Meet the strong, opinionated and ultra-talented lead singer and guitarist of band Fish Sauce
We discover a woman who is an infamous anomaly in this society, someone who speaks up for women and gay rights, and speaks out against traditional gender stereotypes.
Interview by Eliza Lomas ● Photos by Benito del Sur
&: So to go back to the early days – what are your beginnings in making music?
Mai Khoi: I started to play music when I was twelve years old living in Cam Ranh. My Dad led a band there and he taught me to play keyboard and sing. We toured the city playing parties and weddings.
&: What music did you listen to when you were growing up?
Mai Khoi: I listened to a lot of what my Dad played me – Michael Jackson, The Beatles, Boney M, Abba, Jimmy Hendrix. And also Vietnamese music of course – Hong Nhung, Thanh Lam and My Tam when I was young I liked to hear them sing.
&: So then when you were older you moved to Ho Chi Minh City…
Mai Khoi: I moved to HCMC when I was eighteen and had finished high school. It was there I started professional singing. I didn’t have a band in Saigon, I would just go different venues and sing with whatever bands were there. Then I found a Filipino band which I kept for three years, playing cover songs.
&: When did you start to become more well-known?
Mai Khoi: I started to write my own music around 2005, and five years later people started to hear about me more after I won the song and album of the year awards on Vietnam Television [a competition they still have on TV every year].
This is the song that won Mai Khoi the award
Straight after that I shaved half of my hair off and had “VN” inscribed in the side – people could not understand that, it really shocked them, because the song and video showed gentle Vietnamese girl singing in rice paddy fields…
Just after this, I was interviewed for a Vietnamese newspaper, and the interviewer asked me what I wanted for the future… do I want to have a baby? I told her the truth – I don’t want to live until I’m really old, I don’t want to have a baby, and when I’m fifty I want to focus entirely on practicing Buddhism. (Editor’s note – Khoi has been practicing Buddhism seriously already for five years, and has spent a couple of days with the Dalai Lama in India).
The interviewer was really angry about my answer. “You’re a famous singer, the youth will follow that idea and you shouldn’t say things like that! This country will have no more babies in the future, it’s not natural!”
But I just told her the truth. It’s my life and desire, everyone should have their own desires and do what they want to make them happy, not what society wants of them. It’s not that I don’t like babies, but that I want to save all of my time for music and practicing Buddhism. The reporter changed what I said in the article and consequently made it a scandal, making it sound like I said, “I don’t want children, I want to die soon”.
&: Were there any other times when you have been against popular opinion about something?
Mai Khoi: Oh yes, many! There has been a couple of famous incidences which I spoke out against. Đàm Vĩnh Hưng, the most famous pop star in the country, once said in public “you shouldn’t hit your wife, but if she’s too aggressive, then it’s acceptable.”
It was crazy! Also there’s a famous Spanish model-actress who was photographed being hit by her boyfriend in Hanoi, and a lot of people came out and blamed her, accepting this violence against women. I publicly spoke out against that as well.
This is a song Mai performed at this year’s Gay Pride in Saigon about the problem with it not being acceptable to show affection on the street with your lover.
&: A video of yours has recently gone viral and caused a big foray, can you tell me more about that?
Mai Khoi: Yes, ‘Selfie Orgasm’. This outraged certain Vietnamese newspapers which said that I acted unwomanly. They called the video “obscene” and “offensive”, criticising the way I look. There’s so much pressure on women to conform to social expectations. They must look a certain way, be discreet in the way they dress. But this is 100% the opinion of the writers objecting to new forms of gender identity.
If I’m inspired by an issue, I will write a song about it. I’ve even written a song about vaginal rejuvenation and the oppressive nature of popular notions of beauty that put pressure on women to have cosmetic surgery, although it’s in English because it would be way too sensitive in Vietnamese!
&: Let’s fast-forward now to this weekend… I’d like to ask you about your current band Fish Sauce, tell me about what you were inspired by for this?
Mai Khoi: I’ve just finished travelling around Cuba and Mexico, and whilst there I was exposed to Latin American music and collaborated with many musicians I met along the way. We sung in bars, parks and even on the street. I had a very good feeling with Latin rhythms and wrote songs while I was there.
As soon as I came back to Hanoi, me and the band started to arrange the songs for this weekend. When I have new songs, I just want to sing them for everybody!
Fish Sauce is hard to pin down to any genre, it’s a bit like a tasty dipping mix that you would have here with a bowl of noodles. There’s a diverse assortment of ingredients: rock, soul, Latin rhythms, flamenco and English and Vietnamese lyrics.
&: Who else is in the band?
Mai Khoi: In the band we have Hiep on lead guitar, Linh on electric guitar, Tung on cazone drum and bongo, Quang on bass, Araceli – a really strong singer from Nicaragua, and Sebastian on double bass and cello, from Ecuador. We also have Truong Sa on solo guitar (formerly Pham Anh Khoa band and Le Cat Trong Ly).