A forgotten part of Vietnamese music history has been painstakingly pieced together for a stunning compilation
Saigon Rock n Soul is a compilation of electrified music made in Vietnam in the late 60s and early 70s. It sheds light on a vibrant scene of Vietnamese rock music that has been lost, and in fact the existence of which is not widely known. With tracks recorded in makeshift studios while the war raged in the background, the compilation reveals the full scope of the dynamic, raw and passionate music that was being created at that time.
It was put together by Mark Gergis, an American composer, performer, producer and international audio/visual archivist, who has been interested in bringing music from the Middle East and South East Asia to a Western audience.
While living in Oakland California – an area with numerous Vietnamese, Thai and Laos neighbourhoods – Mark took a chance on listening to some cassettes he found in the local shops. This sparked his interest in South East Asian and Vietnamese music, an interest he was able to indulge thanks to the Oakland library which had an extensive selection of Asian music.
Interview by Eliza Lomas ● Edited by Rose Arnold
&: How did the Saigon Rock n Soul compilation come about?
Mark Gergis: That was a result of finding cassettes and 7 inches in various places of the United States and France. Most of those cassettes were produced by refugees who had become residents of the United States.
They, in a sense, rescued this music that was being produced in the 50s, 60s and early 70s Saigon at the time. That music was banned [in Vietnam] after [the end of the war].
&: How did you select the hit tracks that are on the compilation?
Mark Gergis: I ended up getting hundreds of these cassettes and 45s. And going through them all, most of them were very wistful ballads. But then occasionally you’d get one track out the blue, called ‘soul music’ , because they’d label the genres on some of the tapes, and it ended up being incredible acid rock, insane, deep purple, beyond. So that was the stuff I started looking for, and some of the more soulful upbeat tunes.
&: What did CBC [a band Mark tracked down who now own a nightclub in Houston, Texas.] tell you about their time performing during the war?
We have to remember that it was wartime, it’s not just rock n roll. I imagine there was a real kinetic energy at that time, and a real excitement being on the precipice of who knows what, not knowing what the end result was going to be, but having this youthful rock n roll optimism.
Mark Gergis: They would play to entertain the forces, and they had one story where they were playing at the barracks somewhere. The little drummer was only about nine years old maybe, and he had a girlfriend that was a year younger than him. Obviously she couldn’t get in to a grown-up club like that, but he told the doorman ‘just let her in that’s my girlfriend’, and they did. But the unfortunate thing is that a bomb went off in that club and that little girl died. Some of the band have scars on their legs from the shrapnel.
We have to remember that it was wartime, it’s not just rock n roll. I imagine there was a real kinetic energy at that time, and a real excitement being on the precipice of who knows what, not knowing what the end result was going to be, but having this youthful rock n roll optimism. It really shows in a lot of those recordings.
&: What was the CBC band’s reaction to you wanting to put their music out on Sublime Frequencies record label?
Mark Gergis: When we met them for the first time, we brought the recordings that are on Saigon Rock n Soul, and asked if it was them. They said they hadn’t heard it since 1972! We couldn’t believe they hadn’t heard it or didn’t have a copy of it.
And they said, so you want us to re-record these songs, the copy is very bad, very old, we can re-do it for you. But we told them that what we like is to do is to release it as is, we’ll EQ it a little bit and master it, but that’s our aesthetic. The niche market that buys our records wherever they are appreciate that kind of music.
&: What was the reaction like internationally to the compilation?
Mark Gergis: Everyone in the West seemed to love it. And then the responses from Vietnamese around the world starting coming in, telling me that they just couldn’t believe it. They had ignored their parents’ culture, they were first generation growing up in whatever country they’d ended up in after the war. Maybe they were rock n roll fans and had grown up listening to rock music and really shunning the Vietnamese side of things. Probably has a lot to do with even some of the mysteries and sad stories that their parents didn’t feel like divulging. But thanking me for putting it together and telling me that they could never have dreamed that Vietnamese music could rock like that or sound like that. So that’s been the best thing, and one of the greatest reactions to the work I’ve ever done.
&: And now in 2015, you’ve recently released another record which focuses on Vietnam. Can you explain your idea behind Radio Vietnam?
Mark Gergis: Radio Vietnam is a disc that I did here over the past year in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and it’s a result of listening and enjoying Vietnamese radio up close, for hundreds of hours, and going through these recordings figuring out how it can be representational of radio at its best.
It’s essentially a 70 minute programme edited and presented as a listening experience in itself. So it’s an exciting project that represents over a year of radio immersion, which is unique because most of the Sublime Frequencies radio discs are usually a result of a maximum of three months in a location… so it yielded quite a lot, and was quite a lot to go through as a result! But that’s what it’s supposed to represent: the best of that.