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Do the Saigon twist ! Meet Phuong Tâm, Vietnam’s first rock’n’roll star

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Playing raucous American pop in 1960s Vietnam, Phuong Tâm became a sensation – but turned her back on singing after emigrating to the US. Now she’s 76 and her incredible music can finally be heard after her daughter tracked it down

In early 1960s Saigon, Nguyễn Thi Tâm would appear on stage in the city’s vibrant phòng trà (tearooms) and nightclubs. She embodied quintessential young womanhood, with long, straight black hair and wearing a white áo dài, an elegant Vietnamese dress. But instead of traditional songs, she would belt out music that recalled American hot rods, hip-swinging dance crazes and even teenage abandon: using the stage name Phuong Tâm, she was one of Vietnam’s first rock’n’roll singers. “Back then, everyone was singing Vietnamese, some French, but no one else was singing American music,” says Tâm, now 76. “Just me.”

Lost for decades, 25 of the brilliantly crafted songs she recorded – all rich in verve and atmosphere – can now be found on Magical Nights, a landmark compilation that required an international collective effort to recover a lost era of early Vietnamese rock. Tâm and I speak in Vietnamese, logging on from our homes in two of the world’s largest Vietnamese-diaspora communities: she is in San José, California; I am in Sydney, Australia. Given that we are talking about events from more than half a century ago, I’m astonished by her vivid recall. “Of course, these are precious memories. I was lucky. I sang every night.”

Growing up in Hóc Môn in the sprawl of Saigon in the 1950s, Tâm would hear music floating over the wall of her family’s courtyard. “When the neighbour’s radio was turned on, it was usually American music – and I loved it, so I would sit outside to listen to it.” When she was 12, she started learning music from a mandolin-playing neighbour who suggested she use the more feminine-sounding Phuong Tâm as her stage name. In 1961, at the age of 16, she auditioned for the Biet Doan Van Nghe, the art and culture brigade of South Vietnam: the government scheme enlisted performing artists to be part of the war effort. Her father wanted her to keep studying, but she had made up her mind – “I was in love with singing” – and quit high school.

During the 1960s, the live music and dance scene in Saigon was flourishing, flush with the injection of capital from American GIs and Vietnamese businessmen. Tâm’s voice was in high demand. During the day she would rehearse and at night she would perform to successive foreign and Vietnamese audiences. “I would sing from five in the afternoon until one in the morning. I would start at the airport base, then at 7pm I would sing at the officers’ club. I’d go to another dancing club after that, performing with Nguyễn Văn Xuân on piano. The last show would be at another club at midnight.”

It was during this time she met Ha Xuan Du, an army doctor, who couldn’t get enough of her singing. Two years later they married, despite his well-to-do family’s disapproval. But it was true love. When a position came up for her new husband hundreds of miles north of Saigon in Da Nang, as a flight surgeon in the South Vietnamese air force, she didn’t hesitate to follow him. Although she earned far more as a singer than he did as a physician, she left it all behind. “I forgot about all of it,” Tâm says. “I didn’t have time to feel regret because I was soon busy taking care of three kids.” In April 1975, in the final days of the war, the family fled to the US, where they were accepted as refugees.

Tâm never divulged her musical past to her children. Only once while browsing in a Vietnamese music store in Orange County did she find a CD with some of her recordings, but she didn’t think to show it to them. When I press her as to why she didn’t tell her kids about her singing, she just gives a little laugh and doesn’t expand further. But her past wasn’t completely erased: in recent years her late husband would sometimes look up her music on YouTube and show her, though the tracks were often misattributed.

Magical Nights compiles recordings from 1964 to 1966, her final years singing. It is a testament to Vietnam’s embrace of rock. The music initially trickled into the French high schools, a legacy of colonial rule, then later via the Americans – a growing presence since the 1950s, as the Vietnam war escalated. In South Vietnam, performing foreign music was permitted but recording it was not, given that all cultural products were vetted by the authorities. But the influence of foreign music could not be quashed, so composers began writing Vietnamese songs in styles including the twist, surf, hully gully and mashed potato. All this music was known locally as nhac kich dong (action music).

Well-known songwriters such as Khánh Băng would rehearse with Tâm before they went into the studio to record together. These rock songs were generally upbeat and youthful expressions of love, intertwined with loneliness and loss, with lyrics such as “separation is a part of life” and “fighting in an unwanted war”. Vietnam had been split into two by the 1954 Geneva Accords, after a protracted struggle for independence from the French. A civil war had ensued. During the mid-1960s, however, Tâm sang without fear. “I had no worries singing in Saigon,” she says. “The conflict got much worse in 1967-1968, but by then I had already quit.”

Tâm’s eldest daughter, Hannah Hà, joins the two of us on the call from St Louis, Missouri, where she lives and works as a doctor. Growing up in the US, Hà didn’t particularly like Vietnamese music compared with jazz, rock and pop, “but now I can’t get enough of it”.

Hà always knew her mother wasn’t an amateur, thanks to the way she would steal the show at karaoke parties. As she writes in her moving essay in the liner notes: “Swaying and singing with her eyes closed, she transported the entire room back to a pre-1975 Saigon nightclub.” She didn’t give her mother’s singing much thought, however, until the end of 2019, when a producer of the film Mat Biec (Dreamy Eyes) wrote to Tâm to discuss using her music. The approach piqued Hà’s curiosity: did her mother really sing rock’n’roll? Soon she found a 7in vinyl single for sale on eBay with three tracks composed by Y Van and performed by Tâm: 60 Nam (60 Years), Đêm Huyền Diệu (Magical Night), and 20-40. These songs remain popular to this day across the Vietnamese diaspora, and are recorded over and over again.

Hà put in a maximum bid of $2,000. “I just had this intense desire to have it,” she says (in the end, she scored it for $167). Hà then sought the help of Mark Gergis, producer of the cult compilation Saigon Rock and Soul (2010), but finding the rest of Tâm’s music seemed impossible, given all they had to go on were three tracks and some incorrectly labelled YouTube videos.

Gergis drew on his own collection and reached out to his extensive network; Hà messaged strangers on YouTube and Discogs before finding Adam Fargason, an American collector living in Vietnam. “Adam took me on these Saigon shopping trips which were virtual, because this was during the pandemic,” Hà says. “He would visit these mom-and-pop antique shops and they would have these records on the floor in the back. They often had layers and layers of dirt, just naked albums without sleeves. He would put his phone to them so I could see, and we would go through them one by one.” It was eventually discovered that Tâm recorded 27 tracks in total.

“When Hannah sent the music to me, I cried listening to every song,” says Tâm. “I didn’t remember recording so many of these and had ignored that part of my life. I feel sorry my husband isn’t alive to hear this album.” She cries again when she mentions her late husband, who died in 2019 – he was her biggest fan, yet he hadn’t known that these records still existed.

I wonder what Tâm thought of her daughter’s excavation of the past, this wild search for what had been seemingly lost, like so much from that turbulent period of Vietnam’s history. “The project seemed tiring, but Hannah insisted,” she says. “It’s taken 18 months because of all the scratched records; it’s been like climbing a mountain backwards. She’s very stubborn.”

I suggest Hà is stubborn like Tâm herself had once been, the way she was determined to be a singer despite parental disapproval. The three of us laugh: stubborn Vietnamese women will often try to find a way to realise the impossible.

 Magical Nights : Saigon Surf, Twist & Soul 1964-1966 is out now on Sublime Frequencies.

By Sheila Ngoc Pham – The Guardian – October 28, 2021

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