Phuong Quang – Tàu Qua Sằn Ga (As the Train Goes Past the Station)
Băng Châu & Hợp Ca – Ông Trang 1973
Lê Thương – Thằng Cuội
Thanh_Tuyển – Tôi Gập Em
Thàn Tuong – Phuong Tâm
Phoung Tam – Dem Huyen Dieu
Thanh Lan, Thanh Mai – bup be khong tinh yeu 75
Hung Cuong & Mai Le Huyen – Thien Duyen Tien Dihn
Hung Cuong & Mai Le Huyen – Unknown
* Thanh Lan – Hoài Thu (Autumn Memory)
* Bich Loan and CBC Band – Con Tim Và Nước Mắt (Heart And Tears)
* Thai Thanh – Bừng Sáng (Dawn)
* Carol Kim – Cái Trâm Em Cài (Your Hair Clip)
** Thai Thao – Oh Qué Calor (Vietnamese Version)
** Angela Lee – Why Can’t We Live (Vietnamese Version)
** Kashmir – I Want To Be (Vietnamese Version)
Onra – Phuoc Dat (Interlude)
Onra – Relax In Mui Ne
Tinh Yeu Thuy Thu – Hong Phuc
Thanh Vu, Hong Phuc & Phoung Bang – Tinh Yeu Tren Dai Duong
* Giao Linh – Chuyện Tình Sao Ly (A Love Story From Sau Ri)
Bich Loan and CBC Band – A Band on the Run (acoustic jam in new delhi 1975)
Bahnar gong ensemble – Concert of Gongs of Bahnar tribe
Thanh Kim Hue – Tieng Chay Tren Soc Bom Bo
THANKS TO THESE FOLKS FOR THE TUNES!
Vietnam glows in my earliest memories. I grew up with a Vietnamese stepmother from the age of three so my summer vacations were spent chomping fresh spring rolls, dipping green papaya in tangy fish sauce and plucking fiery Vietnamese red peppers from the garden. My stepmother TiTi would take my brother and I to the Vietnamese market every weekend and proudly introduce us as her sons. We were showered with smiles and curious eyes as we sipped mysterious concoctions of soda, nuts and seaweed. We also got an overdose of karaoke style ballads seeping with sweaty sap and synthesizer strings. My brother and I especially tripped out over the singer Tuan Anh. My Stepmom’s car was filled with cassettes of this airbrushed love child of Little Richard and Prince dramatically crooning his heart out. While my Vietnamese culinary world was wide my vision of the country’s music was pure cheese ball. I knew there was much more to explore and hoped to someday hear Vietnamese music magic.
My first footsteps in Saigon felt so right. It was a city singing with energy and I was ready to explore. The first barrier to be broken was the traffic. Mopeds snaked through the streets like they were weaving a city-wide asphalt basket. The traffic stream was solid as cycles flowed to fill every crack. To cross, I needed to step into the chaos and trust the handlebar skills of those zipping by. After some deep breaths, one steady step after another brought me to the other side. My knuckles were white and my nerves rattled but I had faced down the infamous traffic and Saigon’s gems were mine to find.
The food called first. My taste buds sought to soak up the source of every street corner scent. Saigon is filled with endless sidewalk delicacies. Every stall is immaculately clean and filled with fresh, delicious treats. Even when you choose to remain static the food will inevitably roll your way on a wagon, bicycle or basket. Every moment in Saigon can be filled with flavor if one’s mouth allows. When seeking transcendent sidewalk dining the key is to find the locals. My modus operandi was to scan for crowds of enthusiastically slurpers squatting on plastic preschool size stools. It is in these places that dream dishes live: steamy bowls of 75-cent, spicy Pho with sprigs of fresh mint tingling every taste bud, bánh mì sandwiches stuffed to the max with complex textures and tastes and deeply rich coffee coupled with sweet, creamy milk and ice. Saigon’s soul shines through its food but my next mission was to find the songs they sing when their souls shine loud.
