Keiko Yoshida - Report from 1987

From Unearthing The Music

Japanese Passport
Japanese Passport (Open)

Belgrade 1986 to Warsaw 1987

Re: The Great Seal

According to my old Japanese passport I was in Poland from 25 March to 3 April 1987. That was 30 years ago and two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. With this passport I could travel everywhere apart from North Korea.

[On 29 November the same year, 115 passengers on the Korean Airline flight 858 died when the plane was destroyed by a DIY bomb explosion, operated by Kim Hyon-hui, who traveled with a fake Japanese passport from Belgrade to Bagdad under the name of Mayumi Hachiya.

Kim Hyon-hui's Japanese passport (as Mayumi Hachiya)

It was like a science fiction story: Kim was born in Kaesong, North Korea, on 27 January 1962. She was trained to be a Japanese woman by a real Japanese woman, Yaeko Taguchi (born 1955), who was abducted from Japan and taken to North Korea in 1978. Kim aka Mayumi picked up her weapons (radio and chemical) at Belgrade’s Metropole hotel according to her 1988 press conference in South Korea.


The Yugoslav born experimental group Laibach visited Pyongyang to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Korea from Japanese occupation on 25 August 2015. The majority of Western media reportage about their visit described Laibach as a Western group. These stories made me think about my visits to East Berlin in the 1980s and to two festivals elsewhere in Socialist Eastern Europe: one in Belgrade in 1986, the other in Warsaw in 1987. They also brought my attention to a short history of a cultural exchange between North Korea and Japan, as seen through the life of Isang Yun, the contemporary composer born 100 years ago on 17 September in South Korea under the Japanese occupation. Isang Yun became West German as a result of being imprisoned and tortured and sentenced to death by his own country South Korea in 1967 due to his occasional visits to North Korea since 1963. He did not compose electronic music, but many of his compositions were written as graphic scores.

Nam-Jun Paek & Isang Yun at Darmstadt (1958 or 1959)

Naturally, my trip to Warsaw in 1987 did not please my parents – perhaps they were worried by news stories of Japanese disappearing in Europe, along with the rumours that they had been abducted and taken to North Korea. I wasn’t aware about the international political situation at that time, I was drawn to Eastern Europe through the works of Polish avant garde theatre’s Tadeusz Kantor and great film directors like Tarkovsky in the USSR and Wajda from Poland. I imagined countries that produced such extraordinary work would produce equally great music or art, and the available vinyl records of contemporary composers like Poland’s Krzysztof Penderecki and Witold Lutoslawski, and Hungary’s György Ligeti showed that to be true. The political conflict between West and East during the Cold War era was not about to stop me visiting an international avant garde music festival in the Communist zone. Another factor was that I hated the consumer culture that was so widespread in Japan. I was probably searching for something opposite visiting non-capitalist countries. My speculation was not far wrong.

Photo courtesy of Keiko Yoshida
Photo courtesy of Keiko Yoshida
Photo courtesy of Keiko Yoshida

Formed in 1918, Yugoslavia was the only country in the Eastern Bloc that was never part of the Warsaw Pact. From the 1960s onwards, it hosted several international festivals, conferences, film festivals and biennials ranging from industrial design in Ljubljana to a music biennial in Zagreb, and so on. In the 2003 publication ‘Impossible Histories’, Barbara Borcic wrote: The idea of international art no longer seemed utopian, particularly after the revolutionary events in 1968 in Europe and US. Younger Yugoslav artists knew of the revolutionary ideas of the 60s and the 70s in the West. They identified with conceptual art, current at the time, in one area above all: that of confronting the conservative art institutions that sustained the academic hierarchy of the art world and classical forms of expression. As they questioned everything, they discovered different, more independent channels.

The Yugoslav art scene, it appears, was very much ahead at that time.

A conceptual art practitioner like Marina Abramovic had already established herself with self-harming performance work in public spaces. Her work embraced sound ambiences and body action between 1971–73, as a part of a radical art movement in Belgrade. Her colleague Dragoljub Raša Todosijević’s principal work 'Was ist Kunst?' (1977) was the main inspiration of early Laibach (born 1980). whose artistic activities practiced totalitarian behaviour and built a victim-torturer relationship, making irony of current philosophical and theoretical questions. Todosijević stated: "My performance is not based on the desire of demystification, but wants to irritate the negative in a person in order to point it out – bile after my performance is the negative in you." Only afterwards is it possible to speak of subversive affirmation, a method that by literal application of a system of behaviour points to its negative connotations. He gave performances of this piece until 1981. Laibach openly admit to being influenced by Serbian artists like Todosijević as well as Viennese Actionism.

I had the luck to encounter one such historical radical theatre event, ‘Baptism under Triglav’ – “The Self-Destruction Act' – by Scipion Nasice Sisters (born 1983) at Belgrade international theatre Festival BITEF in September 1986.

