Shannon Brown gets the lowdown on Saigon Soul Revival, a band that delves into Vietnamese music from the 60s and 70s.
The 1960s and early 70s were a golden age of music throughout Southeast Asia. Influenced heavily by American rock ‘n’ roll and pop singers, bands in Saigon created uptempo dance numbers and love ballads that won the hearts of young people and earned the performers local celebrity status.
Four years ago, Gabriel Kaouros was introduced to this classic Vietnamese music through Mark Gergis’s compilation Saigon Rock and Soul: Vietnamese Classic Tracks 1968 – 1974. “Though I didn’t know much about Vietnamese culture or the history of the music at that time, the raw energy and unique sounds on the album were deeply captivating,” Kaouros said. In 2016, Jan Hagenkoetter from Frankfurt-based label InfraCOM!, was putting together a different compilation from the same time period, when a few musicians approached Kaouros to start a new project.
The musicians were guitarist Indy Laville and bassist Patrick – Pocky – Colonna, who met Kaouros at a local establishment – La Fenetre de Soleil. “We were playing together every Sunday night at the open mic,” Colonna said. “Indy and I wanted to start a band with Gaby because we had great musical chemistry. When he suggested this project, we knew it would be something distinct to offer to the local music scene.”
A Vietnamese singer was added to the group and Saigon Soul Revival began searching for songs to build their repertoire. After a few months, the original singer left the band, but introduced the group to Minh Nguyen. “Minh showed up and we saw that she was extremely professional, motivated, and prepared for every rehearsal. She helped us step up.” The band affectionately jokes that Minh is the mama of the group, and from watching their interactions it’s clear that it’s a role she takes seriously and in stride. Kaouros then secured keyboardist Ky Tran, and the group took on their current form.
A year and a half after their formation, Saigon Soul Revival is gaining momentum. They have performed in Saigon, Da Nang, Hoi An, Hanoi, and Vung Tau. They played Cargo Remote Festival in Mui Ne and obtained main-stage performance slots at Quest Festival 2016 and 2017. They are now competing on VTV’s premier band competition programme, Ban Nhac Viet.
Similar to the American and British TV show, The Voice, Ban Nhac Viet relies on four judges, all professional musicians, who choose whether or not a band proceeds to the next round. Each band selects a coach, or mentor, to help guide them through the competition. The coach for Saigon Soul Revival is Duc Tri, the principal of MPU Music School and a brilliant musician, composer, producer, and teacher. Laville has nothing but praise for Duc Tri. “He sets the bar high for us and has challenged us to rework the arrangements to make the songs the best they can be.”
“I see the show as an opportunity to spread the music to local Vietnamese people and a way to challenge ourselves to get out of our comfort zone,” Tran said. “My dad used to play these kind of songs when I was a kid, but the versions were different. I heard the soul and rock compilation in 2009 and was crazy about it right away.”
The response to the revival of pre-1975 Southern Vietnamese music has been interesting. Foreign and western audiences seems to flock to the hippie sounds that harken back to the days of bell-bottoms and free love, but it has been harder to impress Vietnamese crowds, the initial intended audience. “When we play at more local Vietnamese venues where audiences typically go to listen to current commercial music, we often don’t get an enthusiastic response from the crowd. It can sometimes be a bit perplexing when it appears that foreigners are more into the music, but we understand it’s completely different to what most Vietnamese young people listen to now.” Kaourus said.
“Yes, we were expecting more enthusiasm from Vietnamese young people, but it’s also great that the music is international and universal,” Colonna added. Nguyen also knows that the music can be difficult to impress on modern audiences. “I love it when I see some older people in the audience sing along – I know these songs will still be loved in 100 years. But we also want to introduce younger Vietnamese listeners to these golden-era songs which praise our country and have lovely lyrics. In Saigon Soul Revival, we have changed the original versions to make them new again.” Kaouros says that being on Ban Nhac Viet has given the band a lot of exposure. “After being on this TV show, many Vietnamese people are reaching out to us to show their love and support for this music.”
The group has collaborated closely with Hagenkoetter, who put together the album Saigon Supersound, released on both vinyl and CD in January 2017. The compilation of vintage rock from Southern Vietnam during the war brought global attention to a lost era of Vietnamese pop music. Hagenkoetter took his album on the road and showcased in London, England, Paris, France, Manheim, Germany, and Ho Chi Minh City. Tran says the album release was his favourite show to date. “We played tight, the sound was strong, the crowd was awesome and the party was on fire!”
Saigon Soul Revival is now working on an album as well. They are currently writing original songs and updating more classics. They hope they can capture the essence of this era and continue to reinvigorate the interest in soulful sounds.“It’s a challenge,” Tran said. “It’s not only the music, but a whole culture and art that was lost.”
“I don’t think any of us expected it to go this far, but it appears we are the only band in the world that plays this specific music,” Kaouros said. “There seems to be a growing interest in rare Asian groove, so we all feel very fortunate to be a part of the movement to bring the lost sounds of 60s and 70s Saigon back to the stage.”