In May of this year, Word ran an issue on the local music scene in Vietnam, titled The Music Issue. Over 24 pages we documented the country’s burgeoning music scene, from recording studios to venues to local talent. The story’s bread and butter was a roundup of 25 local bands throughout the country that we thought, along with talent, had one very important thing: staying power.
One of them was Hanoi’s quirky, expat-led outfit, The Say Oms, a band with a clever name and a violin. To us, they seemed like the perfect musical trifecta — catchy original lyrics, oddball instrumentals and lots of chemistry. They’d only been around for nine months when we featured them, but they already seemed like seasoned pros and had the fanbase to match.
It was pretty exciting to see an expat band with so much promise, and we thought we’d finally found one that could make a genuine impact on local music. ‘These guys,’ we thought, ‘these guys will stick around.’ To say the least, we were pretty confident.
And soon after, we were rewarded for our hubris.
The Say Oms played their final show at Cama ATK on Jun. 7, a mere month after we had published our music story featuring their promising future. Like a bad high school break-up, we found out via Facebook.
“The finest band in Hanoi comes back to ATK for their final performance all together,” read the event page. “As members travel across the globe to pastures new, ATK hosts them for a summer session and what will undoubtedly be a very special and memorable night.”
Pastures new? But certainly they couldn’t be finished with this particular pasture. When we interviewed them, after all, they’d promised us trumpets. Trumpets. Now they were doing what so many expat bands before them had done — moving on just as they’d wooed us into starry-eyed submission, leaving behind a city’s music scene that so desperately needed them.
At the time, it was hard not to feel a little betrayed, but the situation wasn’t anything new. When it comes to local music and its resident expat bands, we’re like jaded divorcees. Every time we fall in love with some hot new group and their cutesy lyrics, guitar strumming and adorable stage antics, they’re off flirting with another point on a map. We found out quickly that being a devout fan of a local expat-led band is synonymous with heartbreak, and we learned not to be so surprised when they upped and left.
Scenes without Life
The trend has had a disheartening effect on both Hanoi and Saigon’s music scenes, which can’t seem to hold on to any non-Vietnamese act long enough to build any kind of momentum. The fault can’t even be placed on the shoulders of the band members themselves. Most come to Vietnam with no plans of staying for the long haul, and even those that do probably don’t play in a band because it’s an avenue to becoming an international music sensation. Life happens, and sometimes that means your band can’t.
So, Vietnam must be forever doomed to a constant carousel of ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ foreign musicians that will never make any lasting impact on the country. Right?
There’s a fundamental flaw in how we think about transience. By assuming that longevity is directly proportional to worth, we sentence any group of foreign musicians with different life trajectories to creative invalidation. To say that an expat band which, say, writes 20 original songs, plays five killer gigs and garners a hundred dedicated fans over the span of a year — and then calls it quits for one reason or another — isn’t worthwhile, then we’ve probably forgotten about the whole reason people make music.
There have been plenty of bands with short lifespans that have created a legacy for themselves that carried on for years, sometimes decades, after the band broke up. Take The Pixies, for example. After their acrimonious split in 1993 — following a playing career of only seven years — the bands’ popularity mounted until they were widely recognised as one of the most influential bands on the alternative rock boom in the early 1990s.
And when the band reunited in 2004, they managed to play a sold-out reunion tour without having been anywhere near a stage for over a decade, and to many fans who only started listening to their music after their demise. Why? Because they had created a legacy — a legacy which was nurtured by a dedicated fanbase intent on keeping their music alive.
There’s a lesson in this for music lovers in Vietnam. Part of the responsibility for building a music scene with valuable foreign contributions is squarely on the shoulders of the fans, and not the bands. Going to every gig that a band plays in the year that they’re together before unceremoniously dropping them the moment they part ways is a surefire way to screw over any music scene. Perhaps the problem is in the fact that the fans, too, are usually transient — but certainly through the magic of thumb drives and the Internet, music can be passed down through the expat generations.
Doing something as simple as buying an album when a band is together — and then still playing it after they’ve moved on — could completely transform how expats listen to locally grown music in Vietnam. Taking it a step further and sharing it with incoming foreign residents could be that much more influential.
It could be the key to a paradigm shift that the country’s expat creative sphere desperately needs, and a way for incoming foreign musicians to appreciate how local expat musicians’ past lives could influence their own contributions to the scene. There is plenty of cross over from one generation to another, and many opportunities to pass along some of Hanoi’s own music legacies.
After all, who says Hanoi’s future residents have to go without The Say Oms’ charming odes to pick-up trucks and their inflatable giraffe mascot? They might not have ever seen them live and on stage — and listening to them through a pair of headphones might be a distant second to seeing them in the flesh — but it’s certainly better than not hearing them at all.
Maybe 10 years down the line — after Hanoi’s music lovers have passed down to the city’s next generation their own love of the band — The Say Oms will play a reunion show. Maybe the audience will be a group of expats and locals who’ve only heard of them through word of mouth and hand-me-down playlists. And who knows? Maybe we’ll finally get those trumpets we were promised.