The music was composed by Laibach, whom I had already got to know at Berlin Atonal festival in 1985. The premier at Slovenian capital Ljubljana’s newly built Cankarjev Dom Cultural and Congress Centre created some controversy associated with a 19 century Romantic Slovenian poet France Prešeren. A theatre director called for the death of the group before it was staged in Belgrade. This play did not travel anywhere outside Yugoslavia, but its soundtrack was released by the Hamburg based industrial music label Walter Ulbricht Schallfolien, as Krst Pod Triglavom - Baptism in 1987, the title referencing Slovenia’s highest mountain Triglav.

Laibach's Krst Pod Triglavom - Baptism in 1987.
Cleaning ladies on stage after the show in Belgrade September 2016 (photo by Keiko Yoshida)

Coincidentally Laibach made a cover version of the popular North Korean song "We Will Go to Mt Paektu". This 2015 version was even more controversial than their 1987 mountain music. "Sacred mountain of the Sun that gives [the people] the spirit of victory", says the North Korean song. North Korean state authorities asked Laibach not to perform their version in Pyongyang.

Mt. Triglav (Tree headed Mountain)  - symbolically captured the primary drive by the Slovene resistance to the Fascist and Nazi armies during World War II.

Mt Paektu (White headed Mountain) - The forest around the Mt. Paektu provided bases for Korean armed resistance against the Japanese occupation, and later communist guerrillas during the Korean War.

Lineup for the Warsaw Marchewka Festival in 1987

The Scipion Nasice Sisters did not develop their international name like Laibach. Perhaps that’s down to the theatre group’s director Dragan Živadinov being able to speak Russian better than English. His later project was a performance given at a gravity ZERO space in Moscow.

After making a brief visit to Belgrade, I vaguely learnt how different Slovenia and Serbia were from each other. Even when they belonged to the same federal republic of Yugoslavia, the differences between them were bigger than those between the peoples of Hokkaido and Kyushu islands in Japan. A country like Yugoslavia could not hold together for long. It eventually broke apart in 1991 and permanently terminated in 2006. Like Isang Yun, Yugoslavia did not live long enough to celebrate next year’s centenary of its birth.

Photos by Keiko Yoshida

The three day Warsaw international music festival Marchewka (Carrot), which ran between 27-29 March in 1987, was organised by a Yugoslavian, Libero Pretic, who got the idea for the festival while working as a dishwasher in London.

Unlike East Europeans in Warsaw Pact countries, Yugoslavians could travel freely in Western Europe. The attraction of Marchewka festival was the chance to see exciting new musical acts from the Eastern bloc as well as Mikhail Gorbachev’s post Glasnost Soviet Union. Expectation was high. According to the rehearsal timetable rather than the festival programme, the official band from the USSR, Maszyna Wremieni (Time Machine), did not turn up, but an unofficial (that is, non professional) group from Riga, capital of Latvia, called Zoltyje Pacztaliony (Yellow Postman) did make it. The UK socialist experimental/industrial rock group Test Department were also absent. I actually do not remember any acts who played there apart from the West Berlin conceptual art group Die Tödliche Doris, who used to be Blixa Bargeld of Einstürzende Neubauten’s favourite West Berlin group. At the festival they acted like a disco band wearing their special disco outfits. In fact, this act was not acting – theirs was a genuinely great performance. They were not like an art group faking at being a rock group; and they were fun to be around although they had almost spilt up at that time. Indeed this might have been their last public performance, although they visited Tokyo in November 1988 after they had officially ended.

Photos by Keiko Yoshida

My memories of the trip include hearing slightly dated British mainstream pop music like Pet Shop Boys, New Order or Depeche Mode on a radio playing at low volume in a poorly lit coffee bar in Warsaw. Indeed it sounded like muzak, but that might have been because of the speakers. At least the radio wasn’t playing Wham, Beatles, Sade or anything else of the kind broadcast repeatedly, endlessly and loudly everywhere in Western Europe. Apparently, British independent labels like Factory, Mute and 4AD were already licensing music to Polish independent labels at that point.

Unfortunately, I did not get any opportunity to hear Polish music at this festival, but I well remember my informative guide and interpreter Piotr Miketa.

Soviet Rock journalist Artemy Troitsky (1988), author of ‘Back in the USSR' attended the festival. Chris Bohn and I travelled with him on a sightseeing trip to Krakow after the festival finished and I recommended that he should investigate the Yugoslavian group Laibach and their associate organisation NSK. He reciprocated by telling us about the Soviet equivalent group Popular Mechanics led by Sergey Kuryokhin. I never got the chance to see them. Before Kuryokhin died too young at the age of 42, he talked about inviting the UK based Japanese female trio Frank Chickens to the USSR.

The Soviet connection for me runs in the family. My father was born and brought up on the then Japanese island of Sakhalin north of Hokkaido when the Soviet Union declared war on Japan in August 1945 and helped bring the Pacific War (aka the Second World War) to an end by defeating the by now very weak Japanese forces and occupying Sakhalin. My father lived under Soviet occupation until he was old enough to leave and live in Hokkaido.

Keiko Yoshida

Monday, 31 July 2017