How Saigon Soul Revival Has Taken Swinging 60s Southern Vietnamese Summer Nights To The World

Saigon Soul Revival

It’s 1960s Saigon. And clubs like Tu Do shake with funky guitar riffs, swirling psychedelic horns and love-lorn lyrics inspired by artists like James Brown and The Rolling Stones but performed by locals Elvis Phuong and Mai Le Huyen. It’s a vibrant rock scene that fell silent in ‘75 but that’s being brought back to life by Saigon Soul Revival.

Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt

Then you hear the creeping, contagious ‘Tình Nhạc Sỹ’ blaring out of the speakers and the band in full swing. “Ta dem tieng to gieo sau luu luyen, Ta dem tieng to giang ho khap noi,” Minh croons. Only this is happening in Ngoc Suong, in present day Saigon. 

Saigon Soul Revival was established in 2016 and now includes five core members: the singer Nguyen Thu ‘Hang’ Minh, Indy Laville on guitars and occasionally the lute, drummer Nguyen Huong Bao Hieu, Gabriel Karouos on bass and percussion and Nguyen Khoa Dang, who plays keyboards. 

The music fell silent from 1975, but, following the release of the revivalist compilation Saigon Rock & Soul: Vietnamese Classic Tracks 1968​-​1974, and then the Saigon Super Sound series, it started to build a fanbase again of listeners transfixed by its retro edge. 

Saigon Soul Revival - a pantheon of music, with jagged edges and a fascinating backstory. 
Saigon Soul Revival playing retro music with its jagged edges and a fascinating backstory. 

How A Weekly Jam Became A Soul Revival

The band, Saigon Soul Revival, formed in 2016, in that tumult of excitement – here was a pantheon of music, with jagged edges and a fascinating backstory. 

“It came together quite naturally. I was hosting a weekly jam session at the now defunct La Fenetre de Soleil in District 1. There, I first met Indy and Pocky, the original bassist. After many jams together, we decided to form a band doing 1960s and ‘70s Saigon music,” Gabriel tells us.

Having heard that Saigon Rock & Soul compilation by Mark Gergis on the Sublime Frequencies label before even moving to Vietnam in 2014, Gabriel was blown away by the raw sound and passion of pre-1975 Saigonese music. 

He was surprised that there didn’t seem to be any bands that were playing these old songs live. So, they grew their outfit with the addition of rock diva, Ha Nguyen, from a band called White Noise, on vocals. 

Shortly after, Ha moved to The States, but luckily, before she did, she introduced the boys to ‘Hang’ Minh Nguyen, who became Saigon Soul Revival’s new singer. Around the same time, Ky Tran, a Viet Kieu from Denmark who had recently moved to Saigon, also joined the band, to complete the initial line up at that time. 

Soul Music Milestones In Vietnam

When the first Americans arrived in Saigon in the early 60’s, they brought their records with them. Singers like Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, Sylvie Vartan were idols to lots of them. 

Towards the end of the decade, nightclubs were springing up serving the R&R needs, and the desire to hear some reassuringly familiar music, of US servicemen.  And with a ready audience, artists such as Mai Le Huyen, Connie Kim, Elvis Phuong recorded and released tracks resembling (to different degrees) the originals.

What at first were faithful renditions sung in French or English, became American and European music ‘Vietnamized’ – compositions like ‘Go Cua Ba Lan’ (Knock Three Times), ‘Chuyen Phim Buon’ (Sad Movies), ‘Lang Du’ (L’Avventura), and ‘Anh Thi Khong’ (Toi Jamais).

What some viewed as a golden age for Southern Vietnamese music ended abruptly when the war ended, and lots of the music’s artists fled overseas. “Mark Gergis’ compilation deserves to be seen as an important milestone. It’s the first time that people from all over the world could hear these rare songs, which included performances by some of the members of Saigon Soul Revival,” Indy says.

