The vibrance of Hanoi culture is inspiring young musicians – locals and expats alike – to take on electronic music as a new medium to search for the ‘soul’ of the city.
Ever since he set foot in Hanoi during a short exchange program six years ago, Robin Marty, a French student majoring in marine science, has been captivated by the robust life brimming in every corner of the Vietnamese capital city.
“You always see bunches of young girls and boys driving around on their cheap electric bikes gagging and shouting. Most people smile first, then talk," Marty wrote in a release note for his 2021 EP Tra Da (Iced Tea).
“And it is not uncommon to see people randomly singing in the street, in a shop, on their balcony.
“I feel like that’s something we have forgotten back home [in France]."
|Limebócx members perform at a music event at Hanoi Rock City in December 2022. Photo: Hanoi Rock City
Yet, in the meantime, the allure of modernism is gradually taking over the Southeast Asian city as well, Marty noticed.
High-rise buildings are turning the city into a massive construction site, with Western influences existing side-by-side with traditional lifestyles.
Fascinated by hidden juxtapositions within the capital city, the Frenchman decided to return to Hanoi after his graduation.
Teaching English by day, Marty spends his free time immersed in the local lifestyle, trying to channel it into his chosen art form: electronic music.
'Cai Goc' (The Root), one of his early works on Hanoi, pulled inspirations from words of Huu Ngoc – an Hanoi culture connoisseur who dedicated over seven decades of work on the city.
On the impetuous breakbeat rhythm, the signature sound of Drum’n’Bass music, one originating from the African diaspora in England, mellow melodies of the Vietnamese quan ho folk song ‘Qua Cau Gio Bay’ floats.
As the drum slows down, samples of Huu Ngoc’s narrating voice chime in “Within the setting of globalization, we open the door for the finest of other cultures.”
As one coming from 'other cultures,' Marty witnesses this clash of lifestyle first-hand: three years in Hanoi has set him in another routine where he can be more in touch with his authentic self.
Here, he found himself able to wear flip-flops and pyjamas outside without facing much scrutiny – a change from the peer pressure to dress up that he had to conform to in France.
|The Limebócx band
Hanoi also marks Marty’s first exposure to the concept of midday nap.
“We don’t nap in Europe, no one I know does. But here in Vietnam people still live by the sun," Marty told Tuoi Tre News.
“When that after-lunch tiredness hits you, don’t fight it.
"Lie down and sleep for 45 minutes. When I started doing this, I became super productive in the afternoon and evening."
In Hanoi, Marty also frequented the roadside tra da stalls near the Lenin Park to meet up and practice with House Dance Hanoi – a community of young, spirited dancers in the city.
Each member comes from a different job background, but they manage to come together every night, around plastic chairs, sharing tra da-fueled banters after hours of practice.
This is where Hanoi youths live their authentic selves, without having to conform to the everyday struggles and societal expectations, the French producer realized.
He found the House music and dance culture – one originating in the 1980s United States with core values of peace, self-awareness, and harmony – cohabitates harmoniously with the Hanoian lifestyle, which urged him to fuse these inspirations in his later releases.
Ca tru meets electronic
Despite using folk music resources similar to Marty, Hanoi-based electronic duo Limebócx take a different approach – one of local citizens growing up on the sound of Vietnamese music and poetry, while also keeping an open mind to revive folk heritage with modern touches.
Limebócx started off in 2017 with two members Trang and Tuan, who got to know each other in the alternative music scene of Hanoi: Tuan frequently showcased a knack for beatboxing and electronic instruments on indie stages, while Trang was known as a guitarist of GoLim – a pioneering figure in the post-punk and garage rock movement of Hanoi.
During their early jam sessions, the duo soon found their tastes intersecting with folk influences – including poetry and the string instrument dan tranh.
“We started this band because we wanted to play together," Tuan recalled during an interview with the lifestyle blog Son Tinh.
"At first, we began by using Western influences, but then Trang started singing and adding Vietnamese poems overtop of the songs.
"We saw that it fit really well with our music.”
The unlikely encounter inspired Trang to add dan tranh – a 16-string zither which has been prominently used in traditional Asian folk music dating as far back as the 13th century – to her musical repertoire.
“I wanted to learn it, but I found that it was too difficult and I ditched it for a long time. It wasn’t until I tried it out with Tuan that I got back into practice,” Trang recounted.
