Tracing a Frenchman's Vietnamese hip-hop to a brother and sister in District 1
Left: The soundtrack to "the Jilted" which later provided the cover art for Arnaud Bernard's hio-hop compilation Chinoiseries Volume 2. The album art describes the film as "a deeply moving musical art movie of great moral value."
The popular music of Ho Chi Minh City seems, at times, schizophrenic.
Right now, at least two electronics stores are playing a house track featuring the chorus "I don't want no short dick man" as oblivious customers shop for computer monitors.
Commercial spaces all over the city thump with teeth-rattling, homegrown electronica and juicy pop songs designed to keep the listener in the very immediate present.
Nostalgia feels fairly limited.
The town's numerous rock n' roll cover bands revisit the same American and British pop tunes (i.e. Lemon Tree, Country Roads, etc.) in cafés and karaoke bars every weekend. Trinh Cong Son continues to hold title as the only dead musician that young people regard as worth remembering. Beyond this short list of cherished oldies, Saigon suffers a musical amnesia.
Which is perhaps what made Chinoiseries (volumes I and II) such a gift. A Parisian crate digger named Arnaud Bernard (AKA Onra) created the albums from a small stack of records he bought in downtown HCMC. Perhaps, for this reason, writers all over the world regarded the works as distinctly Vietnamese.
But the story is a bit more complicated than that.
Bernard split his childhood between Paris and the Ivory Coast. He never really liked France and spent a good portion of his youth alone, mastering the MPC-1000 (a sample synthesizer) and studying American rap lyrics.
The young Frenchman came to idolize James Yancey, (AKA Jdee, JDilla) a monumental producer who developed whole instrumental records from samples of Americana.
Though much has been made of Bernard's blood-link to Vietnam, he knew little about the country before visiting on a backpacking trip in 2006.
"All I knew from Vietnamese music was the stuff you could hear at the Vietnamese restaurants," he wrote, via email.
His grandfather was a half-Vietnamese, half-Indian French colonial soldier from Da Nang. His paternal grandmother was born and raised in Saigon. When he arrived in HCMC, the town seemed foreign and exciting.
"Just smoking a cigarette and drinking a cafe sua da was already something amazing for me," he wrote.
During his first visit, he hit up the city's antique shops and gathered 30 albums by pantomiming with storeowners.
"I didn't know what I was buying," he wrote. "It was mostly Chinese music, Chinese artists, Chinese labels. As I don't know anything about Chinese, I couldn't read the names, I could only recognize some logos and artists from the photos."
On a recent afternoon, I visited a small antique shop on Pho Duc Chinh Street seeking the source of Bernard's inspiration.
An antique dealer named Phai and his sister Phuong dragged out stacks of moldy cha-cha and a' go-go records, which they claimed had been pulled out of Cho Lon by scrap collectors.
Phai mostly dealt in Ho Quang and cai luong albums - twangy Chinese-inspired operas that once packed theaters all over southern Vietnam. The rest were Taiiwanese and Hong Kong pop records and movie soundtracks.
Most of the sleeves were written in Chinese characters. Some of these "Chinese" records had been pressed in Vietnam.
"These were really only for Chinese people in Cho Lon," Phai said. "Old Vietnamese records are much more rare and expensive."
Phai exhibited little interest in the music and sold me three albums for VND90,000"”including a copy of the Hong Kong soundtrack that provided Bernard's cover art.
In 2007 Bernard released Chinoiseries Volume I. The album, which translates as "Chinese-esque," featured 32 tracks of chopped-up Kung Fu fights, gongs, drums, and operatic vocals. The work distilled the sounds into something smooth and powerful and the tunes closely resemble the aesthetic of his late idol.
Coca-cola adapted one of his songs for a commercial they would play over and over again during the Beijing Olympics. Because Bernard had no idea who owned the rights to the song, the company chopped it up and re-recorded it.
He was paid a couple thousand dollars for the song. But his fame grew and he began touring all over the world.
When he played some of Chinoiseries at a party in Ho Chi Minh City, it fell flat. "It was awkward," he told a BBC interviewer. "I don't think they got it."
In general, Bernard attributed the disinterest to Vietnam's forward-looking culture.
"You can feel it in the air that the whole country is looking forward and not backwards, they need something new, they want to step their game up to the western countries," he wrote via email.
Western writers were eager to declare Bernard the new ambassador to a music he knew little about. He resisted this designation in interviews and pursued projects that drew from Bollywood and American R&B.
When he released Chinoiseries Part 2, last year it drew mixed reviews. "The Pt. 2 says it all, really; it's more of the same, diminishing returns and all," wrote a pernicious critic from Pitchfork.
Sadly, Bernard seemed to agree. "I'm done with the far east for now," he told cafebabel.com in February. "The second album may have been too much."
Bernard has disdained some of his source material as unlistenable, but he also describes some of the original songs (which he still does not know the names of) as among the most beautiful he has ever heard.
Whatever his opinion, he did a great thing.
The 64 Chinoiseries tracks resurrected something lost into a single fantastic listening experience"”one that reminds us of a day when Saigon moved to a different kind of sound.