A legacy of the Vietnam War, Saigon Soul Revival appropriate a Western genre whilst adding a wonderful Vietnamese twist
In some respects, the very idea of Vietnamese soul music seems unusual. Vietnam in the Western consciousness is usually solely recalled in reference to the Vietnam War, a brutal, bloody, and unjust conflict that spanned almost 20 years, and saw millions of deaths, many of them Vietnamese citizens. This might suggest that some sections of Vietnamese society might take against cultural symbols and signifiers from its former enemy combatant. That said, the reality of any situation is far more complex, and the clue is in the name of the artist Saigon Soul Revival. This album is an attempt at a rebirth of Vietnamese soul in modern Vietnam. The genre was once popular in the 1960s in what was then Saigon in South Vietnam, the part of the country that was under Western, specifically American, influence. As US soldiers were posted to Saigon they brought with them their music, performed by musicians such as Hung Cuong, Mai Le Huyen and Hoang Oanh, creating a nascent soul scene that mixed the genre with Vietnamese traditional rhythms and instruments, not too dissimilar to that of neighbouring Cambodia, where the King of Khmer Music, Sinn Sisamouth, was developing his wildly inventive mix of bossa nova, soul, rock, and swing music. Once the war was won by the North Vietnamese forces, the scene quickly dissipated due to pressure from the new Communist authorities. It is no surprise then that the genre is called in Vietnamese ‘nhac vàng’, or ‘pre-war music’.
“It’s that infectious spirit combined with their obvious talents in musical fusion that won me over, and it also made me want to find out more about the original Vietnamese soul scene and listen to the original artists and songs that Saigon Soul Revival have taken inspiration from...”
The album is a mix of original songs and some classics from the original Saigon Soul era, and the album title itself when translated into English means ‘old harmonies’, which again reflects the nostalgic mission statement of the band themselves. The album is good, with an interesting mix of soul, funk, and blues with traditional Vietnamese music, which sets it apart from quite a lot of other soul from non-American nations. Furthermore, like the work of Sinn Sisamouth when it is listened to now, it evokes a lost era of Vietnamese music that was not spoken about or encouraged for several decades, in effect becoming a musical time capsule. This element of the music is intrinsically linked to its actual content, even though it is partially original. It could have been enough to just cover the old Vietnamese soul classics, but it is rather nice to see that the band, consisting of rock musicians as well as experts in Vietnamese classical music, have attempted to create something new going forward as well. For example, the song Hào Hoa features a rap by Ho Chi Minh City-based rapper Blacka, and it somehow meshes nicely with the overriding retro feel of the music, rather than seeming garishly out of place. It also demonstrates that this genre can thrive and evolve, and is not just a lovely relic of a time gone by.
Songs like Nào Ta Cùng Hát lean far more heavily on the Vietnamese traditional side of things, making excellent use of band member Nguyen Thi Hai Phuong’s skills on the dàn bau, a type of Vietnamese monochord zither. This contrasts nicely with the song immediately after it, named Bài Ca Ngong, which makes strong use of guitarist Indy Laville’s skills in creating psychedelic and funky riffs. Were they not singing in Vietnamese, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was an American band playing as its arrangement is completely Western, and that’s because it’s authentic, and played by musicians who truly love the music they are playing. It’s that infectious spirit combined with their obvious talents in musical fusion that won me over, and it also made me want to find out more about the original Vietnamese soul scene and listen to the original artists and songs from which Saigon Soul Revival have taken inspiration. In this sense I think it is fair to say that they’ve succeeded on two key fronts. I do hope that they are able to capitalise on their momentum, and help establish a new, innovative soul scene in Vietnam once again.