Saigon-based Quang Nai-born violinist Hoang Minh Thang fell in love with Beethoven. But he’s moved away from the stuffy world of classical music, taking his violin to clubs and bars to help a whole generation tune into the violin.
Đọc bài viết bằng tiếng Việt
Hoang Minh Thang’s relationship with music began as a child. At six, he had access to his sister’s old organ. He followed along to compositions like Beethoven’s “Fur Elise”, and then “Rondo Alla Turca” and, the violinist smiles, “that’s how my love affair with music began”. If those first tracks sound stuffy and outdated, it didn’t affect Hoang Minh Thang’s career. These days, you’ll find him playing in packed clubs and bars like Saigon’s Envy and Qui – Cusine Mixology. Off duty, however, he retreats to peace and quiet of temples and parks in the provinces around Saigon.
But Hoang Minh Thang isn’t from Saigon. He’s originally from Quang Nai province. “If Quang Ngai taught me to be brave and resilient, Saigon is teaching me to face challenges and seize every opportunity I can get,” the 22-year-old violinist nods. Luckily, growing up, his father was especially supportive, scouring their home town for a piano teacher to nurture Hoang Minh Thang’s talent. He tested other instruments. “There was the organ, and the harmonica,” he remembers. He even got into beatboxing as a teen, “but then at Junior High School I found the love of my life – the violin”.
“I don’t know,” he shakes his head, “there’s something about its sound that touches me…plus I enjoyed the challenge – it’s very hard to play”. He started to study before YouTube became such an indispensable guide for modern musicians. “This was before internet access was ubiquitous and there weren’t even many books and printed documents on how to play the violin so I spent hours and hours, day after day, learning with musicians near my hometown who were also learning the violin…” he continues. “I owe them everything.”
What does music mean to you?
Music is like blood flowing through my veins. I think for balance and positive emotions music is essential to all our lives.
I guess that became my mission – to bring music to people and by doing so to bring warmth to their lives. Life’s short. It should be filled with brightness, optimism, love…and music.
Can you remember much about your first experiences with music?
I most strongly remembered the first time I played to an audience. As I performed I watched people’s expressions. Each was unique. Each was special. I especially remember one old lady who held hands with a stranger dancing next to her. A young girl came running onto the stage and took a tight hold of my leg. And a westerner in the audience kept mouthing the words “I love Vietnam” at me!
Where and when do you listen to music?
I really like to listen to music in bed at night. I’ll play my favourite music just before sleeping and I’m sure it permeates my dreams.
How has your music taste changed over the years?
My taste in music has gradually matured. I think everyone in Vietnam has gradually been exposed to more genres of music. My playlist used to be packed with pop and ballads, and RnB. These days I like music that contains lots of improvisation and freedom. Genres like jazz and funk.
Being a part of a community of musicians has helped broaden my horizons too. I’ve learned about their tastes too.
What kind of music do you listen to when no one is around?
You’ll find me putting on jazz playlists on Spotify. Originally an African-American musical art form, jazz has influenced so many 20th century genres of music from rock, to hip hop, to Latin. It’s fascinating and complex. Playing jazz requires a lot of skill…
I strongly recommend you listen to “Take Five” performed by Atlantic Five Jazz Band, “WAVE” by Antonio Carlos Jobim and “Autumn Leaves” by Chet Baker.
If you could play a single song to make someone fall in love with music, what song would you play them?
I’m not good at flirting, even with music. But I would choose “Snow Flower” by Park Hyo Shin. If I had to choose a song to play someone to understand me better, that would be easier. It would be “Listen to me” or “Nghe Tôi Kể Này” by Le Cat Trong Ly.
Which songs will you play during your wedding and funeral?
A wedding is undoubtedly one of the most important events in a person’s life. Lukas Graham’s song “Love Someone” would be perfect to sum up the emotions of the big day.
And for my funeral song? I always try to live every day as if death is around the corner. That helps me cherish every moment, and to cherish the times I spend with loved ones.
I’m choosing “Đi đâu để thấy hoa bay” by Hoang Dung and Ha Anh Tuan, or “Where can I go to see the falling flowers”. We all die some day. And if anyone is missing me when I’m gone, they can just look up to the sky and watch the falling leaves.
Next, can you tell us a little bit about this mix?
I deliberately arranged the songs in a specific order to lead the listener’s emotions on a journey. There’s sadness and melancholy followed by recovery and resolution and finally a sense of upliftment and elation. This mix is like a tour with my heart and soul as your guide.
I’ve also played all these songs live. And they’ve elicited strong emotions in my audiences every time.
What does this mix say about you?
It’s a spontaneous selection. The tracks appeared in my mind and I simply arranged them by imagining the listeners emotional journey. I’m a rational human, but when it comes to music I follow my heart.
Finally, describe in detail the ten songs you’ve chosen.
We start with Lyn’s “Back In Time”. This song has a clear melody and tone – a turbulent love affair, neglect and hopelessness. It’s a Korean song, and one time I played the melody without lyrics at a show and I was surprised to hear the audience singing along…in Vietnamese.
Next is Ed Sheeran’s “Photograph”. It’s a beautifully sad song. I play it sometimes to remember the past and it never fails to bring a tear to my eye.
Next up is an electronic song with real emotional depth. “Rather Be” by Clean Bandit ft. Jess Glynne. The audience can dance, and even sing along to this. It would create a lively atmosphere at any show. Then there’s Csárdás (Monti) by Vittorio Monti. It’s a timeless and rather familiar piece of music for violinists. It is not difficult to imagine Hungarian couples dancing to this.
And who doesn’t love the song “Beauty And the Beast” by Angela Lansbury in the Disney movie of the same name? I have vivid memories of playing this during a dinner party, and one member of the audience dropped her spoon and closed her eyes in reverie at the melody.
Then we have Sia’s “Cheap Thrills”. It’s unmistakable and so typical of Sia and Greg Kurstin’s compositions. What a compelling piece of music. It’s been covered a lot, and that includes violin covers.
The next song I have chosen is a combination of orchestra and electronic music. And it never ages. “Symphony” by Clean Bandit ft. Zara Larsson. We continue with another huge track, Coldplay’s “A Full Sky Of Stars”. I like the remix of this song even more — the remix by Symphoniacs includes violin, cello, piano, and synthesizer to great effect.
I have another wonderful memory of a standing ovation after performing Naomi Scott’s “Speechless”, made famous by the Aladdin movie. It is not only emotional but also eloquent, and takes listeners through a series of emotions.
And finally, “Way Back Home” by Shaun is an electronic song by this multi-talented Korean artist. When I feel like I could burst into flames on stage, this cools me down. That’s why it’s last on my list…
Photos by Nam Tran Duy and Khooa Nguyen