Rating: 4.25/5Southeast Asian has been the surprise beneficiary of an impressive number of anthologies and compilations devoted to its rock and soul scenes of the ’60s and ’70s. But few can be said to feel as potent and exciting as Sublime Frequencies’ Saigon Rock & Soul, a CD reissue of a long out of print vinyl anthology which compiles deep cuts from the six year window that arguably reflected the height of the Vietnam War, 1968 to 1974.
Saigon’s club scene at this time was dominated by American GI culture, with the popular bands of the time playing constantly at nightclubs frequented by Americans from whom they would pick up new records and instruments. Mark Gergis’ illuminating liner notes indicate that despite the war raging on in the background, Saigon’s musicians were eager to capitalize on the presence of American GIs and had become especially hungry for acid rock records, which resulted in the thick, rhythm and organ-heavy sounds collected here. It’s heavy music, but not in an emotional sense, the weight instead coming from the blunt, primal way the musicians treated their instruments, performing as though the only way to drown out the bombs and violence was with an all-out assault on stage.
At certain moments, like Bich Loan and CBC Band’s invigorating “Con Tim va Nuoc Mat,” that results in a proto-punk attitude that recalls the MC5 and the Stooges more than more popular contemporaries. In other instances, like Carol Kim’s “Cai Tram Em Cai,” the effect is closer to an acid rock-funk hybrid, James Brown horn stabs getting nasty with fuzzed out guitar solos and garage rock organ riffs. This is a collection full of wild energy and life, a stark contrast to similarly structured and compiled offerings from the same time period, like the excellent Cambodian Rocks, which is full of a haunting beauty born out of the fact that most of the artists featured within it met terrible fates.
Saigon Rock & Soul provides a similar service as its Cambodian brethren, collecting as it does recordings that barely made it out of Saigon as it fell, but there’s something more hopeful within its tracks. Songs like Minh Xuan & Phuong Hoang’s “Mat Troi Den” (which translates to “Black Sun”) are a darker reflection of mainstream Western influences like Jimi Hendrix, but they are also a clear example of the incredible results that one can get by embracing the mixing of cultures. Today multiculturalism is more or less a rule rather than an exception, which makes it easy to forget the lengths people previously had to go to in order to explore the art of other cultures let alone integrate them into their own. But even so, hearing, say, Thai Thanh’s remarkable “Bung Sang” is impressive no matter the present time frame, as it manages to mix together girl group vocals, proto-disco soul elements and spy rock rhythms with uniquely Vietnamese vocals on top. Knowing it was made without the use of the internet, without the presence of daring record labels like Sublime Frequencies, only adds to its brilliance. And that’s just a small sampling of what Sublime Frequencies has dug up here, with other tracks leaning closer to the soulful crooner end of the equation and still others showcasing more of a garage rock feel, with addictive, simple rhythms and thrashing guitars.
Above all, Sublime Frequencies’ work on Saigon Rock & Soul shows that the democratization of cultural exchange that the modern era has provided has allowed us to be immersed in more incredible musical discoveries than ever before. Anyone with an interest in better musical awareness on the whole should seek this collection out but it should be of particular benefit to those looking to learn about integrating seemingly disparate genres and styles.