Norwegian synthpop and North Korea are an unlikely combination. But that’s exactly the mix that has spawned the Internet’s latest viral hit. A video of five North Korean accordionists playing the 1980’s song “Take On Me” by a-ha has nearly one million views on YouTube. And that’s only in its first week online.
Norwegian artist and director Morten Traavik shot the video in Pyongyang last December in preparation for the Barents Spektakel, an international arts festival currently underway in Kirkenes, Norway. It was the culmination of multiple trips to North Korea over several years.
“I wanted them to play, since they would be playing in Norway, to include some Norwegian tunes in their repertoire,” Traavik said in a telephone interview with VOA. “I brought them three Norwegian songs that are more of a classical nature, and also the “Take On Me” by our only world-famous pop group a-ha on a CD.”
Artist Morten Traavik, center, poses in Pyongyang as a touring rock musician for his 2010 exhibit "Rock Steady North Korea."
Traavik says he was impressed by how quickly the young North Koreans, who attend Pyongyang’s Kum Song Music School, mastered the tune.
“I gave them the CD with no notes, no annotations, nothing whatsoever, only the song on a CD on a Monday evening, and the clip that you see was filmed on Wednesday morning,” he said.
In the video, three men and two women sway to the beat of the music, their arms wrapped around the accordions.
“I think this has been a revelation to quite some people around the world, you can actually have a good time in North Korea as well,” said Traavik, who is known for his sensational projects, including the Miss Landmine pageants in Angola and Cambodia.
The North Korean musical troupe is in Norway this week for the Barents festival, where they mainly will be performing Korean songs that are both traditional and modern, including military marches. The event is located in northeastern Norway, near the Russian border, and celebrates the creativity that has flourished since the end of the Cold War in Europe.
Traavik said the North Korean musicians had no idea they had become an Internet sensation. They travelled from Pyongyang to Oslo completely unaware that their performance of “Take On Me” was being viewed by people around the world.
“When they put their foot on Norwegian soil, they were already world-famous without knowing it,” Traavik said. “They don’t have any concept of YouTube or Internet, so it hasn't really affected their energy or their performances here that much, which I think is good, because they might get overwhelmed if they realized the full scope that the clip is getting.”
The North Korean group was selected to perform at a reception hosted this week by the Norwegian Ministry of Culture to mark the opening of the festival. They performed both a Korean song and “Take On Me” to an audience that Traavik described as “delighted.”
Afterward, the ensemble was asked to pose for a photograph with the U.S. ambassador to Norway. Traavik said the North Koreans agreed, but the American diplomat declined the opportunity.