Georgimãng cầu Quach discovers how Saigon crew Nhạc Gãy"s homegrown sound, queer-friendly ethos & raucous raves are an antidote khổng lồ tourist-centric nightlife in Vietnam

When Hanoian punk bvà Cút Lộn stormed the stage at Ho Chi Minch City club Arcan last June, a mosh-pit ensued. Red light bathed the screaming, four-piece outfit, dressed as high-school girls in Pikachu costumes. Frenzied partygoers rallied behind them, while an audience thành viên in a vampire costume jumped onkhổng lồ the stage and lobbed a real sheep’s head over the crowd. Behind this explosive sầu night was the Ho Chi Minch City collective sầu, Nhạc Gãy. Nhạc Gãy is made up of five sầu producers and DJs: co-founder & filmmaker Anh Phi Tran, art director Abi Linh (who DJs as Abi Wasabi), Celina Hyunh (who produces và DJs as km95), & Thao and Mike Pham mê. After Cút Lộn exited, Nhạc Gãy kept the blood pumping with DJ sets of techno, gabber, hard trance & hip-hop.

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The rave not only marked the over of lockdown in Vietphái mạnh — where draconian policies halted COVID-19 early on — but also a cultural awakening within the country’s music scene. Rebelling against the foreign influences of Vietnam’s club scene, Gãy are driving a homegrown movement connected khổng lồ Vietnamese identity. Saigon’s firecracker energy also gives their raves an edge; falling out of the club at 4am, you narrowly avoid the infinite flow of scooters whizzing by khổng lồ grab a Bánh Mì (traditional sandwich) from the capital’s 24-hour street stalls. This new era for Vietnamese electronic music rings clear in ‘Nhạc Gãy Tổng Hợp Số 1’, a compilation released by Nhạc Gãy in February. Platforming local and diasporic Vietnamese artists, the 14 tracks feature banging breakbeats and deconstructed folk, with traditional Vietnamese instruments. Contributors include Puppy Riot, Nodey, Demonslayer & Anh Phi.

While there are huge obstacles for Vietnamese musicians — including a laông xã of finances, limited club venues & language barriers — the release casts a spotlight on their music-making which, for a long time, has been restricted khổng lồ their bedrooms. “The Vietnamese electronic music scene has been freed, liberated & born to become the future of the next generation of local talents! I am so proud to lớn be a part of this,” announces Kim Durbeck, a Vietnamese-Norwegian producer featured on the compilation.

For decades, Vietnam’s underground music scenes have sầu been relatively muted compared to its richer neighbours. China, Japan, & South Korea have benefited from better infrastructure lớn tư vấn alternative tastes, which has fuelled more organised subcultures. In classic Communist tradition, Vietphái nam officially bans “offenses against the state” — an all-encompassing và ill-defined crime — và violations of custom, such as mannequins wearing underwear.

The government continues lớn monitor art exhibitions, films, TV shows & books. But with Vietnam’s recent economic growth, younger generations have become emboldened, with more disposable cash & disruptive sầu ideas. Unlượt thích established markets where the underground has become an industry in its own right, Vietphái mạnh presents a hive sầu of opportunity for newcomers keen lớn ignite its nascent electronic, hip-hop & heavy metal scenes.

Also driving the momentum is the country’s frustrating lack of a nightlife market which treats locals fairly, says Kim. He explains that most clubs bring in foreign DJs, who headline festivals and clubs with a big fee guaranteed. Meanwhile, local acts are sidelined & receive much lower fees, or sometimes don’t get paid at all.

In recent years, the few underground music events available typically followed strict “only house và techno” policies và focused on attracting expats who could afford the entry fee. Vietnamese DJ & NTS resident Cuong Ptê mê, aka Phambinho, describes this as “sính ngoại”, which loosely translates as xenophilia — with a peculiar disdain for what’s homegrown. “I know of people who have been kicked off the decks or out the clubs for violating the ‘standards’ of these gatekeepers.” This created a need for nightlife options which were open khổng lồ niđậy, local sounds.

“Nhạc Gãy represents the first wave of alternative sầu Vietnamese electronic club music born from oppression và a domination by the foreign market in Vietnam giới,” says Kyên ổn. He runs the Instagram meme tài khoản, Vietnamemes, which pokes fun at Vietnamese culture in a loving way. This aesthetic is playfully folded into lớn Nhạc Gãy — Gãy’s poster by Hanoian artist Phạm Ngọc Thái Linh features the self-irony of Vinja “Vietnamese Ninja” women, motorbiking grandmas who wear bootleg designer gear.

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Local events also offer a way khổng lồ build a musicians network that is self-managed and sincere. Since Nhạc Gãy started five sầu years ago, the non-profit platkhung has grown from throwing intimate parties in Hanoi và Ho Chi Minc City to lớn huge gatherings with international DJs, becoming Vietnam’s primary launchpad for this exploration. News of an upcoming Gãy travels mainly by word of mouth. The parties squat in the sweat-soaked shadows of backpacker clubs and undisclosed locations that are constantly threatened by gentrification & police crackdowns.

