In the 1950s, an energised music scene was emerging in nightclubs and salon de thé in and around Saigon. It was propelled by record labels like Sóng Nhạc, Việt Nam, Dư Âm, Capitol and Continental, who put out songs on 7” coloured vinyl — yellow, brown, red, sometimes even multicoloured. DJ and INFRAcom! record label head Jan Hagenkötter has pulled together a selection of these songs that span the period from 1965 to 75 for the compilation Saigon Supersound Volume 1.
Besides locating the artists, finding the music from this golden era isn’t easy. Jan relied on local collectors like Antoine Toussaint, better known as DJ Datodeo, to help with the search. “To share the music that moves us,” Antoine adds.
Which songs sum up this era of Vietnamese music?
Jan: It’s impossible to pick one or two songs, there’s just too many. Of course, the songs of Trịnh Công Sơn are incredible — a remarkable rendition of his Diễm xưa by Khánh Ly is on the record. Mộng Về Quê by Duy Quang with Thái Hiền and his band The Dreamers is another favorite on there too.
Antoine: For the first time ever (maybe as the first steps of globalisation) indigenous music from all around the world started to influence each other. Although that continues today, then it was genuine, led by musicians. It was a very exciting time.
Jan: The record is focused on music between ‘65 and ‘75, what’s called nhạc vàng which is ‘yellow music’ or ‘golden music’, and nhạc trẻ or ‘young music’.
Antoine: There were a wide range influences, mostly of western and latin origins. There were ballroom and latin-dance oriented genres such as the cha cha cha, rumba and bolero, genres that dominated the late 40s and the 50s in the west. Then there were American influences like soul, rock and even surf music — local bands covered the songs and, judging by the ‘irregularities’ in the structures, would recreate the records by ear turning the songs into whatever sounded good to them.
How easy is it to find these records?
Jan: When I met artist Kim Loan, I was sad to discover even she didn’t have an original 7” single, or even a proper recording, of her track Căn Nhà Ngoại Ô and she had no idea how to source one.
Antoine: So you end up in a living room, being served tea, kids running around, and a passionate father showing you his vintage amplifiers, and turntables, regaling you for hours with stories. And then he shows you his record collection…which isn’t for sale.
Jan: When I started, I checked the usual places like ‘Antique Street’ (Lê Công Kiều), and bought something like 60 7” singles. Most of them were in a bad condition. After doing some research, and finding long lists of these records compiled by bloggers, I realised there were hundreds of records and tapes released. I stopped listening to other music, which eventually started to annoy people around me! I was constantly looking for auctions on Ebay, and we connected to more and more collectors here in Vietnam. That was often with help of generous Vietnamese friends who would translate. I’d explore any ways I could find to connect with collectors. For example, on a Facebook post on Hoàng Oanh’s page was a photo of a shelf full of records and tapes. I contacted the guy. He was very surprised to hear from me. And the next thing, I’m on a plane back to Vietnam. Prepare yourself to invest a lot of time, do it for passion not for business because it will take more time, money and effort than you could imagine.
Is there a technical challenge to putting a compilation of ‘lost’ music together?
Jan: The process is: find the songs you want to release, then find the best source possible for each song, find the rights owners, then get into the studio to work. I bought several copies of the same release to ‘rebuild’ the track from multiple sources. A number of collectors provided me with digitised recordings, or let me record directly from their old reel-to-reel tapes.
What do you want Saigon Supersound to achieve?
Antoine: Success is when the sounds that move us get positive feedback, and to help Vietnamese music reach foreign ears is amazing. A surprising side of this process is to see Vietnamese taking a fresh look back at their past. With all the incessant forward motion, the past often gets automatically discarded here.
Jan: Vietnamese friends overseas didn’t know the history of this music. They might have heard bits here and there from their parents. The record is a small introduction, but it might encourage them to dig deeper too. This project also has personal significance to me. My wife is Vietnamese, so this project is for my children, who will ask questions about their identity as they grow up.
Saigon Supersound Volume 1 is out on vinyl (of course) and CD on 5th May. There will be launch parties featuring Jan Hagenkötter, DJ Datodeo and The Saigon Soul Revival Band and in Ho Chi Minh City at La Fenetre Soleil (17th March), Danang at Waterfront (24th March), and Hanoi Rock City (25th March).