The story of how a singer met a musician to form a hit sensation.
Thanks to their musical career and popularity, Sitti Gomez and musical partner Jason Jazz are amongst the most visible Filipinos in Ho Chi Minh City. Sitti, 29, and Jason, 33, have entertained expats in the city’s entertainment venues for nearly four years. They’ve made their mark on the expat community for their broad repertoire of music styles, from jazz and cabaret to pop and rock and a generous contribution of time to charity.
“I’m a free-spirited person. I came from the provinces. I wanted to free myself,” she says.
Her first singing gig was at a five-star hotel in Guangzhou, aged just 22. By night she sang jazz and love songs in English, by day she taught Chinese students English. When the contract ended, she returned to her hometown Bacolod City, in Negros Occidental Province, near Cebu. After six months, that free spirit was niggling once more so she decided to check out opportunities in Thailand. That led to three months on Koh Chang (Elephant Island) in a band at a resort.
“Somehow my keyboard player, the leader of the band, got a gig in a casino in Cambodia on the border with Vietnam. That’s how I made my way to Vietnam. Almost every weekend I went to Ho Chi Minh City to escape. My main reason was to see movies. And I was sick of hotel food – in Saigon I could eat burgers!”
Over the course of a year, Sitti shopped, socialized and dined in Ho Chi Minh City before heading back to the Cambodian border town which, as every expat passing through on the way to Phnom Penh knows, has nothing but garish and often decrepit, casino complexes.
Like most Filipinos, Sitti is Catholic and one Sunday morning at church in Ho Chi Minh City, the minister asked what her plans were. She said she wanted to sing; the minister just happened to know a musician looking for a singer…
Jason Jazz comes from Lucena City, capital of Quezon Province located between Metro Manila and Bicol Region. He taught himself to play the piano when he was 12.
“I started playing music at church, where I was an altar boy. I learned my love of music at church listening to others play and sing. At the time I had no background in music, but I was very curious. After the band went home I would experiment with the instruments. I did not know at that time I had a talent for music,” he explains.
Music was part of the secondary school curriculum, so as a teenager Jason joined the marching band and learned the trumpet. But his family was poor and could not afford to buy a trumpet so he only played at school where he could use the class one. Then he added keyboards to his range of instruments and soon earned a role as a session musician.
Later he majored in music but, as the oldest of seven siblings, he had a responsibility to support the family and at that stage a career in music seemed unlikely until he got a lucky break. Someone was recruiting performers from the Philippines for a cover band to play in Vietnam. That was how he first visited Ho Chi Minh City, in 2004.
It would be more than two years before he returned, footloose and fancy free, single, with no idea where his future was heading. “I was just a backpacker. I had no instruments. I had sold my trumpet so my brother could buy a saxophone. My capital was my talent. I just went into a bar. It was like an answered prayer.”
The bar was Cage, the gig short lived – the venue closed two months later. But Cage would have a lifelong impact on Jason because he met Nhung there. She is now his wife with whom he has two children.
“After Cage closed, I had a girlfriend, but no job. Nhung helped me find a house and someone introduced me to play in the Catholic Church.” A member of the congregation bought him a guitar and he kept practicing and soon, despite having no formal tuition, he was playing the guitar in a weekly gig at Buddha Bar among other places.
One day, Jason was on a bus to Cambodia and chatting to a fellow passenger, a Filipino church minister from Ho Chi Minh City. Jason said he was looking for a female vocalist to team up with. Turned out the priest knew just the woman…
Sitti and Jason have been playing together now for four years. Their first gig was a private party at a golf club in District 8 in 2011 and a regular appearance at the now defunct Mexico Lindo, along with local expat bars like Universal and Number Five, then Cavern on Dung Du, which is where they came to the attention of Caravelle management.
Besides their paid acts, the two frequently participate in charity events and church concerts, including a benefit for Filipino typhoon victims last year.
Musicians are not the highest paid professionals, an important consideration for Jason with two children to raise. Sitti supplements her income teaching English part-time. But they say performing is more about fulfillment than income. They have an obvious musical connection.
Neither is sure about their future.
“Should I stay here? Because I have the travel bug, so should I see somewhere else? Even though my mum is in the Philippines, my friends are here. If I move on to another country I will still miss Vietnam. There’s a special place in my heart here. I live with a Vietnamese family and I’m lucky here to have met so many great people. Home is where the heart is. I want to do two things if I stay in one place: teaching and singing. I’ve found that here in Saigon. It’s like my dream to improve myself and living in Vietnam I can make my dream come true,” muses Sitti.
Jason is equally content: “I always trust God, what He wants me to do. I have the talent. I don’t know where my journey will lead me. But my family is here in Vietnam. Coming here all started with music. And now I have another reason to be here.”
Sitti Gomez and Jason Jazz perform at the Reflections bar in Caravelle Hotel on Monday and Wednesday through Saturday from 7pm to 10pm and at Saigon Saigon on Tuesdays from 9pm to midnight.
Images by Ngoc Tran