Rock Viet II Live Review Posted
A review of Rock Viet II, which took place in Ha Noi Water Park, Vietnam, has been posted on Hanoi's Viet Nam News website:
Rock music is still very new to Viet Nam, but the nation’s youth are determined to breath new life into a musical genre which has been around for a while. Matt Bradley tunes up.
A water park in October seems like an unlikely place for a hard rock concert. But in a city where armies of young people are itching to rock-out, and where finding a large music venue is a catch-as-catch-can affair, the Ha Noi Water Park was the perfect place for a raucous "Rock Viet II."
For this gig, I needed the help of a professional consultant: my friend, translator and Vietnamese rock expert, Le Vu Huu Don. Don has his own amateur rock group and keeps his finger on the pulse of Ha Noi’s germinal hard rock scene. I met Don outside my office last Thursday night. He was sporting his "Def Lepard" T-shirt and revving his engine.
"Let us rock," said Don.
And so we did.
At the concert, I expected to hear the invective lyrics of iconoclasts and rebels – the kind of precedent set by American and British "metal" rockers. The concert had billed five popular groups. The first act was Thuy Trieu Do (literally, Red Tide). These guys played the kind of metal that made me want to move slowly toward the back of the audience. As I stood with the rest of the buttoned-up, tucked-in Westerners, the singer strained to shout into the microphone and the fans pounded the sky with their fists. Singer Minh Viet made a brief speech, followed by a crisp, loud "Are you ready to rock?"
The audience seemed to understand at least this sentence in English. They screamed in affirmation and Don gave a spirited: "Hell yeah!"
"He says the next song is about his mother," Don shouted over the noise. "He is singing about how hard his mother works and how kind she is to help her son."
I wondered if the audience had appreciated the irony of an "ode to mother" put to metal music. The strange contrast made me laugh out loud, but Thuy Trieu Do was hardly an unusual case. For most of the evening, the Vietnamese lyrics sounded, at their harshest, like moralistic exempla tales and at their nicest, like Christian rock or patriotic anthems.
Atomega followed closely behind. The group is arguably one of Viet Nam’s most successful metal bands. Don explained that after the release of their first album, "Motherland," they became the first Vietnamese rockers to distribute a record. Even though "Motherland" was half cover songs of foreign artists, it set an important precedent for Vietnamese rock.
"Motherland was kind of a shock to rock fans," Don said. "It led Vietnamese rock into the future. When I was fifteen years old, I used to listen to these guys all the time!"
Atomega started the set with their album’s namesake track. "Motherland," it turns out, is something of a patriotic anthem. Still, I wondered how the lead singer, Quang Thang, who looked like a Vietnamese Carlos Santana and sounded like Jim Morrison, could pull off a patriotic anthem with a look that seemed so borrowed.
"A lot of their songs mention the daily life of the people," Don said. "That’s the difference between Vietnamese pop and rock. Rock talks about the larger things in society. It talks about the shoe-shine boy, about the dream of a peaceful world."
Rock Viet II might lead the casual observer to assume that Viet Nam’s germinal hard rock scene had skipped-over its subversive Western roots. But the fight-the-man mentality that first galvanised hard-rockers around the globe may already be redundant in a Viet Nam which has been fighting for generations.
The third act to hit the stage was a youthful and energetic "Buratinox." As Buratinox began to play, Don began to tap his knee with the beat.
"Do you hear that?" he asked. "That’s the rhythm from Tay Nguyen (Central Highlands) traditional music. The lead singer is an ethnic minority of the E De group."
Indeed, the sing-songy vocals and upbeat, staccato seemed different from the other musicians’ drawn-out interference. Y Ga Ry A, the band’s frontman, minced about the stage and wailed nearly to the point of yodelling. Don continued to tap his knee.
"This is the new trend in Vietnamese rock, bringing traditional rhythms or instruments to rock songs," he said. "It just comes from a love for the country."
While most of the bands seemed to use the same heavy riffs and high-pitched wails as that of Metallica or Panterra, the sounds, rhythms and attitudes were beginning to sound more and more distinctly Vietnamese.
I met Buratinox again one week later. The drummer, Trung Kien, was Don’s high school classmate, so we dropped in on their rehearsal at Kien’s house on the "other" side of the dike road. But first, we shared a few beers with the band at the tea stand across the street.
"We don’t really think about the lyrics," said guitarist Vu Ha, through Don’s translation. "They just come naturally to us because we love the country. We just try to bring traditional rhythms into the music."
The band-members listed Deep Purple and Kiss as some of their main musical influences. When I asked which Vietnamese bands they like, Kien blurted out a name and laughed under his breath. Ry A slapped Kien on the knee. I asked for a translation.
"He said The Wall, but he was just joking," Don said.
The Wall has become one of Viet Nam’s most successful rock bands. It now boasts a sizeable audience, comparable to that of many Vietnamese pop music groups. But that kind of success comes at a price that bands like Buratinox say they are unwilling to pay.
"The Wall is a bunch of very good musicians, but they are not truly into rock and roll," Don said, taking a long drag from his cigarette. "TheWall is music for people who want to make the switch from pop to rock, so they are more like pop music. When you do like that, it’s like someone else owns your music. That’s not rock. Rock is about your own passion."
But the problem for many Vietnamese rock musicians will be to maintain their original artistic integrity in a new environment based on buying and selling. After all, Vietnamese rock has always been a patron to a borrowed genre. Cover bands were the foundation for a Vietnamese rock scene born less than a decade ago. Still today, most of the styles and sounds are clearly similar to Western rock music.
But money’s seductive pull on Vietnamese culture, which so many rock musicians seem determined to avoid, may be a blessing in disguise for rock music. After November 1, covering songs at concerts became illegal in Viet Nam as part of a new effort to enforce international intellectual property rights. For musicians who have grown accustomed to covering English-language music, this could strike quite a blow.
"I think it will hurt pop musicians more," said Don. "They play more covers than rock and roll musicians. They often translate them into Vietnamese, but they’re still covers."
Buratinox and I crossed the street to the drummer’s house. A pool table in the foyer sat amidst a modest DVD/CD store. We flipped off our sandals and climbed the stairs to the third floor, where the staircase gave way to a room littered with electric instruments. The band saddled up and began to play.
With a microphone in one hand and a cigarette in the other, Kien’s voice poured out of the amps and onto the street three storeys below. The music crescendoed, bassist Nam Thang slapped his guitar and the band members’ heads banged. How good it must feel, I thought, to play together in a band.
During the break, the small room seemed almost empty without the music. The group sat on the floor and sipped their beers.
"So," I asked. "Why the name Buratinox?"
After a brief discussion, Don explained that the name is derived from Buratino, the Italian children’s story Anglophones know as "Pinocchio". My mind raced for a deeper meaning. Was it the didactic nature of the story that appealed to them – the lesson against lying? Or was it some sort of metaphor for themselves, their relationships, or even for Viet Nam as a nation?
No, Don replied. They liked the story because it was familiar to them and reminded them of their childhoods. Their name, it seemed, had only meant to soothe and comfort in the way only a children’s story can.
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