Hanoi, Vietnam. What does that make you think about? I guess it depends on where you are from. The first thing that probably comes to mind is the heavily publicized Vietnam war, or as it is called here, The American War.
This was a time in history that started massive anti-establishment movements, protests and a global subculture of defiant, against method ideas. It was a very emotive time that drew clear ideological lines between different societal structures.
Music played a huge role in all of this, it became the voice of the ones that felt culturally voiceless and trapped. The counter culture movement of the 60s and 70s is still, justifiably so, being romanticized by many. Artists like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Barry Mcguire, The Doors, Edwin Starr and Creedence Water Revival, to name but a few, became global icons and a testament to the influence that music can have on our ideas and shared feelings.
I am not only referring to the West, here in Hanoi we feel it as well. On Friday nights at a live music venue aptly called The Doors a cover band consisting of older Vietnamese men perform songs mainly from the above mentioned eras. They perform them well. They call themselves The Cowboys and they still have vivid memories of recent Vietnamese history. Seeing locals play these anthems gives us quite an interesting perspective on the cultural heritage and meaning of these songs. It, of course, also reminds us of how music can transcend and change its context over time. Watching them play is a culturally shared experience that can be described in two simple words. Massive fun.
Why am I even mentioning all of this cultural and historical stuff? We are talking about the year 2020 and the current Hanoi music scene yes? Well, that is exactly the reason I am mentioning it. Things here looked very different not that long ago and the rise of new and relevant subcultures in previously troubled places is always a given. The country has to a large extent opened its borders with extended tourist VISAS. There has also been a huge influx of Western English speaking teachers and other migrant workers. The identity and nature of Hanoi seem to attract specifically those that are a bit more alternatively inclined. In recent years the city became a refuge and hub specifically for artists and wanderers from all over the world. I’ve heard it been called the Berlin of South East Asia several times, whether or not this is true is open for debate.
There is a reason for people saying it though.
There are open mics for new artists held almost every night of the week, sometimes simultaneously at different venues. Local more established musicians can be seen regularly; often times there are three or four of them on the same bill, providing for a proper night of music. There is definitely no shortage of creativity in this city. We have poetry nights, movie nights and a philosophy circle, to mention but a few. Music videos are being produced in a very DIY style and there is always a film maker interested in helping. Several bands record their own albums or go to a local recording studio. These studios all offer very professional services at extremely reasonable rates.
Yes, all this sounds very grand, but things also need to be seen within perspective. I am speaking from a very specific vantage point. I am a privileged ex-patriate living within a huge cultural bubble. The room for growth between international and local artists is still immense, both culturally and location wise. There are huge parts of the city and its arts scene that I haven’t even explored yet.
Venues and artists are working hard on bridging this gap and it is good to see both Vietnamese and international acts performing together on stage or in the same bands. Venues also seem to support each other and it is not uncommon for venue owners to visit each other’s venues to have a drink and chat about the future of all this.
What else makes the Hanoi groove and sound special you may ask?
Well, it is a big city with nearly 8 million inhabitants. This creates a melting pot of collaborations, styles, cultures and genres that all come together to tell unique stories. It is not uncommon finding a band that boasts members from 3 or 4 different countries, which of course suggest a specific sound with a lot of different influences.
I will mention only a few of them.
Red Eyed Rabbit is, for lack of a better term, experimental rock. At times they have a sound that can be described as lo-fi gone electric. Other times it sounds like shoegaze on happy pills. Most of the times it is their simple and at the same time complex soundscapes that pulls you in though. Band members are from France, Australia and the UK. The band is soon performing at Jai Thep Festival in Thailand and are working hard on upping their online presence by releasing a series of videos, both live and otherwise. They are to be found on Spotify and several other online platforms.
Monoheart sounds like Alice in Chains met PJ Harvey, somewhere in the late 90s, somewhere in space. They have members from 4 different countries and recently released a music video with a local production company. Their live shows are massively energetic and vulnerable at the same time and their local following is rapidly growing. The band is in the process of releasing a full album and from the little I’ve heard I predict it is going to be a real kicker!
TOVA is a two-piece arty act with socially conscious lyrics and a dreamy sound that feels like a roadmap to the more gentle things inside of us. They have toured extensively across Asia and are also creatively very busy. The band is in the process of developing a series of music videos with an overarching narrative that tells the stories they believe need to told during these times we live in.
The music of Tiny Giant take us on a more subconscious journey. They experiment with some traditional sounds that is interpreted in a very modern way and have beautiful visuals to accompany their performance. The act definitely sounds like nothing you’ve heard before and they are sure to open up places inside of you that you might not even have known were there. Crowds usually go dead quiet when they perform. Tiny Giant recently completed a tour in Europe and are currently on their way to Australia.
These are just a few acts and it feels not completely right singling out a few. Over time they will all be mentioned and heard. There’s just so many. From the top of my head I can list about 30 more interesting and great solo performers and bands, and that is just the stuff I like!
Recently we also got a new recording studio called êch êch Studios. They have a community based approach to recording songs. This inadvertently leads to several artists forming in studio collaborations. As a service to local artists the studio recently recorded a wonderful compilation album available on soundcloud.
There is no shortage of live music venues either. Hanoi Rock City is an establishment that hosts acts from all over the world. It is a proper live music venue with two floors, good sound and a big stage. Hanoi Social Club has the Tiny Music Club that offers intimate performances of solo artists, both local and international. Urban Gentry is mostly a jazz bar but also has great open mics and experimental evenings where musicians from all over come and perform. The Venue looks like an old German Beer Hall and is proper rock & roll. There is the Hidden Club with a red and black interior and lights made from empty beer bottles, very 90s. Bun Cha Burger Hosts rooftop gigs with a great view of the lake. The Doors is an establishment where local and international punters get together through their love of music and it is not strange to see an old Vietnamese dude rocking out with a hipster in front of the stage.
Hanoi has a voice and it says, listen to us! It’s a good one, and it’s a unique one and soon it’s going to break free and be heard, or at least that is what I would like to believe. I’ve mentioned that the city has been compared to other cultural hubs in the world. I guess I can also compare it a little to the protest movements that largely started with discontent with regards to what was happening here 50 or more years ago. It’s definitely defiant and it’s definitely relevant.
I can delve a lot more into the specific sounds, recording studios, venues and artists but it could take a very long time. It is dense and much more vast than one could imagine. For now listen to some of the artists mentioned and enjoy!