Filipino artists in Vietnam are not here to achieve stardom or realize dreams; they are here to make a living and support family back home
Eric, a Filipino singer, performs at Acoustic Bar in Ho Chi Minh City March 10. The Filipino performers are dominating the local musical scene thanks to their multiple talents and willingness to please customers. Photo by Tuan Anh
Taz strings through a Vietnamese pop song, strumming his guitar and trying to pronounce each word correctly.
After several lines, he pushes his guitar on to his back and approaches an attentive member of the audience, inviting him to sing along.
“This is a Vietnamese song that I really like and I believe you can sing it as well. Who wrote this song? Sorry I don’t remember but I hope the writer won’t be angry if he’s here,” Taz tells the audience at a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, and is rewarded with warm applause.
One boy who polishes shoes for a living wants Korean hit Gangnam Style and Taz quickly obliges. “Of course,” he says and switches to typical Psy swings and jumps.
Hoang Minh, a manager of two Filipino bands performing in HCMC including Taz’s Champurrado, said: “Filipino singers really know how to please the audiences, and that’s how they win.”
Filipino singers and bands began to appear in major cities and tourism destinations more than a decade ago. Their ability to relate to an international audience with high English fluency, their multiple talents and willingness to please have seen them dominate the local music scene at popular restaurants, bars and hotels in the country.
Speaking to the Nguoi Lao Dong newspaper, Minh said their skillful renditions of songs that are very popular among the Vietnamese, including Now and forever, Casablanca, It’s not goodbye, Women in love, Caravan of life, Everything I do, and Nothing’s gonna change my love for you, help Filipino artists break the ice quickly with local audiences.
Jackson Gan, a Filipino singer based in HCMC, concurred with Minh, saying their covers are close to the original version, which makes them able to win local audiences in the first place.
Like their front man Taz, other members of Champurrado are also popular figures on the city live music circuit.
They can be heard at luxury hotels like Rex, Sheraton, Majestic and Caravelle, outdoor venues like Hog’s Breath Café at the city’s skyscraper Bitexco, bars popular among Westerners like Carmen, Unix Kafe & Biznis Klub, Rio or Cadillac, and also at live shows in Hanoi, Da Nang or other resorts towns like Da Lat, Nha Trang and Mui Ne.
The band can also be booked for events like weddings and openings.
Filipino artists and bands do what it takes to gain popularity among both local and international audiences in Vietnam, and almost all singers have added a few Vietnamese songs to their repertoire, even if they do not understand a word.
Vocalist Servillo Carlos said he can sing some Vietnamese New Year songs and “Xin chao Vietnam,” the Vietnamese version of Bonjour Vietnam.
Carlos said he can sing in any genre requested, and he practices every day so that he can please his audience.
Eric, a singer at Acoustic Bar in HCMC, can sing Vietnamese and Korean. Like most of his compatriots, he can perform multiple genres well including pop, R&B and jazz, dance and play an instrument or two.
The singers said there are more than 1,000 of them in Vietnam and most of them know each other as they introduce jobs for each other, or take over each other’s performances when needed.
Marie Pert Singh, one of the first Filipino singers in Vietnam who has introduced many of those performing in the country now, said they are all trained, either at proper music schools or through short courses, to sing properly, play instruments including the guitar, piano, violin and saxophone, as also dance in both classical and modern styles.
The singers’ managers say they can find few Vietnamese singers who can sing English songs very well and/or play instruments. Those who are capable are stars in the local music industry and establishments like bars and restaurants, even five-star hotels, cannot afford them.
No Vietnamese singer would agree to sing outdoor for several hours as requested by the audience like the Filipinos would do, one manager said.
For their part, the Filipino artists say they go out of their way to please the audience as they are not in Vietnam to have fun but to make a living.
“Ninety-nine percent of Filipino singers coming to Vietnam have a family to care for. So their singing career is not for them to shine but for their big family back home to be well-fed and dressed,” said Maricel, a singer staying in HCMC with two children, cited by Nguoi Lao Dong.
She said performing abroad helps them earn US$600-1,500 a month, while their colleagues at home can only make $5-10 a night. A World Bank report says 43 percent of Filipinos live on $2 a day.
Maricel said the pressures on migrant Filipinos are high as their families are heavily reliant on them.
Most of their family members are either jobless or will quit to rely on the one who leaves, no matter how the latter’s situation is, she said.
She does an extra job as a cashier at a Filipino restaurant and earns around $1,500 a month. She keeps $500 for herself and her two children, and sends the rest back to a family of six people at home.
Her children are sent to a school for Filipino children, and the parents look out for each other.
Her colleague Koleen accepts every job on offer as she has an old mother, a cancer-stricken brother and six younger siblings to look out for.
She has brought two siblings to Vietnam and is walking them into the business.
Many singers have been performing in different countries in the area like Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Japan, before coming to Vietnam, which is often their longest stop, because the cost of living is lower.
Chris from Yellow Bongo band said he loves Vietnam as his past ten years in the country “has been alright.”
“The people are gentle. And I can save enough to send back home, while at other places, my income could only fend for myself,” he said.
He saves more than VND10 million ($474) a month from singing and managing a Filipino pizza restaurant in the city downtown. He visits his home or has his family come over every one or two years.
“That’s quite okay.”
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