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Saigon But Not Forgotten

In Music
SAIGON NIGHTS: Phuong Tâm and her band performing live in Vietnam, long before her recent rediscovery.

SAIGON NIGHTS: Phuong Tâm and her band performing live in Vietnam, long before her recent rediscovery.

In rural South Vietnam, in a modest courtyard in the early 1960s, a little girl with black bangs crouches by her neighbor’s radio, listening to faraway sounds from the BBC. She spends many of her mornings like this, listening to Brenda Lee, Connie Francis and Elvis. Outside the courtyard, life is beset with war, one that would rapidly intensify as the decade wore on.

Despite the times, the little girl born Nguyễn Thi Tâm, and later known as Phuong Tâm, became a singer, a firebrand in socially meek times who may have been Vietnam’s first original rock artist. Since 1980, Tam has lived in San Jose, where she raised her family and still resides today. This coming March, her complete recorded discography is being reissued for the first time ever by record label Sublime Frequencies.

All of Phuong Tam’s recorded material was recorded quickly between the years 1964-1966—a time before many formative rock bands from the US and UK, like Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin.

“I knew I loved music when I was only 10 years old,” Tâm recalls. ”And later, I don’t think anyone was doing the type of music I was doing.”

 

Bygone Twisted Days

Performing in Vietnam at a time when Western pop covers were sung to American soldiers in nightclubs, Tâm charted a different course: singing original rock songs written and performed by Vietnamese musicians. This audacity in early ‘60s Vietnam was unheard of, upending bedrock assumptions of how music should sound and how women should “behave.”

Viewed as cultural meddling by conservative statesmen, recording of Western music was strictly verboten. Yet, the songs all exist on vinyl 45s which have languished in poor conditions and become obscured by time, as remnants of war often do.

Recently, these records—some nearly 60 years old—were all arduously restored and lovingly compiled as Magical Nights: Saigon Surf, Twist & Soul, the first Phuong Tâm album to become available to Western listeners.

The release of this record is marked by war and sacrifice, and a mystery solved through a herculean effort from family and music obsessives alike. Magical Nights is a rarity because old Vietnamese vinyl is incredibly rare, especially pre-1975 material (most surviving 45s are folk recordings or traditional opera—galaxies away from Tâm’s surfy garage tunes and sullen rock ballads). The songs contained within were also recorded fleetingly during wartime, a rare document from an era of political intensity and hairpin instability.

And things only got bloodier.

“By 1968-69 the bombings became much worse,” Tâm remembers.

Curbed along with any sense of normalcy were the daydreams and aspirations of an entire generation. The song titles on Magical Nights themselves—“Sorrow At 18,” “A Soldier’s Day of Leave,” “Sadness In The City,” and “Bygone Twisted Days”—all convey this.

Phuong Tâm, who is now 76 years old, remembers the day she could no longer resist the big city’s pull, as she left Hóc Môn, a sprawl outside Saigon, for the heart of the bustle.

“By the time I was in high school, around 16 or so, I told my father I was quitting school to become a singer. He was very upset,” she laughs. “I left the village and my mother and father stayed in the countryside.”

Despite cultural forces that kept most girls her age compliant, Tâm was bold in a society with zero patience for denouncements of family, government, or tradition—especially ones that ran counter to the patriarchy. Around 1961, she auditioned for the art and culture brigade of South Vietnam, an entity that recruited performers as part of the war effort. She got the part.

Tâm, however, leaned fully into rock and roll: she grunted like Janis and challenged conventional norms. She didn’t just sing lovelorn standards, but sang powerful numbers that were copied for years after she fled the country. Sadly though, one audience never heard her.

“My parents, they never did end up hearing any of my music,” she says.

 

‘Yellow Music’

An intended consequence of war is to destroy culture, especially thriving ones. We’ve seen this play out in Cambodia in the mid-1970s, when the Khmer Rouge—one of the most brutal regimes in modern history—killed 1/4 of its own population. Phnom Penh’s exploding experimental music scene was swiftly and brutally muted. Singers, musicians, writers and artists disappeared, sent to labor camps or silently killed en masse as part of the military’s cultural cleansing programs.

Vietnam, Cambodia’s neighbor to the East, has had an unyielding history of war since its inception, and its artistic and cultural movements have been oppressed with each regime change. After ‘75, Northern leadership exerted control, banning popular songs in South Vietnam. Music produced from the south was dubbed “Nhac Vang” (“Yellow Music”), while music from the north was dubbed “Nhac Do” (“Red Music”) and endorsed by the government.

Musically, “Yellow Music” tends to be more upbeat, and more inspired by contemporary sounds. “Red Music” leant towards classical or folk, conservative in both content and sound. The government forbade its own people from recording western music in the mid-1960s, when the country was at war with itself.

After flouting government decrees—as well as her parents—Tâm performed and partied in Saigon, in the epicenter of action. It was there that she met two people who were equally enthralled by her singing and who would fundamentally alter her life in different ways.

One day, after a rendition of Nat King Cole’s “Tenderly,” she met a lanky young soldier taken by her live performance. He had come every other day that week too.

