Where are the musicians ?

There is not much live music in Vietnam. Modern music, that is. Traditional music is everywhere, and there are karaoke events and people perform, but it’s not rock music. I mean, there is a scene… but it’s pretty underground. I’m not talking about warehouses in the middle of nowhere with huge parties or something like that. If that happens then I certainly haven’t heard of it. But there’s not many rock clubs. To be fair, I don’t know the whole city, but I know a good bit of District 1. I know a couple of places that have pub bands on a weekend, but there’s not many places where someone new can just come along and play original music for people.

I know one, and that’s Thuy’s Place. I’ve talked about it before. I was introduced to it (and Thuy herself) a couple of years ago and it’s a great bar, although I don’t go often. It’s a tiny place in Pham Ngu Lao and every night there’s music. There’s open mic’s, the house band, and people also just rock up and play. It’s really cool.

But when I see people ride around Saigon with a guitar on their back I wonder “Where on Earth are they going ?” and “Where could they be playing ?” as well as “I wonder what style he plays”. But I suspect some of them are giving lessons or playing classical music or something else more acceptable. Only a few, I suspect are jamming in a garage and producing the new wave of Vietnamese rock music.

One way you can work out what is important to a culture is by talking to the kids. Now, depending on who you talk to, Vietnam is said to have 2/3rds (that’s 66%) of the population, UNDER 20. That’s not because Vietnamese have a low life expectancy, it’s just that the years before the end of the war were hard, and famine was a big problem, and when Vietnam achieved independence there was a baby boom and that has continued to escalate to the situation we have now where a small percentage of the age bracket represents 2/3rd of the population. I believe it’s the largest young population in the world. And as a teacher who teaches kids every day, it’s really moving to know that the kids you are talking to really do represent the future.

And when I go around the class from time to time and say “What do you want to be when you leave school ? Not just what you want to study.. what do you want to BE ?”, I must admit, “a musician” is an answer I have never heard. Not even once. I have heard plenty of the girls stand up and say “I want to be a singer. A famous pop star” and yes, of course that is a popular life goal. Vietnam seems to have only two types of music – traditional and popular, but it’s not rock. Noone says “I want to play a mean guitar”.

Only once have one of my students ever professed to even WANTING to play an instrument, let alone actually playing one, and the instrument he wanted to play surprised me. His goal was not to “be” a musician. But when I asked if anyone played an instrument, he said “I want to”. I asked “What instrument ?” and he said “I want to learn the violin, but my mother won’t let me”.

I was shocked. In most countries, and in many parts of Asia, a parent would be thrilled if their child wanted to play an instrument. Many parents ram piano and violin lessons down their throat like it was as fundamental to life as mathematics, science or home economics. Yet here, a young boy of only 10 years old was telling me “I want to learn to play the violin, but my mother doesn’t want me to. She says it is not a good thing to learn”.

Where are the aspiring Vietnamese jazz artists ? The experimental bass players ? The piano and violin virtuosos ?

I don’t know. But as much as I see Vietnam surging forward and think “My god, this country is going to be huge soon”, I am left wondering… “Where are the musicians ?”

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