Swinging Saigon

Soundtrack for this post: ‘The Greatest Love’ by Bich Loan and CBC Band, ‘Long, Uneven Hair’ by Thanh Mai and ‘Riddles’ by Phuong Dung.

Things will be quiet around here for a few weeks.  I’m going for a Holiday in Cambodia and Vietnam.

Speaking of Vietnam…some really great funk/soul/rock was produced there in the late sixties and early seventies.  Vietnamese music had before been influenced by the west – it was of course part of French Indochina from the 1880s until the 1950s – but that influence was intensified in the south with the American war of 1959-75.

Some of the music that resulted was documented in the Sublime Frequencies compilation Saigon Rock & Soul: Vietnamese Classic Tracks 1968-1974, released in 2010.  Most if not all of this music was recorded at US bases, with GI audiences in mind.  The scene came to an end with the fall of Saigon in 1975.

With the caveat that I speak zero Vietnamese, with titles like ‘Your Hair Clip’ and ‘The Crazy Song’, these songs don’t appear to be explicitly political in content.  The way the music came together and the way its sounds is though political in itself.  No doubt escapism was a significant motivation for making and listening to this music too.

The first of the songs in the above playlist, by The CBC Band, is I think the most conventional to western ears.  If the lyrics weren’t in Vietnamese it would easily pass as an American group (and a good one).  It even has a film clip which is all hair, waistcoats and flares.  Despite the visuals though, the sound is more garage-stoner rock than psychedelia.

The CBC Band fled Vietnam at the height of their popularity in 1974 after receiving news the south was likely to fall.  They went to Indonesia to seek asylum in Australia.  This failed (Australia didn’t begin taking Vietnamese refugees until 1975) and they ended up in Bombay.  In October 1975 they were allowed to resettle in the United States where they continue to play to this day.

The second song on the playlist, ‘Long, Uneven Hair’ by Thanh Mai, is probably my favourite.  The production, instrumentation and vocals are all very Nancy Sinatra (when she was produced by Lee Hazlewood).  The lead guitar alternates between mellow doodling in the slow bits and fuzzy solos in the fast bits.  The tempo changes are a bit unusual for a pop song and I wonder if that could be a Vietnamese influence on the song.  I don’t know.

‘Riddles’ by Phuong Dung is the most unusual of these three songs.  Both the melody and singing style is more Vietnamese sounding than the other two tracks.  The sublimely languid opening three minutes are truly beautiful.  After that there’s one of those tempo changes again and the song gets a bit more upbeat.  I can’t really find the words to describe this song.  There is something unique about it, but it also feels familiar.

These songs are a great example of how wonderful cross-cultural pollination can be, and of the power of artists to create great things in the worst of conditions.  Please listen to them!

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