A month ago my little sister and I ran across this vinyl compilation of Vietnamese rock and soul bands from 1968-1975, a time period right in the festering gash of the Vietnam War that ravaged the 20th century. As horrible as war is, though, it provided opportunity to create and capture the beautiful, bitchin’ music that came out of this terrible time.
Growing up, Vietnamese music was always the worst. Those horrible synthesizers and salsa/80s pop sounds were the soundtrack to my childhood. Compared to Chinese/HK pop, J-Pop, and K-Pop, modern Viet music just sounded like a cheap plastic knockoff. I was ashamed of my culture’s audio output.
It had been one of those sweltering LA days, but we’d had a good haul at Caveman Records and were roaming Chinatown. We came across Ooga Booga by accident. Upstairs, tucked away amongst empty offices and cheap clothing stores, was a tiny but awesome shop slangin’ music, clothes, indie zines and books. I don’t think I expected to find any good vinyl, but I flipped through their crates and came across a curious gem. I wanted to hear it right away.
When the first strains of Carol Kim’s “Noi Buon Con Gai” came on over the tinny speakers of Ooga Booga’s portable vinyl player, I looked at my little sister like we’d discovered music for the first time. It was like we had grown up in a bubble all our lives, listening to the cultural equivalent of an endless parade of Taylor Swifts and Justin Beibers— and here in this hot, stuffy Chinatown music shop somebody ripped through history with one terrifying Vietnamese James Brown howl of funk, soul, and straight up old school rock. I bought a lot of records that day, but Sublime Frequencies’ Saigon Rock and Soul is one I keep putting on, if only to catch my mother dancing and singing to it in the kitchen in secret. It’s not just “cool old music”—it’s a link to history in a visceral way I can’t get reading a book.
The culture of our people is handed down not through old books or history lessons—it’s every bite of my mother’s banh xeo, it’s watching her hack young coconuts on the kitchen floor with a machete the way my grandmother used to do, it’s listening to the righteous sounds of this (still super popular) jam and thinking what my parents used to dance like, all the way back across the sea and into that hot messy womb where it all started, in Saigon.
This is definitely cool.