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Metal never dies: America’s music legacy in Vietnam

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The U.S. military brought metal to Vietnam. Its retreat forced the genre underground. But Vietnam’s metalheads persist decades later.

Vietnamese rocker Trung Thanh Sago makes a living as a wedding musician and music teacher. One helps him pay the bills, the other helps feed his metal habit.

Trung Thanh (real name Nguyen Thai Thanh) came of age during the “American War,” as it is known in Vietnam. He features in “Saigon Metalhood,” a new documentary exploring the challenges of contemporary Vietnamese metal through three generations of musicians.

As the narrator notes at the start of the film: “The country’s violent past should suit the anger of metal perfectly, but most locals haven’t even heard of the genre.”

“Saigon Metalhood” looks at the evolution of metal in Vietnam, from unloved child to awkward adult, sustained by a diet of piecemeal efforts thanks to a handful of devotees. To best appreciate the contemporary Vietnamese metal scene, one must return to its roots, which are directly tied to the country’s complex history with the United States.

Trung Thanh was born in Saigon in 1956, just as the French were preparing to officially withdraw from Vietnam, following their defeat in Dien Bien Phu two years earlier. At the same time, in the United States a young truck driver with a predilection for hip-shaking went on stage to sing “That’s All Right (Mama).” His name was Elvis Presley.

In Hanoi, meanwhile, the government had been closely monitoring events between the United States and the Soviet Union, which were engaged in their own ideological warfare, pitting Eastern communism against Western capitalism. Like their allies, the North Vietnamese too had grown suspicious of American pop culture. Rock and roll music, with its energetic beats and ability to energize the young, was no exception. In an attempt to assert its cultural authority at home, North Vietnamese lawmakers banned all forms of Western entertainment.

Musicologist Jason Gibbs explains: “Hanoi music was very puritan –– there was not a single recording with a saxophone or drum kit in Hanoi before 1975. That cultural influence was in some ways following the lead of Communist China.”

France’s defeat in Vietnam was seen as a blow to the “free world” ideals espoused by Washington. The United States had assumed financial custody of South Vietnam, continuing the interventionist politics first promoted by President Harry S. Truman. A paternalist United States spent huge sums in attempting to model South Vietnam in its own image, holding it up as a beacon of democracy and as an example of a “free Asia.”

Some 13 months after France’s withdrawal from the region, President Dwight D. Eisenhower reluctantly sent in ground troops to train and assist the Southern Vietnamese Army to stave off the communist insurgency coming from the North. The U.S. military presence in Vietnam coincided with the emergence of rock and roll, which landed in Saigon with the arrival of U.S. troops.

In the early stages of the war, rock’s upbeat and energetic sounds proved irresistible to South Vietnamese youngsters hankering after an alternative Vietnam (rather than the promise of the American dream). U.S. soldiers left home for Southeast Asia armed with portable record players and cassette decks; others brought their guitars and harmonicas. Rock also went out over the airwaves, ringing out through the city’s bars and clubs. Through their shared love of music, South Vietnam’s urban young often mixed with U.S. servicemen. Local bands were regularly hired to entertain the troops at clubs and military bases. With the genre’s popularity growing, Southern Vietnamese groups started creating songs of their own to rock to.

“We have several stories about U.S. efforts to recruit ARVN [South Vietnamese] soldiers by using rock and roll,” said writer and Vietnam War veteran Douglas Bradley.

However, as the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum and appetite for American involvement in Vietnam waned, the musical landscape reflected these changes. “The soundscape of Vietnam unfolded in distinct movements, musical and military,” added Bradley.

If rock in Vietnam started out as the music of youthful optimism, offering a safe space through which people could find temporary escape from the tensions of the war, its metal subgenre became the music of a lost generation; it was darker, angrier, louder and unlike anything that had ever come before. For U.S. soldiers desperate to return home and disillusioned Southern Vietnamese youngsters, metal provided them with an outlet through which to vent their frustrations. But, as Bradley noted, “heavier metal had a hard time making a major dent in musical tastes” in Vietnam.

A humiliated United States eventually quit Vietnam in 1975. Following reunification, the newly victorious government in Hanoi wasted no time in exerting its control: all southern music was outlawed. Restoring traditional values and culture was a way of reversing the Western decadence that had flourished during the war years. Despite efforts to stamp out American music (a “neocolonial poison”), metal’s social unease suited the move underground, emboldening it as a form of political and social defiance. Hardcore fans found ways of smuggling music in from overseas.

Although, as Gibbs noted, Vietnamese rock “wasn’t entirely forced underground.” He explained: “There were Saigon rock musicians who found employment as the Soviet/European approach gained more influence. But it took a toll on the songwriting because they had to mostly stick to covers of non-Vietnamese songs or perform revolutionary, patriotic songs with a rock veneer.”

