It wasn’t always this way
Meandering streets and alleyways of Bui Vien Walking Street, tourists and backpackers might be left with the impression that electronic dance music (EDM) has, for some time, been a staple of the nightlife scene in Saigon. The ubiquitous cacophony of commercial dance music and LED-pulsed night clubs draws in travelers from around the world, each competing to lure locals and foreigners alike. Unbeknownst to many of them, there’s something beneath this all: an underground community of local DJs and producers pushing the boundaries of electronic music in Vietnam. Since 2012, Heart Beat Saigon (HB) has been at the center of this movement.
Founded by Paul Tonkes (NL) and Christoph Wolter (DE), HB has established itself as one of the maverick promoters of underground techno and house in Saigon. At the time “there was nothing in Vietnam,” Wolter says. Previous years introduced popular electronica to Vietnam, but the scene had slowed.
“In 2012 there wasn’t much left. I think it was a perfect time to start because there were more foreigners moving to Vietnam. We just missed the music and the nightlife,” Tonkes explains. “There was a motivation to say, ‘Hey, let’s make a party for ourselves.’”
Though the commercial side of electronic music remained popular in Europe at the time, alternative genres were leading the way for nightlife in cities across the continent. Vietnam, on the other hand, had no such development. After receiving a small grant from the German Consulate, Tonkes and Wolter hosted their first event, featuring local Vietnamese and foreign producers such as Bach Huu Tuan Tran (B.A.X.), whom Wolter unironically considers as “the godfather” of melodic Vietnamese electronic music.
Bach Huu Tuan Tran
“It was just a second floor [room] that we could book,” Tonkes explains. “At that time there wasn’t much going on in terms of underground events. We had a huge amount of people visiting that night. B.A.X. was involved from the beginning and it was probably the highest headcount of our events ever.”
HB now operates as the umbrella of an underground electronic music community, pushing techno and house from local DJs and producers. Alongside two record labels, HRBR (Harbour Saigon) and Pink Room Records, HB hosts monthly events featuring cutting edge international DJs and producers. It has since become the home to locally renowned technophiles such as Dan Rodgers (1DAN/Flank), Truong Huy Tham (Huy Truong), and newcomer Steffen Sonnenschein (WYAD).
Truong Huy Tham
HB’s mission “was to engage and develop a party and community for electronic music, an underground that would mobilize the Vietnamese audience and have a sustainable club scene,” Tonkes says. “That’s been the angle from the beginning and it still is.”
Despite its simple objective, HB’s future was never a certainty. The closure of the venue The Observatory in 2017 presented HB with challenges it had not faced before.
“All of a sudden there was a massive hole that no one could really fill,” Rodgers says. “The Lighthouse did a good job of keeping things ticking, but it felt like this city was going down again. Now it’s coming back. There’s Arcan as well, which is a welcome addition.
“After The Observatory closed, Heart Beat essentially lost its home. It looked like Heart Beat might stop forever. If they both disappeared, it’d be a massive loss. At the same time, it’s robust. The Observatory is back and Heart Beat is still going. It’s a weird mixture of fragility and robustness.”
So what exactly is an underground electronic music scene?
“For me, it’s hard to describe,” Tran says. “Underground music is something personal. You feel real about the music. It’s not something you play because other people love it, but because you love it.”
“To define the underground, it always has to be the alternative,” Rodgers continues. “In Germany, it’s everywhere. People have access to it all the time and there’s a definite commercial aspect to it. In financial terms, if it’s selling a lot it’s no longer underground.”
For producers like Sonnenschein, Vietnam became the perfect destination. Born and raised in Berlin, Sonnenschein moved to Saigon two months ago. As a mecca of techno and house, he was a personal witness to its meteoric rise in Germany’s capital.
“In Berlin, I think every second person is a DJ or producer,” he says. “The scene is totally overrated for me right now. Everybody wants to be a producer, and I think here it’s very cool. When you’re in the scene, you’re really in the scene. I think in three years or five years, techno will be very big in Vietnam.”
