In last month’s Word, Karen Hewell wrote an opinion piece called On Transience. In it, she tracked the June departure of Hanoi expat band Say Oms, and connected their career arc with those who’d come before — expats who eventually went home at some point. The solution she proposed to end this vicious cycle was in embracing the music while it lasts, and maybe even afterwards.
When she posted it on the Facebook group Expats in Ho Chi Minh City, she encountered some opposition, most notably from Expats avatar-around-town Ben Robinson. And, though the battle was pitched, some good points came out of it, all circling around a dilemma concerning the four bands talked about later in this piece — namely, can bands with mostly expat members, playing a non-Vietnamese brand of music actually make a dent here?
Highlights from the Battle
Ben Robinson: It’s just people messing around on an extended holiday. Anyone in any way serious about trying to make a career in music (that involves recording in a studio and releasing music to buy) is at home (or in their home country) doing just that. Expat musicians are dilettantes, only the seriously misguided would come here to try to further a music career. In any case, a music ‘scene’ of expat bands and acts doesn’t really ‘belong’ to a place, you need local bands of native musicians to do that.
Genuine question: Who has released an album here? Or even, who has recorded anything in a studio? Can’t really blame the audience for not listening to albums that don’t exist.
Emily Navarra [Dancer / Scene Organiser]: There are a handful of bands that are not just gigging in Saigon. They gig in Mui Ne, Nha Trang and Hanoi as well... They are not moving towards ‘fame’ because they are finding the beauty of being a musician in an emerging underground scene. Will they continue to stay? I don’t know. Do they care about reaching the local audiences? I believe they do.
David Moses Haimovich [of Space Panther]: TL;DR: Saigon scene is mad tiny, but real great.
Listening to Albums that Don’t Exist
I walk into Mark Rodgers’ Sonic Uprising studio in HAGL 3, greeted by darkness and Mark wearing a shogun’s cloak. A short, climbing moan is coming from the only lit room in the apartment — Space Panther’s David is wearing headphones, singing into a pop-shielded mic. They’ve been in here for four hours, since before sunset.
Space Panther’s other half, Bryon Ramsey-Leonard Rudd, plays the result, his vocals already mixed in, a euphoric 85 BPM beat giving the song its lush texture. Feels is the second song they’ve recorded with Mark, intended for a six-song EP called Creature, to be released in late August. David later writes me, on consecutive lines of a Facebook message, “It sounds nothing like Steely Dan / It sounds like calling your Dad after a few beers with Shazam turned up full blast in the background / It sounds somewhere between blissed out electronic indie and subtle r&b / It sounds ‘blissed out’ / It sounds.”
The Magic Pinions, The Love Below and James and the Van Der Beeks are also releasing EPs on Aug. 29 at Cargo Bar (7 Nguyen Tat Thanh, Q4, HCMC), on the type of night Saigon’s original music scene has rarely seen.
Nick Simon of The Magic Pinions has a bit more of a Saigon-specific inspiration — yet one viewed through an expat’s remove. “The upcoming EP is called Sketches,” he says, “and to me it’s five songs that represent an element, not just of the city, but of moving to somewhere new, the mystery and wide eyes that come with it and also the thoughts of where you come from.” They aim to bring a bit more stillness and tranquility to the scene — as Nick says, “I’ve always thought of The Magic Pinions as the after party music, or the music you’d listen to the day after.”
Gabriel Kaouros of The Love Below describes their EP, Saigon Stories, as “about Saigon, morality, love and life in general”. It was “totally self produced and recorded by our guitarist and vocalist Andre Ngo. It will sound like The Love Below — urban hip hop sound with soul and groove.” It will also have the sound of Gabriel’s swaggering
bass and main lyricist Tanya Smackdab’s scene godmother experience — she fronted the funky party band mainstays The Banana Project and The Marmalades, who graced stages both in Vietnam and abroad.
Gareth Katz of James and the Van Der Beeks tells me lies, but that’s okay — their forthcoming EP has the fantastical name F/ck Up a Shark.
“It sounds like NSYNC and Cannibal Corpse. Dynamic synergy. The sound of one hand clapping in an empty forest.” Just what you might expect from these bearded tricksters of dance punk — and that sound of one hand clapping is from the girls Gareth invites onstage during the show to give him whisky slaps.
But let’s not be sticklers about the recorded output, and settle debates on technicalities. Expat scene or not, recorded or not, these bands all play some lovely music, and three of them will join the eight others who are performing at the original music showcase, Don’t Feed the Monkey, which happens earlier in the month.
Don’t Feed the Monkey
“Don’t Feed the Monkey is an artist collective which aims to promote original music and art,” says UGWAE and 67s member Alec Schachner. “It grew from an idea of artist self-promotion — which is really a necessity in the Saigon scene, where venues do not promote.”
It’s also an event approaching festival status, happening at Cargo for its third edition this Aug. 9, and featuring 11 acts, street artists, body painters, live video artists and installation art. In addition to Space Panther, The Love Below and James and the Van Der Beeks, Tofu Band (a Vietnamese-fronted band, FWIW), Demon Slayer (Vietnamese, check), Applesauce (yep), Saigon Kiss, Freckled Gypsys, Growsound, Mic Mac Max and 6789 are all playing on the night.
Whether this Western-type music will eventually lure in the masses is a question that only time will answer. But in one way it doesn’t quite matter — these bands are getting to play the type of music they want to play, and audiences have more options to choose from than they did at any time in the recent past.
We’re biased, but we’re having a good time with the scene, as it stands.
To hear more of the bands in advance of their EP release party at Aug. 29 at Cargo Bar (7 Nguyen Tat Thanh, Q4, HCMC), check out the following links:
The Love Below
The Magic Pinions
James and the Van Der Beeks
Don’t Feed the Monkey’s original music showcase is at Cargo Bar earlier in the month, from 5pm on Aug. 9, featuring 11 bands and live visuals by LAV syndicate.
To see more of Jack Clayton's woodcut prints, go to jackclaytonart.com.
Look up Mark Rodgers' production offerings at sonicuprising.com.
To hear the Say Oms’ lasting testament to shambolic torch songery, Live @ The Hanoi Social Club, click on