Since establishing Soul Music and Performing Arts Academy in 2012, Thanh Bui has helped shape the music industry in Vietnam. He talks to Claudia Davaar Lambie about rediscovering his roots, his love for music and his charitable work. Photo by Vinh Dao.

You were born and raised in Australia to native Vietnamese parents. What made you decide to move here permanently in 2012?
The biggest reason is that I felt that this is home. Finally, for the first time in my life I felt like I belonged somewhere. Growing up in Australia, in many situations, I was the only Asian person. Coming back to Vietnam was me coming to terms with my Vietnamese side and rediscovering my roots.

When I moved here, I could imagine what my parents went through getting on those boats as refugees. Australia gave my family a chance. It was very good place for me too with all of the experience I gained in music. It took time for my parents to come to terms with me moving to the country they had risked their lives to leave. Now, they understand my vision and why I’m here: I have to contribute something to the [music] industry here in Vietnam and give [it] some soul. That’s why Soul Academy was born. If people don’t come back then we are never going to see any changes.

You have had an impressive career performing, songwriting and establishing Soul Music and Performing Arts Academy (SMPAA). What ignited your passion for music?
I was 10 years old and it was Michael Jackson. I saw him at the Grammy Awards holding a Grammy and I thought “I want one of those!” I started dancing jazz ballet first. My mum and dad put me into the Johnny Young Talent School, the same one that Kylie and Danny Minogue went to. I started vocal lessons and played the classical piano for eight years. Then I turned pop. Being in a band was an incredible experience; we toured Asia and had number 1s. I’ve been very lucky to have worked and performed with some amazing people in the industry.

At SMPAA you incorporate an ‘emotion-centered’ methodology in your teaching. What does this mean exactly?
Over the past generation of teachers here, due to the Russian method of teaching, everything was so technical. To sing well, you had to sing high and loud and there was no emotion. ‘Emotion-centered’ [means] understanding, to the core, what music is all about. It’s nothing more than the connection to the sounds of nature. It’s about getting the kids, from a core level, to understand that when they sing or perform, it’s about being real and connecting within their emotions and not being afraid to be vulnerable.

A big part of the curriculum focuses on teaching soft skills through music. How important do you think this is in education?
I believe it is very important. If a 10-year-old kid can get up on stage and talk or perform to their audience, can you imagine what they will be like at 25? Being confident is key in anything that you do but it doesn’t come straight away, you need the blocks to build confidence. It has been scientifically proven that music is one of the greatest ways to develop soft skills because it is so natural. When the children first come to Soul Academy they are very intelligent with high IQs but they are not ‘heart smart’. The whole purpose of music is to get them to speak to people and to stand for something.

You were in the top eight on Australian Idol and a judge on The Voice Kids of Vietnam. What advice would you give to budding musicians and singers?
You’ve got to want to be in the industry, not because of the fame or the money, but because of your passion for music. Luck is also important but this is the centre point of preparation and opportunity. You create your own luck. You need to work hard, take nothing for granted and be the best you can be.

You’re the ambassador for Loreto Children’s Charity. How did you become involved with them?
I believe that it is a public responsibility for me to do something. The public have given me what I have and now it’s time to give back. When Trish Franklin (outgoing CEO) asked me to get involved, I couldn’t believe she had given up 20 years of her life for the children. I just said yes.

We have a project out in Tra Vinh. You see the kids out there and they have nothing. We’ve just built our second music room [out there] and to see the kids for the first time see drums or a musical instrument, they are just so overjoyed. I do truly believe in social enterprise. I believe as a private organization if we have a social message to convey, we should. We don’t need more successful people. We need more people who want to use their businesses or their means as a way to give back to society.

Last year you went to South Africa on a Save the Rhino campaign. How have you tried to raise awareness in Vietnam?
We went around many of the public and international schools in the city and held competitions among the students. It costs $6000 per 100g for rhino horn! When I went to South Africa, they were going to put millions of dollars from their side. As I know the types of people that use it, the work has to begin here. If there is no demand then there is no supply.

When we went round [the schools], it was very sad but it highlighted that what we were doing is the right thing. We had a number of children who recognised the rhino horn as they had seen it at home. We are now setting up a representative here at Soul Academy to run the campaign and to push [it] forward. We have set a four year goal and if nothing changes then Vietnam will go down in history as the country that made the rhino extinct.

What does the future hold for Thanh Bui?
For Vietnam, the biggest dream for me is to see that every child in this country gets access to music education. This is the 50 year goal. For me, the dream with any musician, singer or songwriter is to be standing on the Grammy stage. If you can perform in front of your heroes, that would be the most incredible feeling as an artist.