Local violinist Eddie Parente recently had a rare experience for an American: a 10-day trip to North Korea. Parente, a 50-year-old jazz and folk fiddler who has performed in Portland for more than two decades, played three shows with three other musicians at the 24th annual Spring Art and Friendship Festival in the capital of Pyongyang.
A frequent traveler to Russia and other far-flung locales, Parente says the trip last month sponsored by Mercy Corps International was his first inside one of the world's most hermetic countries.
Here's what he learned as one of just 2,000 Westerners who get inside the Communist country each year.
WW: What do you play for a North Korean audience?
Eddie Parente: They wanted American folk music, so we played some American fiddle tunes, a Hank Williams song, a Richard Fariña song. But we had the foresight to investigate learning a very beautiful song called "Ari Rang" that every Korean person knows. It's a beautiful melody, and I get choked up thinking about it because it became very apparent how meaningful that song was. There's a line that says, "The heavens have many stars, and we have as many dreams".... [The audience] loved it, and they were actually singing along. It was a very moving experience.
What were the audiences like otherwise?
Very receptive. I didn't know how they would receive American music, because there's a lot of propaganda. But I was hoping they would know that we were there because we wanted to be friends. I think they knew that, so we were treated just like anyone else.
Did you meet many North Koreans?
I wish I could have met more. Unfortunately, it isn't an open country, but our guides were wonderful people: Mr. Kim, Mr. Lee and an older gentleman named Mr. Kung. We became very good friends. There's a story that country has, and I don't know if Americans know everything about it. But I did learn, and I'm reading some books now that are really opening my eyes.... One day we went a few hours out of Pyongyang in the country. And on the way back we were going through a village where Mr. Kung wanted to let us know that during the Korean War a very horrific, tragic war crime was committed by the Americans on Korean people, who were slaughtered, lit on fire, and it's very ugly. He wasn't trying to be heavy with us, but he wanted to know if we knew that or not.
What was your sense of the national zeitgeist?
I might get in trouble for saying this, but I really appreciated that they were all working together. I can't speak as an authority, but they're working together to make their country great. It's something that you don't see that often. There is no crime, no one's trying to rob you. I didn't get a sense that people were trying to get over on each other. I've never seen so many people working towards a common goal with the same vision. Good or bad, it's impressive.
Isn't it possible that you only saw a Potemkin village, just arranged for visitors?
I know that if we had gone to certain parts of the north, where they had starvation and floods and ruined crops, and they didn't ask for outside help—that a lot of people starved in the '90s. I'm sure they only wanted us to see certain things, and we couldn't just take pictures of everything.
You didn't see anyone who was visibly hungry?
Honestly, no. I didn't see any people begging or starving. I didn't see any opulence. The government must have some money; these monuments cost something. But people all live in apartments that all look the same. I've seen that a lot because I've traveled to Russia a lot, and it's kind of a Soviet thing. But I don't get the sense of anyone complaining. My viewpoint is only from being there 10 days and seeing what I was allowed to see. And just because it's my viewpoint doesn't mean it's real, either. I would love to know what they're really feeling inside...[but] nobody leaned over and said, "Get me out of here."
The Eddie Parente Quartet plays June 17 at the Arrivederci wine bar, 17023 SE McGloughlin Blvd. Parente's CDs and a full calendar are available at his website, www.eddieparente.com.
According to Human Rights Watch, theft of food in North Korea is punishable by death. Despite widespread famine, the country maintains a military of 1 million people.
Last January, North Korea started a major propaganda campaign against long men's hairstyles, titled "Let Us Trim Our Hair in Accordance with Socialist Lifestyle."