of combatants are on the rocky summit of a high hill. Tall pine trees set the scene but it’s uncertain exactly what has been achieved. Interestingly here the banner is not the national flag but the red flag of Communism. Although a scene of jubilation the feeling is different. Yes there are one or two weapons raised high in the air but the celebration is much more intimate. An older man, who could be the commander of the group, is hugging a young bugler and a couple of young women are also holding each other. You get the impression of what has been achieved is a victory over their own weaknesses rather than that of the enemy – as in the first mosaic.

Victorious Comrades

Victorious Comrades

Kneeling down at the bottom left of the image a male soldier has scooped up a couple of handfuls of soil which he holds in his hands as he looks, smiling, in the same direction as the others. Soil to a peasant is everything and here we are given the impression that these fighters are now the possessors of all they survey.

The rest of the outside

There were many parts of the building, from the outside, I wasn’t able to visit due to constraints of time but I was aware that there were many other bas reliefs on display, especially on the part of the museum extension that was completed in 2012.

The interior

It’s not permitted to take pictures inside the museum but you can get an idea of what is presented from book Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, published in 2014. Unfortunately, although an English version exists (the introduction at the beginning of the blog comes from that version) it’s not available for download. To get a copy which shows the same images but with captions in Korean go to Publications of the DPRK, click on the Korean page (the language link on the extreme left) and type 조국해방전쟁승리기념관 in the search box.

Who started the war?

No one ever starts wars – or, at least, it’s always the other side. That obviously is impossible. War is the extension of politics by other means and truth is always the first casualty of war. Whatever answer you give to this question in relation to the Fatherland Liberation War, as well as in what you might call that particular conflict, is equally a statement of political allegiance.

I don’t intend to go into any depth here about the conflict between 1950 and 1953 – which, in theory still exists. An armistice was signed, not a treaty. However, as this post is about the Museum in Pyongyang that celebrates the achievements of the workers and peasants of the north in that war I don’t think it can be completely ignored.

So a few points:

  • The idea of ‘drawing lines’ at the end of World War Two might have seemed like a good idea at the time but it’s long-term effects have been disastrous for many millions of people. I believe this was agreed by the Soviet union as an attempt to prevent war – the problem the agreement was made with imperialist powers who were not prepared to give up what they had or wouldn’t be prevented from acquiring more control in those parts of the world where the weakened European imperialist could no longer guarantee their control of the old colonies.
  • Although prepared to support the DPRK against imperialist aggression both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China were tired of war and it made no sense to instigate another confrontation with the capitalist states so soon after such destructive wars in their respective countries. The US had no qualms about this having benefited from the World War Two and feeling that it had the right to decide what peoples’ should do and what system they should live under.
  • It was under US instigation that aggressive border controls were set up along the 38th parallel in 1946, restricting movement and creating needless antagonism in the border region.
  • The US constantly went back on agreements when they could get a way with it. In Korea they supported the ultra-right, ultra-nationalist, neo-Fascist Syngman Rhee who would be a willing tool in the attempts by the US to destroy any attempts to construct Socialism in the Korean peninsula. (It should be remembered, when many people refer to ‘Democratic’ South Korea, that Rhee and his successors were virtual dictators of the country and it wasn’t until 1988 that any sense of a parliamentary system was instituted in the country. During all that time the country was supported militarily, politically and economically by the US – with no criticism of a dictatorship.)
  • Korea was seen by the US as a place where they had to stand against the spread of Communism, especially after the success of the Communist Party of China, led by Chairman Mao, and the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The failure of the US (and its UN puppet supporters, such as the UK) to defeat the DPRK in the 1950s was to lead, inevitably, to the US involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s.
  • Although tensions were high at the beginning of 1950 overtures from the DPRK for nationwide elections were summarily rejected by the puppet regime in the south. Only a spark was needed to ignite a full confrontation but the south (with American support) made no attempt to reduce the tense atmosphere.
  • The U.S. Diplomat John Foster Dulles visited Korea on 18 June 1950, seven days before hostilities broke out. Syngman Rhee would have done nothing without US approval and would also do whatever they required.
  • The US sought ‘legitimacy’ from the United nations, securing a resolution of the Security Council on 7th July 1950. The USSR at that time was boycotting the UN in support of the seat on the Council reserved for China was held by the Nationalist Government in Taiwan and denying hundreds of millions of Chinese representation in the international forum. The US doesn’t always need UN support (and had not called for it in the previous five years in their wars of intervention and didn’t call for it in Vietnam) but it helps in the propaganda war to have a piece of paper to justify the killing. When they failed to get such a resolution in 2003 they invaded Iraq nonetheless.

For more detailed ideas of how the war is seen by the DPRK have a look at The Korean War – An unanswered question. If you want the point of view of the ‘victim of aggression’ – the put upon United States – I’m sure you will find justification in spades.

Further information

The attempted isolation of the DPRK means that it’s not very easy to obtain information about the country from the country itself – most information in the west being filtered through antagonistic capitalist media outlets. For those interested in the opportunity to see the DPRK from another perspective go to Publications of the DPRK where there are a number of language options (although not all books and pamphlets are necessarily available in all those languages).