“It would all have been forgotten history if it wasn’t for that compilation, and later Jan Hagenkötter’s Saigon Super Sound compilations, and the soul music we’re singing today,” Hang reminds us. 

This Is Vietnamese Soul Music

Vietnamese music of the era encompasses a range of styles. It’s roughly been grouped under the term ‘soul music’ because, especially compared to what had come before, it expressed real feelings and emotions. The songs touched on heartbreak and separation – the heightened emotions the country was going through at the time – while absorbing cultural influences from around the world. People began calling it Nhạc Vàng, or golden music. 

“Today, as it was during the era, our music is a mix of many genres, from rock to funk and R&B,” says Indy. 

And so Saigon Soul Revival’s crude expression of combining traditional Vietnamese sounds and lyrics with Western instruments and styles pays tribute to legendary tracks performed by the top vocalists of the golden era. And the band have been bringing it back to stages across Vietnam and most recently, to Europe. 

Saigon Soul Revival's debut album - Hoa Am Xua.
Saigon Soul Revival’s debut album, ‘Hoa Am Xua.’

From ‘Hoa Am Xua’ To The Europe Tour

‘Hoa Am Xua’ is the debut album of Saigon Soul Revival. It was recorded in May 2019. And it features smoothly arranged melodies, some emotional lyrics, strong rhythms along with moments of inspired improvisation. 

“With ‘Hoa Am Xua’ we wanted to show the world that what we call soul music can come in many forms. It started in America but it has been exported, transformed and adapted by many different cultures, fusing it with their own language and music traditions.” 

We are trying to create something that could be viewed as a continuation of the music that was being made in Vietnam during that era,” shares Saigon Soul Revival.

"There were hundreds of people singing along to Hao Hoa, we couldn't believe they knew all the words", Gabriel remembers.
“There were hundreds of people singing along to ‘Hào Hoa’. We couldn’t believe they knew all the words”, Gabriel remembers.

Then, four years after recording their debut album, Saigon Soul Revival embarked on a European tour. “It was pretty hard to imagine,” Indy smiles about going from intimate venues in Vietnam to festival stages in Europe – in Berlin, Hamburg, Paris, Frankfurt, Dresden and Mainnhem.

“Being able to travel together and share this music around the world is something we will never forget. We hope to continue to do that! The concerts at Fluxbau in Berlin and at New Morning in Paris were extra memorable. The energy at those shows was next level. There were hundreds of people, and people were singing along to classics like ‘Hào Hoa.’ We couldn’t believe they knew all the words!” Gabriel remembers. It wasn’t always easy though. “Right, the tour also reminded us how difficult it can be to be traveling from city to city all the time, repeating the same show every night regardless of how tired you might be.”

Saigon Soul Revival’s Dream Guests

Now, that dazzling (but exhausting) European tour is over, we wonder what they’d do next if they could choose any guest singer. 

“Oh, that would have to be Mai Le Huyen. She’s a legend from the era. We all know her songs. She even guested on the album. But we haven’t performed live with her yet. That would be something…” Indy says.  “Dreaming bigger, I’d like to play with Carlos Santana, because his music clearly had a very strong influence on many bands of that era. I think he would be surprised to learn that many Vietnamese musicians in the ‘60s and ‘70s tried to imitate his style of guitar playing.”

Garbiel agrees. “Definitely Mai Le Huyen,” he smiles. “Then the CBC Band and Elvis Phuong. It would be an honor to work with those legends – or even just to have them at our show. I think they should know from first hand experience how much joy and energy the music they made brings to people of all ages and backgrounds today.”

“I can choose anyone?” Hang asks. “In that case, Shakira. I like her voice and style. Plus she can rock out when she wants to. “But, locally,  composer Duc Tri. He’s the person I most admire from that musical generation.” 

For Khoa Dang, “I want to work with Anh Khoa, Duc Tri and Hoai Sa. They’re the best musicians in Vietnam right now.”

And with that, the show must go on. There’s another series of live shows being planned. “And a second album,” Gabriel announces excitedly.


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