They played in North Korea. They refused a concert in Ukraine. Now the Leibach band will be in the Czech Republic


“It is a cynical proxy war for geostrategic interests,” Laibach said at the beginning of the year about the war in Ukraine. The band was supposed to play in Kyiv, but because this statement offended part of the Ukrainian public, the organizer canceled the concert. After all, this is not the first nor the last controversy that Laibach, which is the German name for Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana with almost 300,000 inhabitants, has caused since its foundation. Let’s take a look at the history of a band that leaves no one cold.

In the cradle of Laibach

When you arrive on the tracks to the once mining and heavily industrialized town of Trbovlje, which today has a population of 16,000, there is still a bit of walking to do. It’s up to three kilometers from the station to the city, and you have to go around the huge thermal power plant, which is said to have the highest chimney in Europe, where Laibach also had a concert. However, they were created in Trbovlje in 1980. The first concerts were banned and the band was also banned in 1983, after locking the audience in the hall and playing dog barks as an introduction to the concert. After all, she has to defend her artistic freedom all the time. One of the first members, Tomaž Hostnik, committed suicide in a hayloft, a Slovenian goat, which is one of the national symbols there, not long after its creation. Laibach disapproved of his suicide and posthumously expelled him from the group to restore him to his “own identity”. However, he is still remembered in various forms.

In mining town Trbovlje, classic “sorela”, that is, architecture in the style of social realism, can be seen at every turn. Here are statues of miners, elsewhere a mosaic of workers and in the middle of the town an old, fairly well-preserved, colony of miners’ houses. This varta has a very eventful history. There used to be industry all around. It is not surprising that there were several strikes and mining protests during the interwar Kingdom of Yugoslavia. During the Second World War, a fairly strong partisan movement was formed here, for example, Tončka Čeč came from here. In January 1958, a strike by disgruntled miners broke out in the town, the first such event in socialist Yugoslavia. After 1990, mining slowed down, which was also related to the decrease in the number of inhabitants.

When I ask the locals in a restaurant in the center of Trbovlje if they know Laibach, they nod uncertainly that they do, which I honestly don’t quite believe. According to some voices in Slovenia, the group is a project of the sons of communist leaders who wanted to “rebell against their photos”. Not far from here, near the apartment buildings, however, an isosceles checkerboard cross is painted on the wall, one of the variants of the first symbol Laibach adopted from the Russian avant-garde painter Kazimir Malevich. To be clear, Laibach are also part of the wider Slovenian art group Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK), which also includes the art group Irwin and the theater group Scipion Nasice Sisters Theatre. They are his “music wing”.

The group in the mirror years

The already mentioned text of the song Zrození národa reads in part – we apologize for the inaccuracies and possible misunderstandings in the translation of the artistic text – as follows: “One person, one goal. And guidelines. One heart, one mind. Only one solution, carbon burning. Yes! One God, one pattern, one body, one blood… Not death, not suffering, we just need a pattern for the world. One body, one blood… And the people. So give me your hands and give me your hearts, I’m waiting… There is only one direction, one country and one people. Yes, indeed…” It is phrased in his unforgettable deep voice by the singer of the band Milan Fras, who belongs to Ivan Novak, Dejan Knez and Ervin Markošek to the most famous line-up of Laibach, although only the first two mentioned remain in the current formation.

In the forty-three years that Laibach have been playing, they have released around twenty-five albums. They debuted with the self-titled record with the martyr on the cross. We will not present the entire long discography here, it is enough to mention only some interesting ones. From the album Opus Dei is the song Birth of the Nation, which is originally the song One Vision by Queen. In 1988, they did a controversial remake of the entire Beatles album Let it be, and they created the album Kapital in 1991 during the short, so-called ten-day war and the declaration of Slovenian independence. The CD NATO from 1994 is “the group’s response to changing Europe and the world order”, on the album Volk interprets some national anthems in his own way, for example German, American, Russian or Turkish, as well as the national anthem of the NSK state. It is a “virtual global state” founded in 1992, of which anyone can become a citizen and bearer of a passport for 32 euros, i.e. over 780 crowns.

The 2014 effort is called Specter and opens with a partially whistled song by The Whistleblowers. It sings, for example: “From the north and the south, we come from the east and the west, we breathe as one, we live in glory or die in flames…” He alludes to the “heroism of the new digital Prometheus of freedom”, such as Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden or Julian Assange . To continue the list of Laibach’s activities for a while, it should be mentioned that in 2014 they performed in Hong Kong, then in North and later in South Korea, but also in Israel, where they had a video of Vladimir Putin in flames behind them. This July, the soundtrack of Laibach’s music for the film Iron Sky: The Coming Race was released.