“I think Europe is more challenging for many DJs because it’s only the big guys or the cheap guys,” Tonkes says. “The guys who have proven themselves, but are in that middle segment, cannot find enough bookings.”
“The scene is growing up so fast,” Sonnenschein says. “Everyone wants to play in Vietnam right now. My friends in Berlin want to come here.”
“I get so many requests for bookings I can’t keep up with it anymore,” Tonkes jokes.
Despite the ever-changing landscape of the underground scene, HB shows no signs of slowing down. With the inception Pink Room Records and The Observatory’s reopening in 2018, HB has its dedicated techno label and home. Early April will witness the release Rodger’s five-track Fractured EP under his new techno moniker, Flank.
“This is my first techno release, hence the change of name,” Rodgers says. “I wanted to differentiate and make some boundaries between the house and techno stuff. It helps me to sit down and have a different hat on.”
Unfortunately for Rodgers, sitting down wasn’t an always an option. “I broke my leg last year and had a cast on for a month,” Rodgers says. “I couldn’t physically sit at my desk. So as soon as the cast came off, I needed to get some stuff off my chest. That’s when the majority of the stuff was created.
“I think that frustration of thinking to myself, ‘you’re an idiot, again,’ was channeled into some music,” Rodgers says with a grin. “That’s where it came from. It’s totally literal.”
“I asked Dan, ‘Do you want to do something?’, Wolter says. “Then he broke his leg. And I knew if he was in that medical condition, you can’t produce anything. In the end, I decided we had nothing to lose. This release for me? I’m astonished, I’m speechless. It’s so good.”
As for Pink Room Records, Wolter explains it’s “only for artists living in Vietnam. I don’t want to limit the style, which is what a lot of labels miss. I just don’t want the house beat there. I don’t want the melody. We’re going for something else.”
Second and Third
On the other side of the spectrum is HRBR. Established in 2016 and currently operated by Tran and Laurent Godet, they release productions from Vietnam and abroad. Classically trained in piano at the Conservatory of HCMC, Tran is an enigma of sorts. Aside from his progressive house productions and hypnotic DJ sets, he scores films, studies orchestral conducting, and helps organize bi-monthly events for HRBR. In short, he’s about as musically eclectic as it gets.
“My head is full of melodies and harmonies,” Tran explains. “I wrote music of my own when I was sad or had trouble. That was true feeling. Then I discovered electronic music in 2008.”
From there Tran began producing ambient electronica. While performing at a Hanoi music festival in 2008, Tran was reintroduced to Wolter in 2012 and became HB’s preeminent native performer.
From the beginning the focus was always “on the music and the fun,” Tran says. “And we brought proper underground music to people here and the proper nightlife. I’m focusing more on releases. For me, it’s important to create something by yourself. It’s your release, it’s your label. International bookings are their names, not our names. That’s the most important thing I want to do.”
Contrarily, Europe has taken note of Vietnamese producers like Tran. Distinguished labels such as Manual Music will be releasing several of his tracks in 2019.
“The whole synergy between being label owner and currently releasing on European labels nowadays will also support HRBR,” Tonkes says. “When his music is picked up abroad and the Vietnamese here are involved, that could have a huge impact. Now it’s up to us to make the labels have strong, high-quality releases on them.”
One can consider this nascent movement as the first generation of a homegrown underground community, though it remains unclear what the future holds.
“I think we are now in first generation, but there is already a second generation,” Tonkes says. “With the third generation it will really take off.”
The recent availability of the internet has also provided an important role in expanding electronica in Vietnam.
“With EDM coming six years ago and Heart Beat and techno, I think it’s the internet that really fueled this,” Rodgers says. “It wasn’t coming from outside DJs. They weren’t coming here.”
“There’s more people playing the music, DJing and even producing,” Tonkes says. “When they grow up, the second generation can inspire the third.”
“People want to have music that they remember as different, “Wolter says. “Techno remembers you. It’s a mirror. People love music like pop and love what they cannot have. People who love techno love what they have. That’s what techno is for me. It’s the pure honesty of your life.”
Images by Vy Lam