Published May 23, 2016 in Episode 49
A muddy guitar and discordant drum beats form the backdrop for Mặt Trời Đen, a song about the sun’s refusal to shine. The bleak lyrics are a reflection of living a life in despair.
“To me, rock is about a kind of discontent of being young,” Jason Gibbs, historian and ethnomusicologist of Vietnamese music says, reflecting on the lyrics of the song, “You grow up and you think we can make it a beautiful world. At a certain point the bubble breaks, and you realize this world is mess and we’re not going to make it better.”
He says in Mặt Trời Đen, or Black Sun, songwriter Nguyễn Trung Cang spoke to the angst of a generation and the uncertainties faced by a people living in wartime.
“[It’s] the whole idea that the sun should be brightness, this beautiful thing in your life. But the fact that we’ve entered into this world, and it was compounded by the case by the fact that the war in the background. I think that informs it,” Gibbs says.
Black Sun came out of Việt Nam’s short-lived rock n’ roll era, and it is one of the tracks on the album Saigon Rock N’ Soul, a compilation of Vietnamese rock from 1968 to 1974. During that time, Vietnamese musicians created what critics consider some of the most interesting rock n’ roll of the time, from instrumentation to lyrics.
But how exactly did rock music make its way to Việt Nam?
When American soldiers came to Việt Nam en masse in the 1960s, they brought along their music cassettes and instruments. Longing for the sounds of home, G.I.s asked talented Vietnamese youth to cover their favorite songs.
Gibbs says Vietnamese musicians were willing to oblige: playing these shows was a way to make a livelihood for their families: “America comes in, and on the one hand it’s a great thing, because you have access to all these recordings, instruments. People who could play rock music, could make a lot of money. You might travel around different bases, and play cover versions of American songs–and they made a lot of money. It was very lucrative.”
Rock n’ roll soon made its way into popular consciousness, and the music was even used as propaganda: Songs of mighty soldiers at the frontline or their sweethearts at home, awaiting their homecoming, were used to boost the morale of South Vietnamese troops. Musicians who joined the army would also perform for their fellow soldiers.
But the music disappeared as quickly as it came.
Songs were performed live, and few tracks were recorded. American soldiers started withdrawing and, with the end of the war in sight, musicians also began leaving the country. Those who remained after 1975 stopped performing. The victorious communists tasked their soldiers to destroy all cultural remnants of the South.
But some music made it out, and the music had been buried or scattered across geographies, and perhaps would have remained so if it hadn’t been for one very committed music collector: Mark Gergis.
Decades after the war, Gergis had been digging around in Vietnamese record shops from San Francisco to Orange County, California, finding only ballads, bossa nova, or cải lương.
But tucked in one compilation, he came across a song that had that edgy beat he was familiar with: a duet between Mai Lệ Huyền and Hùng Cường.
“They were mixing a Vietnamese vocal delivery with rock instrumentation,” Gergis says. “So you had rhythm guitar, you had kind of an interesting, funky backbeat and horn section. And I thought, wow, okay, well this is interesting. There must be more.”
Gergis began a nine-year journey to compile an album of Vietnamese rock n’ roll for the record label Sublime Frequencies.
He would find tracks haphazardly, a track hidden here or there in different compilations. When he attempted to find originals of music by Shotgun, a band made up of South Vietnamese soldiers, he would travel to the record shops -- only to hear bad news.
“I went to this place in Westminster ,” he recounts. “And the young lady there, she said: ‘Can I help you?’. And I said: ‘Is this where the Shotgun tapes were produced?’ And then they were just laughing and they said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘Wow, do you have any?’ And she said, ‘No we threw them all away’.”
The struggles Gergis encountered demonstrate what happens to cultural artifacts created in times of war. The single tracks on the compilations Gergis found were made from collections of Vietnamese refugees who brought the music with them, or hid them away in 1975 to save them from being destroyed. Some eventually made their way over to the United States, only to be re-recorded into more modern tracks.
And to this day, most of the music still exists in people’s personal collections, evidenced by the random tracks that find their way onto YouTube. Imagine piecing together a history that is scattered across mediums–cassettes, 45s, reel tapes, YouTube–and geography, space and time.