In 2019, the duo launched their debut four-track EP 'Electrùnic,' taking on Drum'n'Bass, hip-hop, beatboxing, dub, then combining them with time-honored forms of folk music and poetry, creating a sound of their own.
A prime example of the band’s eccentricity can be found in 'Ho Tay,' the second track from the EP.
Scattered on the post-punk guitar riffs are lines from 'Vinh Ho Tay,' a poem by Vietnamese laureate Nguyen Khuyen.
Touches of Drum’n’Bass are laid in through Tuan’s beatboxing performances, drawing an intense emotional parallel from the past to present.
“The song retains the esthetics from the poem [yet] the verses have never sounded so cool,” music blog VNNTB remarked.
“Sometimes traditional Vietnamese music is just too tragic,” Trang noted during her interview with Son Tinh.
“They’re usually stories of people who can’t get together because of life, family or war.
"We just want to make it a little funnier, because I think pure ca tru might not be very approachable, but I really like the elements and I want to put it into modern music.”
Finding familiar in the foreign
Following Tuan’s departure from the band to pursue music study in early 2022, Limebócx’s activities as a duo continued with the addition of Do Tung – a young producer who was known for various electronic projects in the local scene.
The duo’s next project, with new discoveries in folk material, is set for release in 2023.
Speaking of his approach to traditional music, Tung assumes the position of a 'street' practitioner – without any formal training, he decided to take on folk music purely out of passion.
“They were all around me ever since I was little. I don’t have a thorough understanding of them, only an urge to use them,” Tung recalled.
Yet, after discovering their penchant for the time-honored art of ca tru, Tung and Trang found it hardly accessible to youths.
“Ca tru practitioners only pass the art down to ones in their family, but not all youths want to take on the trade of their predecessors," Trang remarked.
“Insiders don’t want to learn it, while outsiders can’t, which is such a waste. Sad to think of it, but the art may soon be lost or lose its authenticity."
While other artists, namely Ngo Hong Quang or the collective Dan Do, are doing notable work on preserving ca tru as cultural heritage, Limebócx are approaching the matters in hand a little differently.
They define their music as 'Electrùnic' – a term combining 'electronic' and ca tru, which employs folk material as merely one among many influences to be used.
For the band, foreign touches such as electronic, dub, and post-punk can be used to paint a new coat on the Vietnamese poets’ romanticism.
“Despite having heard [ca tru] throughout my childhood thanks to my father’s CD collection, I can hardly sit through a whole ca tru song without feeling antsy," Trang shared.
“The taste of people from the 15th and 21st centuries cannot be the same – we can't feel the same joy or share the same sadness with them.
"For us, the acculturation of traditional music into modern settings can help other youths to fall in love with the art form like we did, which is nice."
The duo know that what they did is not a first: dub, a go-to style of Trang, also revitalized the traditional Jamaican style of reggae with electronic sounds.
“Just like what we did with Electrùnic,” Trang jokingly pointed out.
A spiritual connection between Vietnamese styles and foreign cultures is also noticed by other artists, including Marty.
“The traditional song ['Qua Cau Gio Bay'] is warm -- it’s about love, but the Drum'n'Bass rhythm is super fast -- it's music that comes from abroad. That's the same as Hanoi – the city is old, it’s warm inside, but the rhythm is dictated by a modern economy so it's super quick,” Marty discussed the inspiration behind 'Cai Goc' with Tuoi Tre News.
In 2021, prior to his return to France, Marty had released his EP 'Tra Da' under the alias Tra Da Connection.
Consisting of four soul-leaning House tracks, the EP encapsulates his range of experience in the city: '173 Hoang Hoa Tham' lifted the Buddhist chanting sounds he heard in the deep alley of Ba Dinh District, 'Ha Noi Bi Say Ca Phe' is inspired by the tremblingly heavy ca phe sua da (condensed milk coffee) sold near Huu Tiep Lake, 'Go Nhay Luon' is dedicated to the dance culture, and 'Vietnam Awakens' is filled with bright and hopeful synths.
Marty sees his releases as a love letter for the passion and vigor of youth that are fueling lives in the thousand-year-old city of Hanoi.
“When I’m in Hanoi, it feels like the city fills my batteries. The city has infinite potential -- there are many things no one has done before,” he stated.