Art group Mi An Lien — ‘instant noodle’ — counter-intuitively rocks out some xoi thit. Speciality coffee consultant Will Frith measures out Eastgate coffee grounds on a digital scale, to be brewed via pour-over, next to tabbouleh doctored up by photo collective Xem. The only musicians in the bunch — Space Panther, scheduled to play a headlining set that is later moved to The Observatory because of noise complaints — plate their Gorilla Meats Co. Cheeky Thai Sausage tacos, while singing Air’s Sexy Boy in joint falsetto. “Yea,” Pantherian Bryon Rudd says, “that’s what we cook to.”
As is usually the case with these things, my journalistic impartiality collapses pretty quickly. “Mind if I take a sip of your beer?” asks the other Panther David Haimovich, my cup already in hand. I’ve put down my note pad and am helping them separate plates. “You’re voting for us, right?”
While the day’s organisers run around and improvise, Outcast’s co-founders Linh Nguyen and Duong Phuong Ha stick to the periphery, smiling and supportive, knowing they’ll be the ones with the ultimate responsibility.
For much of the past year-plus of Outcast’s existence, this is the way it’s gone. Free-form plans and good intentions have made for some of DIY Saigon’s most memorable times, kept honest by an increasingly competent framework.
Linh and Ha came into this as dreamers, with a goal of gathering the creative energy present in Ho Chi Minh City and giving it a space to play. In this way its genesis was similar to that of Hanoi’s recently departed Zone 9, which in its short lifespan became a lightning rod for the pent-up energies of Hanoi’s creative community. Unfortunately, as lightning rods are wont to do, it attracted the electricity but was unprepared for the consequences.
The centralised leadership Linh and Ha give Outcast is one of the main reasons for its success. Where Zone 9 had too many active voices to stand still, Linh and Ha’s humble approach has given them the chance to listen.
“All this is collaborative,” Linh says. “Looking back now, on the whole year that Outcast has been running, a lot of stuff here is growing by itself. It’s something that we didn’t plan.”
An earthen ‘pizza oven’ in the shape of Ha’s favourite anime character, Totoro, built over a couple Sundays by muddy volunteers, is now centre stage. “Steve [Wiig, of sustainability group Green Youth Collective] wanted to build the oven and people wanted to do the workshop,” says Ha. “And now it’s escalated to utilising the oven, because why wouldn’t we use what we have?”
When a faction of District 2 neighbours who didn’t want to cooperate sought a shutdown order on Outcast activities, Linh and Ha listened. They looked for a compromise and now self-regulate — most times, the party shuts down between 10 or 11pm. They are trying to work with people, and as a result their project has become all-inclusive
On a typical day, you’ll find neighbourhood kids skating the half-pipe, while expats sit around with a beer and computer. They should come; they helped build it.
“For the half-pipe,” Linh says, “people got together and built that. We provided the material… and they got together and built it. People like to build things.”
The community approach is working, even if its path isn’t always direct. For the coming year, Linh and Ha are thinking about ways to give its participants a push in the right direction.
“We’re going to concentrate on more workshops,” Linh says. “Personally I want to learn to play drums… and I’ve spoken to Janel [Orbida, drummer for In the Lion’s Den and Tofu’s band] and other people, who will actually be hosting workshops. The idea — bring a group of people together, learn basic rhythm.”
It’s this passion for new experiences that’s given Outcast its longevity, its sense of progress.
Linh continues: “When you play together, when you jam together, you learn quicker. There’s more passion and energy learning in a group than in private tuition, which a lot of people do in Vietnam. They pay a lot of money for private tuition for their kids to learn musical instruments… They just leave their kids there, go off and do something else and expect their kids to learn something.
“I believe that a community — a collaborative group of people learning together — is always the best thing.”
Saigon Outcast is at 188/1 Nguyen Van Huong, Q2, Ho Chi Minh City or online at facebook.com/saigonoucast — no ‘t’. Their next anniversary is in celebration of one year of the Melting Pot Art and Music Festival on Feb. 22 from 1pm to 10pm