In 1986, the authorities relaxed restrictions in favor of doi moi: the process of rebuilding the country from a closed, Marxist-state model to market-led economy. Along with the free flow of goods and capital, it resulted in the movement of culture and ideas, with Vietnam’s worldview “becoming more cosmopolitan,” said Gibbs. With American music still relatively hard to access, however, Western music was experienced “through a European lens.”

The United States lifting its trade embargo heralded a new dawn of rapprochement between the two countries, which coincided with a new wave of Vietnamese metal rock bands.

One such band was AtOmega, founded in 1993; its frontman and guitarist Quang “Rocky” Thang credited American rock music with helping to bring about the end of the war.

While the characteristics typically associated with metal music, including individualism, modernism, and rebellion are also present in Vietnam, the most successful bands are, perhaps, those best described as being distinctively Vietnamese, with family underpinning the basic tenet of society. Indeed, for all their proclivity as social outsiders, the “metalhood” of the film’s title is indicative of Vietnamese metal musicians’ supplanting one notion of family for another (in this case brotherhood).

According to the editor of rock/metal e-zine HeheMetal, metal music may have started out Western, but it has since been given a strictly Vietnamese makeover. “Vietnamese metal bands such as Black Infinity often showcase a unique combination of ethnic instruments,” Vu Le said. “The Saigon-based band combines metal with the dan tranh [Vietnamese 16-string zither]. While Hanoi band Ngu Cung [Five Tones] incorporates the traditional sounds of the Northwest.”

Dat Phan, the editor of Hanoi-based RockPassion website, agreed, describing the Vietnamese as “natural born storytellers; we love to tell stories,” which is reflected in metal lyrics. Songs exploring patriotism and identity, the tension between rural and urban, provide further proof of the Vietnamization of metal, such as AtOmega’s 1996 album debut “Dat Me” (Motherland).

Relaxed internet laws have also helped to attract new fans to Vietnamese metal, said Phan. Over the past decade, as Vietnam’s economy has prospered, it has found a new following, particularly among many of Vietnam’s privately educated youths, some of them returning home from overseas, including the United States, as well as through returning members of the diaspora.

Many of the more recent homegrown bands are a product of the Vietnamese student movement, such as Focus, who met whilst studying law at Hanoi National University. Formed in 2009, their songs regularly reference historic or imagined battles in which Vietnamese heroes face down foreign enemies. “Buoc Di” (March On), for example, tells the tragic tale of a marine officer defending the homeland’s waters. Released in 2016, the song is a not-so-subtle critique of territorial disputes in the South China Sea, what Vietnam calls the East Sea.

For Vietnamese youths, as Bradley noted, “the American War is an anachronism.” The U.S.-Vietnamese relationship they are familiar with is one increasingly characterized by mutual trust.

Speaking at a press conference in Ho Chi Minh City this summer, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Daniel Kritenbrink said: “Trust is the foundation of every good relationship and if we look back on the past 25 years, I think it’s remarkable how far we have come and how much trust we have built.”

A thawing of relations with the United States and the mass consumer culture that followed, however, hasn’t all been positive for metal music. “Most Asian metal grew organically from punk; this wasn’t our case,” said Trinh Dinh Kiem, an engineer and long-time metal fan from Haiphong. “So, even though metal has been here in some form or other for a long time, as an established genre it is immature: too many substances, not enough substance.” He was referring to the proliferation of drugs, a theme “Saigon Metalhood” touches upon.

The restrictive costs of staging concerts have not helped. “Metal gigs are mostly illegal in Vietnam, because promoters never ask for permission to host the show, which requires a lot of paperwork and money,” said Phan. To be a metal fan or musician is to suffer for one’s art in Vietnam, where metal gigs draw only small crowds. “100-200 people is typical,” he added. “There’s no money in it.”

While war may have stunted Vietnam’s love affair with metal, forcing it underground may have, conversely, ensured its survival. Yet Sean Lambe, one of the directors of “Saigon Metalhood,” imagines what could have been. Had censorship not occurred, “hindering its expansion,” said Lambe, “we’d see a thriving scene at least on par with Thailand or Indonesia.” He added that “to truly thrive, they must tap into the anger of the mainstream youth and build a path that allows Vietnamese bands to succeed in a meaningful way.”

If metal is to survive in Vietnam today, it needs to find a way to crawl out from under the cloak of secrecy. But to do that, Vietnam’s notoriously distrusting metalheads must first learn to trust.

By Soraya Kishtwari – The Diplomat – September 19, 2020

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