Before visiting Vietnam my mind swam with images of go-go dancers shaking to the shimmy of fuzz guitars and bubbling drum beats. While these scenes existed in the Saigon of the late 60’s and early 70’s they are ghostly dreams now. The recorded remnants of these moments were mostly destroyed once the Viet Cong swept into Saigon in 1975. Many pop records were discarded by their owners out of fear they would be associated with the West. This makes record digging in Vietnam a true challenge. Luckily I had a great guide in the form of Jase Nguyen who led me to a small stretch of antique shops close to Saigon’s main market. In the junkiest of them all, amongst the clutter and scattered nic-nacs of every sort, there were ramshackle stacks of vinyl 45’s. In retrospect my greatest asset would have been a respirator and rubber gloves. Disturbing the sleeping piles kicked up ancient clouds of soot that coated by nostrils and caked my lips. I could feel gristle on my tongue as I flipped through 45’s so dusty it was hard to see the grooves. Upon wiping away the grime I found beautifully colored vinyl: yellow, red and marbled mixtures. The secrets they held were pure mystery to me. I had no turntable to preview the records, the tattered covers didn’t match their paired discs and my only written clues were the words “rock,” “hully gully,” “twist,” etc. Nevertheless I left with a bag of 45’s and ears wide open.
On first needle drop back home I was blasted with the noise of static, pops and scratches. Even after a deep cleaning it was hard to hear some of the songs under all the surface noise but thanks to a little modern technology and EQ adjustment I was able to salvage some sound waves. Unfortunately, many of the tunes turned out to be ballads that are easy on the ears but lack stimulation. These songs are hugely popular in Vietnam and can be traced to the chansons of the French who colonized the country. The crusty bread of bánh mì sandwiches are a much tastier remnant of the Franco influence. A few of the other records turned out to be Cải lương opera records. These songs would often feature amazing pop introductions that after a minute would give way to traditional vọng cổ music. While the Vietnamese speaker might dig the drama and poignancy of these songs they can prove a little straining to foreign ears. After sifting through the sounds my Vietnamese record search yielded some true gems but to assemble a full mix I needed more.
I continued my Vietnamese music expedition from home. Luckily just a skip south from my hood in Los Angeles is the Vietnamese enclave of Little Saigon in Orange County. It is here that the largest expatriate community has blossomed in the decades following the Fall of Saigon. The streets are lined with Vietnamese grocers, cafes and music shops. I paid a visit hoping to find some jewels. I knew I was unlikely to come across a cobwebbed corner stacked with vinyl or reel to reel tapes filled with forgotten Pre-War sounds but I at least hoped to find some cassettes, an “oldies” CD collection or a film with a heavy rock soundtrack. Sadly there was no sign of any exceptional sound sources. I only got puzzled stares and proud claims, “We have new music.” It makes perfect sense that these Vietnamese expats would keep their eyes steadfast on the future after such a turbulent, recent past. With the proper aid and a few thousand prayers this mission might have proved more successful. It would have been nice to have my stepmom at my side to translate in my search for sound treasures.
After a fruitless local hunt I decided to engage in some modern ethnomusicology. An early Google quest led me to the new collection Saigon Rock & Soul: Vietnamese Classic Tracks 1968-1974. It was serendipitous that the amazing, exploratory music minds at Sublime Frequencies released this stellar compilation just as I was assembling my Vibrant Vietnam “Field Report.” The heavy rock and funk gems they excavated fulfilled an essential angle I desired to highlight in this mix. These tunes also set my imaginative mind at ease. I didn’t see any go-go dancers while in Saigon but if I close my eyes while hearing these jams I can almost see them twisting their bikini-clad waists. After this lucky score I scoured the web for more righteous Vietnamese tunes. After plenty of dead end clicks I honed in on a sizable offering of vintage Vietnamese audio online. One of the greatest revelations was the Asian New Wave scene. In the early 1980’s it seems the youth of Little Saigon fell in love with Italo Disco and New Wave and started making their own Vietnamese language versions that sound like Freestyle remixes of the Xanadu soundtrack. This vibe was outside my original vision for this “Field Report” but I couldn’t resist including these unique songs. I also dove into some more modern fusion from the talented young French-Vietnamese producer Onra who created Chinoiseries a full album of hip hop beats sampling Vietnamese 45’s he found in the very same antique shop I hit in Saigon.
After intense searches I found songs that have truly enlightened my vision of Vietnamese music. I hope you enjoy listening to my Vibrant Vietnam mix. I was thrilled to connect some personal dots through this journey halfway around the world and even more excited to share my musical discoveries with you. My mind is fulfilled having finally heard Vietnamese music that matches the soulful spirit I love in the food and people of this beautiful country.
For more international explorations please visit the dublab “Field Reports” page.