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Vietnamese Vinyl

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I first travelled to Vietnam in July 2009, spending a few days in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) mostly on the look out for records. I had never heard any modern Vietnamese music, but given the presence there of the US during the 60s and 70s I figured this may well have been reflected in musical trends, evolving technology and the need of bands to adapt their music for a temporary foreign audience.

In one antique shop I ran into a Danish guy called Stefan, who was there on holiday with his girlfriend. To my surprise, he was also sifting through the large piles of vinyl at the back of the shop. I rarely bump into anyone else record digging. Over the last 3 years in SE Asia I have come across precisely 4 people in all that time. As Stefan didn’t have a portable turntable I suggested we team up, and the three of us hung out for a couple of days dividing our time between digging and enjoying some of Saigon’s excellent eateries. On one occasion we ended up in the loft of a lady called Tuan, who had boxes and boxes of assorted memorabilia, including a few dusty stacks of various 45s and LPs from China, USA and Vietnam.

Despite initially looking for funk or soul derivations, the music that caught my attention the most were some strange ‘oriental’ blues recordings by two musicians called Van Vi and Thanh Kim, as well as early R&B/rock n’ roll experiments. (See ‘Forthcoming in 2011’ for 2 clips). The acoustic tracks sounded like John Lee Hooker strumming on the banks of the Mekong, and I was intrigued to know more.

A couple of weeks ago, I’m back chatting to Tuan, this time with the focus of researching and hunting for more music for a compilation for Dust To Digital (of ‘Goodbye Babylon’ fame), which would focus on this early folk/blues as well as the nascent strains of the US before the war left a once thriving music industry in tatters.

Vietnamese vinyl is increasingly in scarce supply, and that which you do find, is more often than not in unplayable condition. There are some simple and grimly practical reasons for that. The music industry effectively ended in 1975 after unification of North and South Vietnam at the conclusion of the war. The industry was centred around Saigon, and after Northern troops occupied the city, many people buried, burned or destroyed any remnants associated with ‘Southern’ culture. Those caught with any of these effects, music or otherwise, often had these possessions destroyed, in addition to facing some jail time.

The new government imposed an ill suited nationwide economic policy, and many people emigrated to the US (including many musicians) as businesses faltered and doors were closed to the outside world. As the ’80s ground on, there was a call for a recycling drive on certain materials such as paper. This naturally included record sleeves, which meant that those discs that then survived were often stored sleeveless, maybe in the ground or in outhouses and lofts away from prying eyes. Not surprising then, that so many display massive marks, gouges and ground in dust.

Tuan said she hadn’t turned up any new stock since my last visit, and so after catching up, I ended up in the next door shop, the same place I had originally bumped into Stefan. I started to listen to a few 45s when an odd thing happened. A tall guy with glasses and a girl carrying a portable turntable walk in!! Needless to say, we start to chat…The guy turned out to be Carter Van Pelt a reggae writer and DJ based in NYC, who coincidentally, knew my good friend David Katz, another reggae writer who lives in London. The girl, Linh, an American born Vietnamese, was on holiday with her family, and had worked for Wax Poetics up until recently. Weighing up the complete unlikelihood of all these convergences we got chatting, and eventually made plans to hook up later for food. Gotta love happy coincidences.

The next afternoon I go with Tuan to meet a friend of hers. I had explained why I was back in Saigon, and she mentioned a collector she knew who might be able to help. We speed into the outskirts of Saigon through a heavy swarm of mopeds and eye watering pollution. We eventually arrive and I’m introduced to a youngish man called Thanh. We talk briefly about the history of 20th century Vietnamese music, how he’d got into collecting as well as some anecdotes regarding the pre-75 music scene.

One fact in particular shocked me, though. It was that this music, officially speaking, was still actually illegal in Vietnam. It had never been properly reissued or reinstated, and technically if a policeman came to Thanh’s house, he could confiscate his collection as well as potentially arrest him. I wondered how serious this situation could be, as in certain second hand shops the music is still sold openly, and buying vinyl here isn’t a clandestine matter. But the fact that it should still even be a consideration was a big surprise. Thanh had a small shelving unit in his front room of 45s, but the main collection was in the back, a room brimming with 45s, LPs, 78s and a big pile of tape reels. It was an impressive sight, and I have to say that it’s gratifying, considering the still simmering politics, that such an amount of the music has been preserved, and is in local hands.

I head up to the central highlands for a couple of days on a tip-off, but a trawl around Dan Ang and Hoi An proves largely fruitless. I do meet people who had once had collections, but they had sold them long ago. Most Vietnamese are smilingly curious as to my requests for these long forgotten artifacts. Only one is nominally hostile, saying “Americans come – bang! bang! bang! Now all finished!!”

Hoi An, despite being a seething tourist attraction on occasion, is still a beautifully preserved 16th century town bearing the hallmarks of early international trade, visible in the mix of Chinese, Japanese and early Vietnamese architecture. Old merchant’s houses line the river, some boasting the eight generation of their family still living in the same spot. I enjoy a day wandering round taking it all in, before heading back down south, despite having my rented moped impounded twice, due to hourly shifting traffic regulations which I failed to grasp during my short stay!

Back in Saigon, I meet up again with Linh, going through the remainder of the records in the second hand shop. Many expat musicians still live in different parts of the US and she kindly offered assistance with translation and further research, as I started to put the compilation together. It was a serendipitous offer of help I gladly accepted.

Thanh had also offered help with interviews and research and at short notice set up a meeting with Ngoc Son a songwriter and producer who had worked throughout the music’s development right up until 1975. He survived the changes and happily still works as a musician and photographer in Saigon today. His full story, like Thanh’s, will be shared in the compilation notes, but he shed crucial light on those Van Vi and Thanh Kim recordings that had initially attracted my attention.

In the search for new music, it’s a regular oscillation between your own perception, interpretation and the challenge to grasp the objective facts about these new sounds, where they come from and what shaped them. To say that this music was ‘blues’ inspired was entirely my conjecture, as it sounded like a cross between a slide guitar, and the ‘dan bao’, a one stringed classical instrument that is controlled by deft finger work and a large ‘tremolo’ arm. To my pleasant surprise, the blues inflections were entirely intentional.

Ngoc Son had been involved in the music scene since the 50s, first working as a dancer, then as a self-taught writer and musician. He was also involved in ‘quality control’ at Continental, one of the main labels of the day. Van Vi and Thanh Kim were primarily players in the classical tradition, and cut hundreds of sides as backing musicians. These solo outings (released on Continental) were apparently an experiment, incorporating blues licks into their normal repertoire with a desire to push these traditions into new territory

And so it would have gone if events had not taken over. The Vietnamese music industry was sophisticated, evolving and forward thinking before the curtain came down in the 70s. We’ll never know how it might have developed and the heights it might have reached. A couple of local musicians had started to perform in Japan to great acclaim. War will almost always snuff out individual ambition, as the time and space to focus on luxuries such as music becomes untenable. Even the very condition of records or other artefacts, it seems, can reflect a national story. The opportunity to discover these little known tales will always be a privilege, and whilst one can’t objectively judge the complexities of what became known as ‘The Vietnam War’, to lay out these different perspectives and personal recollections, for me, is crucial in obtaining an appreciation of the full picture, whilst these stories can still be heard first hand.


Written by cmoriginalpress

March 26, 2011 at 5:54 am

Posted in Vietnam

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