North Korea yes, Ukraine no

There is a video of The Whistleblowers performing the song in concert in North Korea. It’s quite funny how people cut off from the world, and I’m under no illusion that only the cream of North Korea was at the concert, behave. Only occasionally does a muscle move in their facial expressions, not even a hint of movement, one woman reacts to a louder phase as if to an unexpected “shot in the ear”, the man covers his ears. It is strange that since 2012, the girl group Moranbong, which means Peony Hill, has existed in the fortress-like state. After all, the musicians were to be chosen by the “great leader” Kim Jong-un himself from among the leading female officers of the army, so that they would serve the regime’s propaganda as well as possible. The girls sing, for example, “My Way” popularized by Frank Sinatra, or original compositions such as “my country is the best”.

Laibach performed twice in 2015 in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, in the main hall – with a capacity of 1000 seats – of the Kim Won Gyun Conservatory of Music in Pyongyang. The date coincided with the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the Korean Peninsula from Japanese colonization and subsequent division into two hostile states. The movie Liberation Day was born out of it. The concerts began to be written about as the first appearance of a Western rock band in North Korea. However, a Finnish journalist immediately questioned this, saying that already in 1989 at the youth festival in Pyongyang, for example, hard rockers Peer Günt or rockers Sielun Veljet, as well as many other performers from the West, played from his country.

The statement at the beginning of the article about a “cynical proxy war” in February 2023 was interpreted to mean that Kiev engaged in a proxy war on behalf of its Western patrons, and some Ukrainians began to rebel. “While the group expressed support for Ukraine and Ukrainians and condemned the Russian regime, a large part of the audience categorically opposed the group’s visit,” organizers of the Bel Etage concert hall said, adding that to avoid unnecessarily dividing Ukrainians, they decided to cancel the concert. It didn’t help either when Laibach wrote: “Make no mistake – we like Russian literature, music and art. But in this senseless war between Russia and Ukraine, we are wholeheartedly on the side of Ukraine and its people, who – like in the biblical story of David and Goliath – are fighting with dignity against a stronger enemy.”

Observations from Ljubljana

“We are as Nazi as Hitler was a painter,” the band once declared, as accusations of excessive fondness for symbols of Nazism against it kept recurring over the years. After all, the Laibachs were also not allowed to enter the USA in the beginning, because they, in turn, represented the threat of “radical communists”. For “blood” money, i.e. 45 euros, over a thousand crowns, I bought a book about NSK “From capital to capital” in Ljubljana. They sold it to me at the Museum of Modern Art, where the works of the Irwin art group are also displayed. One corner, for example, looks like: “Heavy frame, in the picture a seated red worker, to whom a veiled girl hands a laurel wreath and a stuffed grouse.” Laibach, as we have already vented, is the German name of Ljubljana from the times of Austria-Hungary and the Second World War.

I go to Cankar’s House, which is the largest cultural and congress center in the country below Triglav. In the corridor that leads to the Gallus hall, they offer “merchandasing”, i.e. T-shirts, CDs and books about the show. It’s called Alamut and they’re introducing it today. A cacophonous symphony full of death sounds, grunts, but also wonderful Persian chants, and so on. At the beginning the arrival of dozens of trumpeters and at the end dozens of accordion players. It is Laibach’s vision of a story from a book by the Slovenian writer Vladimir Bartolo, which has the subtitle “Indictment of fanaticism and subtle abuse of power.”

Alamut is a defunct Persian fortress near today’s Tehran, which was occupied in 1090 by the forces of the Shiite movement, known as the Assassins or Hashashins, led by Hasan i Sabbah, later called the “Old Man of the Mountain”. During his reign, the fortress became legendary thanks to its paradise gardens, library and, last but not least, assassins sent from the spiritual center of the sect mainly against the internal enemies of Islam. It was in Alamut that the killers tried for a while “a paradise full of virgins and pleasures,” so that they would go more willingly to death, after which, according to Islam, they should experience it permanently.

Nasty bastards, or not?

“Both the art of the Third Reich and the art of socialist realism shaped and emphasized to perfection within the new state ideologies the old classicist form of man, based on the principle of transhistorical humanistic ideals. Laibach analyzes the relationship between ideology and culture in the late era and shows it through art,” said Laibach in a 1983 interview published in the “Capital Book.”

After all, the Slovenian philosopher, whose portrait looks down on the visitors of the laid-back and alternative art district Metelkova in Ljubljana, Slavoj Žižek, defended the group in it in 1994 as follows: “Laibach do not express some ‘hidden truth of totalitarianism’ in their spectacle.” They do not actually confront totalitarian logic with its ‘truth’ at all. Rather, they subvert it. They subvert it so that it dissolves as an active social bond, leaving only the restless core of its limited enjoyment.’

However, Laibach described themselves: “We are children of the spirit and brothers of strength – whose promises are not fulfilled.” We are the black spirits of this world, singing a mad picture of misery and sorrow. We are the first TV generation.” He will perform in Prague at the Hybernia theater on November 20.

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author: Jan Rychetsky

The article is in Czech

Tags: played North Korea refused concert Ukraine Leibach band Czech Republic


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