The soul-rock genera of music in Vietnam is extremely special for numerous reasons. For one thing, the scene only lasted for a few years from the late ’60s to the early ’70s. There were very few artists involved. Their musical styles were rapidly evolving as they combined their Vietnamese musical heritage with the new sounds imported from the wartime West. Understandably the scene came to a screeching halt. The musicians did not fare well. The music was destroyed. Very few recordings still exist. Listen to this compilation. It’s a must!
Even if you don’t like the music you just heard, you have to appreciate how special it is from artistic, cultural, and historical perspectives. It is a time-capsule containing one aspect of Saigon’s tumultuous past. While it exposes sorrow and tragedy, it also exposes hope and beauty. It reveals the love and passion the artists felt in a time when they did not know what tomorrow would bring.
We are so lucky that some of Vietnam’s most talented musicians have banded together and, with a large undertaking, opened the time-capsule to recreate and evolve the sound. Saigon Soul Revival have released their debut album “Họa Âm Xưa” (“Old Harmonies”), and have been doing some live shows. Last night they played a fantastic gig at The Mona Lisa Caffe in Saigon. The house was packed. It was indisputably the place to be and a historical event as we could listen to a sliver of the past for one night.
It was so fantastic to see how well the audience reacted to the band from the very first song to the last. The Mona Lisa has an excellent sound system and, thank God, a dancefloor! Every upbeat song had people moving, and as the night heated up, it just got better and better on the floor.
Props to Jed Skoreyko too for the incredible effort he placed into mixing. There is no one better you could have asked to sit behind the desk. The stage setup was complex with hard-hitting drums, keys, sax, trumpet, guitar, bass, percussion, a vocalist (to die for), and on a few songs, traditional Vietnamese instruments. You can’t imagine how much work it took on everybody’s part to get this right. As Soul Revival are quick to point out, they are not copying the Saigon soul-rock style verbatim. They are re-interpreting it. They are presenting a piece of art they have created. So perhaps the only thing missing from last night’s performance was the sense of urgency the original artists must have felt 50 years ago. Their sense of tension. Their sense of “tonight may be all we have.” For them, it all came crashing down, and they lost everything. For us, we booked our Grab cars home, played with our social media, and today go on with our lives like normal.
Undoubtedly, the original artists that are still alive, and those that perished too, would have been thrilled to be at Mona Lisa last night. A half-century later, we had the rare event to experience the beauty of their world.
So go back and listen to the original music again. Do some googling to honor the original artists. Learn who they were. Find out what happened to them. Of course, listen to Saigon Soul Revival, and by all means, see them if you can.
Last note here, and it’s a personal one. I am an American, and by the grace of god, I missed coming to Vietnam as a soldier by only a handful of years. So listening to this music has special meaning to me and can bring tears to my eyes – or at least “raise some chicken skin,” as the Vietnamese would say.