“The Vietnamese government is very unpredictable,” says Abi Wasabi. “They can just come in và shut you down in minutes.” This is why the collective always secures the venue in advance, và releases the sự kiện location at the lademo possible moment to lớn keep numbers under control. One of their most recent raves took place in a khách sạn lobby, the address of which was coded in a Vietnamese poem on their flyer.

Seen as an affront to the Vietnamese state, raves which carry any political message are “too much of a risk,” says Abi. The conservative sầu government hardened its stance on drugs after seven drug-related deaths at Hanoi’s Trip to lớn the Moon festival in 2018. Despite this minefield of police raids & regulation, they’ve sầu largely avoided run-ins with the Saigonese authorities since their first rave in October 2019. “The number one rule is don’t talk shit about the government,” she underlines.

Nhạc Gãy prides itself on being an assortment of rookies still learning from each other. In Vietnamese, ‘gãy’ means ‘broken’; their mission revolves around DIY forms of self-expression, however imperfect or nonsensical they turn out to lớn be. It was “broken from its birth,” says Anh Phi. Having neither role models nor DJ classes to lớn learn from, the crew pitched in khổng lồ buy a controller and began messing around with it. They watched YouTube videos & picked up tips from the Arcan club owner, Goss.

In the early days, mistakes were comtháng. Abi explains that whenever they made a wobbly transition, they would jokingly gọi it ‘gãy’. But that didn’t matter, and this haphazardness worked well with their favoured tempo & genre clashes. “To be honest, musically, it was messy, but we felt that it’s part of the spirit of Gãy. We didn’t want khổng lồ be too purist, which can be the case in techno or house scenes,” says Anh Phi. Perfecting technique was far less important than playing diverse, adventurous sets that would surprise their partygoers, 95% of whom are locals.

The shutting of borders during COVID-19 encouraged the crew to lớn pass skills on to budding DJs in their neighbourhoods. Nhạc Gãy’s performers and organisers work for free, và foregoing profits is a conscious choice. Without commercial pressures or expats lớn please, the assemblage they showcase — và their raves — can take on different forms.

That way of thinking resonated with the capital’s youth: Gãy’s raves became a melting pot for all kinds of generational, social, racial & gender identities. They dedicate their energy to creating a space where everyone can feel they belong. With giant balloons a favourite amongst Gãy crowds, the watchword is always fun. “It’s lượt thích a different world — just you, the music & dance,” says Abi. “You get khổng lồ be yourself.”

While Nhạc Gãy avoid making loud political statements, breaking the silence on mental illness is urgent khổng lồ the founders, some of whom have sầu lost several friends to suicide. In Vietnam giới, where access khổng lồ healthcare is precarious, mental health treatment is rare, expensive sầu và stigmatised. Amongst creatives in the LGBTQ+ community, “it’s even harder to speak the truth,” explains Abi. This is why Nhạc Gãy started a podcast, InPsychOut, where they spread awareness và tackle taboos in collaboration with health professionals. “If no-one can help protect you, you’ve sầu got to vì chưng it yourself.”

As its platform grows, Nhạc Gãy’s philosophy around “breaking” down societal norms — including mental health stigma — has never felt more important, for ensuring the Vietnamese youth feel a sense of belonging even after the sun comes up. All profits from the release of ‘Nhạc Gãy Tổng Hợp Số 1’ go towards a fund for Vietnamese mental health awareness.

Their mutual tư vấn và sensitivity for the local community has also helped them present their music và aesthetics from a non-Western perspective. “Whether it’s people doing karaoke, or playing Vinahouse (a local style which takes popular songs and amps them up lớn 140bpm) out loud or even just the sound of the street itself, sound is always present in Vietnam giới,” says Anh Phi. “I think this is really different và unique from the West.” Many of the producers on the compilation seasoned their tracks with sounds they grew up with, like ‘cải lương’ (folk opera) or ‘kèn ám ma’ (traditional oboe).

“In Vietphái mạnh, we all have this kind of love và patience for our heritage,” he adds. Kim’s track, ‘Nước mắm is my holy water’, takes inspiration from “falling asleep to his dad’s cải lương” at karaoke parties, combined with his love for 12-bit breaks và high tempo. “Somehow, the musical aesthetics got stuchồng in my subconscious mind to lớn one day be useful on a Vietnamese dancefloor.”

Thierry Phung, aka ONY, who performed at a Gãy rave with Phambinho, says sounds from childhood inspire his NTS Radio show. “Even without fully understanding the lyrics, as my Vietnamese has always been ‘gãy’; most of the karaoke songs my family and their friends were singing were crazy melancholic and nostalgic,” he laughs. “It’s like everyone was often getting really drunk và singing slow songs about how they miss someone or their country, or a time of their lives.”

This dialogue with the past enables Vietnamese creatives lớn imagine new possibilities for their future, where cultural traditions — lost, stolen, forgotten, neglected — stand as something to be cherished. “We are a fragmented community with a complex identity và history, so seeing local và diasporic Vietnamese coming together is incredible khổng lồ witness,” says Thierry. Nhạc Gãy hope that the compilation will cấp độ the playing field, & bring together newly-found talent for their future raves. “I hope it will inspire the new generation khổng lồ create và engage with art even more, và maybe find answers in the process.”

Read about how Poland’s radical DIY club scene became an international rave haven here

Georgina Quach is a multitruyền thông journalist. You can find her on Twitter