|Favoured haunt: The Binh Minh Jazz Club is a popular destination for young people who love the songs of composer Trinh Cong Son.
by Bui Nguyen To Hanh
Ha Noi's young adults enjoy a diverse range of music, from old-timey Vietnamese ballads to the latest Billboard hits. I explored a few live music coffee shops and bars to experience the musical culture in the millennium-old capital first-hand.
When talking about timeless Vietnamese musicians, the first artist to come to mind can easily be Trinh Cong Son. Although he passed away almost 15 years ago, his music is still sought-after by both old and young listeners.
Many cafes designed specifically to play his music have sprouted up around Ha Noi in recent years, like Trinh Ca Cafe (233 To Hieu Street).
Upon entering Trinh Ca, I realized that this place intended to have a Japanese teahouse theme. A modest goldfish pond, surrounded by round white pebbles, claimed a small corner outside the shop. Above it, a golden bust of Trinh Cong Son was etched into the wall.
Prior to entering the shop, customers were requested to take off their shoes, just like how it would be done at a traditional teahouse.
The cafe was rather small, with a low ceiling and wooden floors. The small, minimalist tables and soft floor pillows added to the Zen theme and saved space. Paintings of Trinh Cong Son hung on the walls, and some of his well-recognised lyrics were carefully hand-painted on the ceiling.
Customers exchanged conversations in low tones while the signature husky, raspy voice of singer Khanh Ly sang Trinh's songs in the background.
Cuong, a server at the cafe, emphasised that Trinh Ca differentiated itself from other Trinh cafes with its teahouse theme. The respectful teahouse complimented the depth of Trinh's music, which helped customers feel peaceful and helped them look inward.
I arrived at about 7:30pm on a Sunday, the night of live music. By 8pm, the crowd started rolling in, which to my pleasant surprise, consisted mostly of young faces. Customers came mostly for live Trinh music, according to Cuong.
Many young guests were first timers. One of them came because of his girlfriend's recommendation. He scoffed at the notion that Trinh music was only for older adults: "Our generation likes Trinh too. His songs are still significant."
|Music to our ears: Saxophonist Hong Son performs. — VNS Photos Truong Vi
The musicians also seemed to agree that Trinh's music was a rare instance where listeners were both young and old. Unlike other old-timey composers, Trinh Cong Son still has a big following of fans in their twenties.
Van Dao, the lead guitarist, said that he had listened to and played Trinh's music since a young age and had played at Hanoian cafes for 12 years. He was glad that despite the long time these songs had been around, the listeners at his live gigs still added a youthful vitality to the show.
Thanh Huong, the lead singer, noted that the life of musicians who go from bar to bar to perform could be rough, but admitted, "Singing at Trinh cafes really doesn't have a bad side. We do it because we are passionate about his music, and we enjoy playing it."
One listener, Anh, disclosed he came many Sundays to Trinh Ca because he was a big fan of Thanh Huong's voice.
"The bar plays great music. I like the teahouse theme and it's so close to my house."
One of Anh's companions, also a first timer, added, "Young people nowadays like to go to bars with the loud booming music. That kind of music gives me a headache. I like the atmosphere here a lot more."
Though some young adults might turn to Trinh's music to avoid the booming sounds of mainstream music, there is another alternative.
For those seeking some balance between old-timey music and overplayed top hits, Binh Minh's Jazz Club (1 Trang Tien Street) is the place to go. The music is a mix between the jazzy sounds of New Orleans and clever Vietnamese themes, which in turn creates a harmonious balance between the old and the new, the East and the West.
The club reserved a generous space for the stage, unlike at Trinh Ca's. The bar's name in red neon light cast a soft, red tone throughout the bar, making the guests feel as if they were in a smoky New Orleans jazz club. The audience was thin at 9pm, but gradually got thicker as the session proceeded. Both foreigners and locals could be seen bobbing their heads in tune with the music. The walls were filled with pictures of the club's musicians, as well as influential jazz artists who had performed with the band throughout the club's history.
With the exception of seasoned saxophonist Hong Son, the rest of the band were young in their 20s and early 30s. The saxophone improvisations were often exquisite. Surprised faces and satisfied nods from knowledgeable jazz ears were often seen at the bar throughout the night. The band played a variety of soulful, upbeat songs.
The band's young pianist, Ngoc Vuong, said he had been experimenting with jazz since he was a teen.
"The people who come here have very refined taste and are also well educated. There really isn't the bad influence that you often see at more popular clubs," he said.
The club's cashier, a woman in her early 20s named Hang, said her love for rock somehow led her to work at this club: "I am actually a rock lover, but since jazz gave birth to this genre, it's not a huge difference."
While jazz still has only a modest following in the youth community, Hang said it was gaining recognition as the parent of many mainstream genres that young adults loved, such as rock and roll, hip-hop, R&B and pop.
Young Hanoians' music taste seems to cover all colours of the musical spectrum, from old-timey music to Vietnamese jazz to the latest hits. Thus, young people are not backward or conservative simply because they listen to Trinh Cong Son. More often, they listen as a way to return to a more Vietnamese sound that can heal souls with its complex meaning. Similarly, the young adults who prefer jazz or more modern genres such as rap or electronic should not be grouped as "delinquents" or "rootless". Ha Noi's young adults belong to the global generation, brave and individualistic enough to find their favourite sounds in this quickly changing city. — VNS