“I met my husband in Saigon in November of 1963,” Tâm recalls. “He came to the nightclub and loved watching me sing American pop music. We were young and open to new things. He was my number one fan.”

Around the same time, she also met her first teacher, Mr. Doan Chau Nhi.

“He heard me sing and he was interested in Western music, so he asked me to come to his place later and sing for him.”

Tâm credits Mr. Nhi with teaching her about “rebellious rock and roll.”

“He really taught me how to use my voice. Later we recorded what we practiced.”

 

Action Music

1965 was a fun year. Photos depict Tâm luxuriating at the biggest nightclubs in Saigon, wearing bright red lipstick and revealing garb. The songs she sang were written by her music teachers, local songwriters and band members. All of them worked with a fearless energy about them, young creatives doing things no one around them were doing. Vietnamese songs in upbeat Western styles were known locally by a memorable name, “nhac kich dong”—action music.

“I think a lot of Vietnamese people at the time didn’t understand rock. They didn’t know how to listen to it. It was too new. But for us, we would just have so much fun doing it,” Tâm says. “It would only take us a couple hours to make each song. My other teacher, Mr. Kahn Bang. He played the electric guitar and was one of the first Vietnamese to ever do so. I didn’t play any instruments, all I had was my voice.”

Novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen (whose parents also settled in San Jose in the late ‘70s) has a character in his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Sympathizer—a bold, metafictional work about the Americanization of the Vietnam War experience—who resembles Tâm in notable ways. The character, Lana, is the daughter of a military general who was also charmed by American music and aspired to sing. Nguyen’s narrator describes Lana by saying she “wears a black leather miniskirt and a gold silk halter top. She sings the blues and rock numbers that bands in Vietnam mastered to entertain American troops, such as ‘Proud Mary’ and ‘Twist and Shout.’”

Lana’s characterization, though fictional, wasn’t unlike Tâm’s reality. She and her band rehearsed all day in order to perform all night. The demand for entertainment was high, the foreign cash injection abundant—and certainly most welcomed.

“We had fun so we never stopped. The days were long but I was young,” Tâm says. “We would perform at an airport base, then go to a nightclub, then another. Sometimes we would go dancing in between. We’d play at tearooms. We would perform long after midnight.”

As war intensified and reality worsened, horrors became louder and nearer. Artistic aspirations gave way to survival. Tâm’s husband, Ha Xuan Du, was a medic in the army and was offered a position in Da Nang, a central city north of Saigon.

“At that point, right then, we left. I had a husband to take care of and a new family to look after,” Tâm says. “I just had my first born, Hannah, and the war was getting very bad. I just never looked back.”

Her daughter, Hannah Ha, now 55, remembers that her mom would glowingly sing at karaoke parties, but always thought that was the extent of it.

“My siblings all had no idea. We knew she sang to soldiers in Vietnam, but some people did that at the time. But we had no clue she recorded her music and that it was rock music!”

When Saigon fell in 1975, Tâm and her family were refugees at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, before landing here in San Jose in 1980, where today an estimated 189,000 Vietnamese call home—the largest Vietnamese population in any US city.

Many people—especially those of a diaspora—end up living many lives, and Tâm was no different. Her close friends, children and even siblings never knew much about her musical past. She mentions seeing her name on CDs in music shops occasionally in the ‘90s, but seldom else.

The only person who truly ever knew of Tâm’s incredible heyday was her husband, who was a pediatrician in San Jose, and who sadly passed away in May 2019. Sometimes, he’d YouTube her name and show her what he’d find. Most of the videos weren’t her, but he didn’t care.

“I just wish my husband was around to hear these songs now,” Tâm says, visibly emotional.

 

“Pages Glued Together”

Up until very recently, Hannah Ha never realized there might be recordings of her mother’s music.

“It wasn’t until around 2019, right before the pandemic, that I started to suspect that recorded music might still exist somewhere,” she says.

At the time, a movie producer had reached out to her for permission to use one of her mother’s songs in a film he was making, the 2019 romantic drama Mat Biet (“Dreamy Eyes”).

“That set me on a search for my mother’s musical past, which set forth a rollercoaster ride.”

The pandemic somewhat worked to Hannah’s advantage, giving her time to scour EBay and Discogs for any shred of info on her mother’s music. She found a few items, bidding up to $2,000 on some records. She eventually won a bid (for much less). Of the items was a 45 with three songs on it, all of which have been covered many times based on Tâm’s recorded versions.

“We played the 45 and I was still skeptical that it was my mother. Even the photographs that we got, we were unsure of, despite my mom saying some were her. We had family friends who saw the photos and they had doubts too,” Ha says. “Of course online I couldn’t find any info on the music. And there definitely were no real signs of my mom either. So I wanted to be extra careful, to be sure.”

Ha’s first idea was just to compile the songs as a familial time-capsule, a keepsake for her mother and relatives.

“I was thinking small, hoping that after some research, we could put something together for our close ones,” she says. “Never did I think this would become something much bigger than us all. All the history and stories we would have never known about.”

During her research, she came across Saigon Rock & Soul, a compilation of rare Vietnamese soul and psych-rock. The cover depicts a Vietnamese girl in Western fashion: fur hat, denim jacket, big shades, a cigarette between her fingers.