Gergis had exhausted most of his options when serendipity struck. A friend introduced him to another American collector who was also scouring Vietnamese record shops beginning in the 80s. By the time Gergis had started looking, these record shops were long gone. As he went through this collector’s extensive collection, he heard the CBC Band’s for the first time: “The intensity of the music like CBC Band, I mean that is, that rivals Jimi Hendrix. It rivals like the greatest lines that Prince ever played on guitar, It’s just some of the heaviest music I’ve ever heard.”
CBC Band was one of the most popular bands during the war, fronted by a trio of siblings. Frontwoman and singer Bích Loan had a raw, blues voice and together with her brothers, guitarist Tùng Linh and drummer Tùng Vân, they came to be considered some of the best musicians of Việt Nam’s rock n’ roll era.
“We were really young, we were around six, my older brother (Tùng Linh) seven, and my younger brother (Tùng Vân) five years old,” Bích Loan says. “When we first started original CBC Band, we played Vietnamese and some American songs. Rock n’ roll music didn’t start until 1969 and 70, when the American soldiers came to Việt Nam. Then we began to listen to that kind of music and we kind of liked it and we started to play rock n’ roll music. American soldiers gave us songs to perform for them.”
The band performed for American troops, as well as in bars, then later at Việt Nam’s own Woodstock, Saigon Zoo. They loved the sound, and it was a way to bring home a paycheck for their single mother.
The trio fled to India in 1973, and then eventually made their way to Texas. When Gergis discovered that the band was living and running a club in Houston, he and the owner of the Sublime Frequencies label decided to visit.
“I walked [into the club] and we said, ‘CBC Band, this is incredible to meet you.’ Introduced ourselves and said, ‘We have found your music.’ They were just like, “What?”They all gathered around and we played it for them. And they were just shocked that we had this. They hadn’t heard it since then. They actually hadn’t heard it since it was recorded,” Gergis tells Loa.
Bích Loan recalls that encounter and the memories it unleashed for her and her brothers. “He showed us the song. We were so surprised. Is that really us? Did we really play that song? And to tell you the truth, we could not believe that we did that song. We sang that in Vietnamese, I only sing American songs. We were so happy to hear that song, so emotional. Oh my god. We were so young too.”
She was surprised the track survived because the band performed primarily American songs, and their music was only performed live. Their only two recorded tracks–“Tình Yêu Tuyệt Vời” (The Greatest Love) and “Con Tim Và Nước Mắt” (Heart and Tears)– were done for a movie. They hadn’t heard the songs since the 1970s.
In 2010, Gergis finished the Saigon Rock N’ Soul compilation. “I started getting emails in the year after it came out, from Vietnamese community, everywhere in the Vietnamese diaspora across the world,” he says of the release.
For many listeners, it was a throwback to their youth. For others, it was an entryway into learning more about a history they had not known.
Sheila Phạm, a Sydney reporter who produced a radio program on Sài Gòn’s rock n’ roll scene for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, says the music opened a conversation with her mother about performing in a rock band similar to the CBC band. “Even now, there’s still huge parts of her life that I have no idea about, and it doesn’t feel natural to ask her somehow,” says Phạm, “This kind of provided like an opportunity to actually like explore something with her.”
Việt Nam’s rock scene lasted only a few years, and Phạm says Gergis’ compilation is a rare primer of the diverse range of songs from that time: “The way Mark did it really honored an interesting slice of Vietnamese music history, it kind of blew my mind. Mark made it for accessible for people. I know the album has done really well, introduced a genre of Vietnamese to people that otherwise it would’ve gotten lost.”
Saigon Rock N’ Soul illuminates an area of a complex history. It gives new audiences another avenue to learn about music history, and provides seasoned listeners with an aural path down memory lane.
To think that these invaluable tracks could have been lost in obscurity–would be like a black sun over Vietnamese music history.
Sublime Frequencies - Saigon Rock N' Soul
Songs Featured in this Episode:
CBC Band – Tinh Yêu Tuyệt Vời (The Greatest Love)
Carol Kim – Cái Trâm Em Cài (Your Hair Clip)
Thành Mai – Tóc Mai Sợi Vắn Sợi Dài (Long, Uneven Hair)
CBC Band – Con Tim Và Nước Mắt (Heart And Tears)
Lệ Thu – Sao Biển (Etoile Des Neiges) (Starfish)
Minh Xuân & Phượng Hoàng – Mặt Trời Đen (Black Sun)
Mai Lệ Huyền & Hùng Cường – Hờn Anh Giận Em (Jealousy)
Phương Dung – Đố Ai (Riddles)