Saigon Rock & Soul had been released in 2010 by record label Sublime Frequencies, a niche imprint with a worldly approach and sterling reputation, known for unearthing international recordings and reissuing them with extensive liner notes and research that support the music’s cultural context.

Saigon Rock & Soul has gone on to become one of Sublime Frequencies’ most renowned releases. As obscure as the songs on the compilation are, Tâm’s material predates them all.

Some of Sublime Frequencies’ previous explorations also dealt with the Cambodian genocide, specifically psych-rock and soul from artists who were never heard from again once war ran its course. It’s close to Magical Nights in many ways—not only in sound and context but geography as well.

“When I finally reached out to the album’s producer, I found out that one of the songs on that Saigon compilation was mis-credited to my mother. It wasn’t even her,” Ha says. “So I knew there was some investigating to do. Mark was with me every step of the way.”

Mark Gergis, a musician and longtime producer behind many of Sublime Frequencies’ most vaunted projects, says that Saigon Rock & Soul was the result of decades of personal research and collecting on his part.

“This was amongst the most immersive projects I’ve been a part of. It was akin to finding a set of books with most of the pages missing—and the remaining pages glued together,” Gergis says. “I’d spend loads of time at Southeast Asian diaspora shops in California and elsewhere trying to understand the sheer volume of music that was created in the region between the 1960s-1980s, including in Vietnam.”

Even for Gergis, someone who’s no stranger to the highs of music discovery, Tâm is uniquely compelling. But not simply because her music is obscure.

“It’s the versatility and power of her voice,” he says.

 

Treasure Hunting

Once approached by Hannah, Gergis reached out to his global network of collectors. If any group possessed bookish qualities that could crack a case, it’d be them. Cold calls were made and many emails sent.

“We were mass emailing strangers on YouTube, Facebook and Discogs, saying: ‘Hi. I’m working on this project, can you help?’ I thought it was crazy!” Hannah remembers. “Then, slowly, one-by-one, every week, we would get more info. A lead here, a lead there, a random newspaper article—and eventually even recordings.”

Gergis’s expertise in the restoration process was critical to the album’s stellar end result, an insistence on quality sound that seemed too ambitious at first.

“I thought we were close to finishing but Mark told me that the YouTube videos are only for reference. He told me we had to track down the original records. I was surprised at the time,” Hannah says. “It’s difficult because original Vietnamese albums are already hard to come by. And most are in bad shape.”

Even when one does find records from this era, they’re rarely properly documented or audible.

“In the back of these shops, if you can find them, you’ll sometimes see records laying around in big stacks that are 3 feet tall. It was a very hard process for us to complete this.”

Like a treasure hunter, Hannah flew to Vietnam on a mission to retrieve her mother’s music.

“We put everything together one song at a time. There was always the possibility we wouldn’t find anything at all. And that anything we did recover wouldn’t even be listenable.”

Hannah and Gergis, with help from Adam Fargason—a deep collector who lives in Vietnam—found, sifted through and cobbled together 27 legitimate tracks in full. Truly a long shot at best.

“Adam took me to all these mom and pop shops and we eventually got as much as we could,” Hannah says.

The entire process also involved a web of local Vietnamese shopkeepers and music aficionados from Germany. Collectively—and amazingly—everything only took about 18 months.

“Mark wanted to get as many duplicates of each song so he could use the best version for the album. He could also restore areas that were badly destroyed using the other duplicates,” Hannah explains. “The records were in horrible condition, as you can imagine. 55 years of dirt, mud and neglect. Some tracks sounded like microwave popcorn. Mark really did magic in restoring these tracks.”

For Gergis, who’s familiar with producing similar projects, his foray with lost Viet recordings began with Saigon Rock & Soul but won’t end with Magical Nights.

“I understood that what I’d managed to hear was merely the tip of an iceberg that held so many lost or undocumented tracks and stories.”

 

That Was Me

The new vinyl of Magical Nights: Saigon Surf, Twist and Soul is a gorgeous package, complete with a thorough booklet of ephemera in both English and Vietnamese, including liner notes documenting the process written by both Hannah and Gergis. Included are bright scans of old magazine clippings and stunning photos of Asian musicians having a ball: Vietnamese guys with pompadours in suits posing with guitars; amazing, original hand-drawn 45 sleeves and effusive photos of Tâm posing in florid dresses.

The booklet also includes English lyrics for every song. On 1964’s “A Merry Tune” Tâm wisely sings, rather prophetically: “Look back on your journey and let things go.”

For Hannah, the most fulfilling part of the entire saga was the time spent with her mom.

“Seeing my mother hear these songs and watching the expression on her face was the most rewarding. And now, it’s the first time most of the world will hear these.”

Recalling the start of their journey, Hannah laughs, delighting in when questions about legitimacy orbited every track.

“We’d sit there and play song after song, and I’d ask mom for information. Vietnamese people share a lot of common names, so I would ask her often if she was certain it was her, just to be sure.”

Each time, Tâm would simply say: “There was only one Phuong Tâm, and that was me.”

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