Just got back home from a vacation to Vietnam with some field recordings (musical and non-musical) and a bunch of beaten & battered 60's & 70's vinyl records.
As some of you know, I am a big fan of old SE Asian pop music with literally hundreds of vintage vinyl records (mostly 7-inches from Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore & Indonesia) lying on my shelf. I love the mixture of western and local influences especially if sung in their native language. Sadly the condition of records is usually quite bad and many vinyls seem to be pressed on bad quality material in the first place resulting in a situation where even the clean looking vinyl has a fair amount of surface noises. Compared to Japanese 2nd hand 60's vinyls which sound even better than many present-day releases. But, as John Peel once said it when someone complained about the vinyl noises compared to CD: "Listen, mate, *life* has surface noise." --- Now there were wise words from a wise man, period.
My ears have pretty much accustomed to vinyl crackling and I am getting to sadly accept the idea that many Asian vinyls are mishandled or even destroyed for different reasons: for the lack of personal appreciation or for more sad reasons, which brings me to the case of Vietnam. I have had a couple of Vietnamese 7" records before my vacation but it seems that they are quite hard to find even in the discogs or ebay, and when you do - the prices are something that make me think twice. Besides, two times I have bought a record which has a wrong record in a sleeve - albeit both being Vietnamese.
Seems that during Vietnamese war there was a lot of record production, but when yanks flew home and commies took power a lot of people hid their records underground (literally) or destroyed them in fear of getting harassed by authorities. Holding a western-minded cultural products might have caused serious trouble for the whole family. Some blogger noticed that selling these records is basically still forbidden (but rarely controlled) so maybe that is one reason why you cannot find them easily. So when we decided to spend a vacation in Vietnam I had no big expectations for finding any vintage records even though we spent a week in Ho Chi Minh City (aKa HCMC aKa Saigon) where it should be the easiest affair. Luckily I did my homework well and knew that there are two places in HCMC which I should visit: Dan Sinh Market (selling shitload of 'The American War' memorabilia - mostly replicas or fakes made to look like authentic stuff) & Le Cong Kieu street (a small street packed with antique sellers... fakes mostly). Dan Sinh was a disappointment. Visiting there in the morning most sellers were just opening their stalls and the one guy who had a couple of chinese records asked for a ridiculous sum which I had no intention of discussing... they were not that interesting anyway.
Then I headed to Le Cong Kieu and BINGO! There was it. Couple of shops which had vinyls but it was shocking to see their condition and how they stored them in the first place. First there was a lady who had approximately 1 meter stack thrown over a kitchen stool mostly without covers or placed in wrong covers. Not much interesting there, mostly some chinese unknown stuff, old shellacs and western jazz.
Next place was run by a friendly old man who had two stacks of sleeveless or otherwise badly protected records stuffed in a dusty shelf. He helped me to pick them to the floor and every time I picked something up, there was a flood of dust, sand and mortar falling from between and inside the record sleeves. Dear Jesus, really a proof of hiding these records literally underground. Among the peculiar local pressings of western rock (think of like LP of having Beach Boys on side A & CCR on side B), chinese stuff and western jazz I found a couple of Vietnamese 7-inches and five interesting looking Vietnamese pressings of Singaporean mandarin-pop LP's. It was very typical that some of the record sleeves had many records stuffed in, one of which happened to be the actual record which was supposed to be in (if you're lucky) + some other stuff just rammed in. Bought one of these 'package deals' only telling the seller to remove two of the records which had a fair amount of clay or some similar hard matter glued to them. Took only the three remaining red vinyls.
Next there was a young female selling his bosses' stuff from a street cart. There was some interesting looking 7-inches (I was looking only 7" records, not albums) which I took just by the condition and look of their covers or center labels. Some records were in a truly horrible condition: scratched all over, pieces missing (bitten off by a rat maybe) or otherwise looking like someone had driven over them by a motorcycle.
Next place was a real drag. There was a owner sitting at a table sipping local booze and coffee and looking bored. I asked to see his records and checked the interesting ones real closely. There was five good looking ones but the owner asked for 30 USD/piece and I was ready getting to bargaining business in as friendly manner as I can get but they had no interest in lowering the price (or even discussing it) so his younger side-kick carried the records away! What a fucking attitude problem.
Next door seller was a saviour, a friendly gentleman who stored his records (all sleeveless) in a glass cabinet. I ended up buying 26 records from him. Back home I spent a couple of hours cleaning and washing them all.
Couple of notes about the Vietnamese records. First of all it is interesting to notice how much they did press on color vinyls. Most of the stuff I bought were pressed in different shades of red, orange and brown with drops of some other color here and there. Secondly, for some reason I have serious difficulties in analyzing the record covers and center labels; which is the name of the artist, which is the name of the song or even how many songs are there (the separating spaces on vinyl between the songs just ain't there).
At the time of writing I have listened to only a handful of the stuff I bought. There seems to be a lot of traditional male/female singing backed with guitar-like plucking instrument and viola-style string-instrument, some instrumental stuff and even some record which have every other song being a western-style pop and others being traditional. There is something in those trad songs that remind me strongly of the old, most primitive and basic forms of blues. 'Mekong-Delta Blues'.
Now that I have listened through about 1/3 of the records, I'd like to share some experiences. First of all, some records are in truly horrible condition. Even though I have cleaned them all, the most of sleeveless discs collect a fair amount of pitch black dust on the needle even when I've listened only halfway through one side. Uh, maybe that's agent orange leftovers.
Some discs with low recording volumes have surface noises even louder than music itself - so much it's almost experimental music. I wasn't actually thinking of digitizing these (I regard vinyls as listening formats - not some ornaments which exist there only for digitizing purposes) but some of those could benefit from some SoundSoap or iZotope treatment. Still, most of them are in listenable condition.
In many Vietnamese records there is also the same truly annoying thing which you see in many Thai records: the end groove does not stop the needle in a locked groove mode. Instead the needle jumps to center label making some horrible noise (cannot even imagine what it does to the needle itself)... then, the record owner and everybody else in the house jumps along.
About the music itself. There seems to be a couple of comical music theater pieces just like the ones you often hear on Thai records. You know the style: couple of dudes or the man/woman duo exchanging lines with funny intonations and some music thrown in. Obviously funny if you understand the language but an outsider is left dumbstruck. There must be a name for this genre.
Secondly, there is a lot of music which starts in easy-lounge/mondo-exotica mood but suddenly turn into traditional music only to return back to mondo lounge mood in the end of a track or record. There's propably a name for that genre too. Anybody with inside knowledge, send in a comment.
UPDATE part 2:
Now here is the Vietnam vinyl mix I made. Just managed to remove most horrible scratches... but still it has some, never mind. Enjoy. I am planning to digitize and clean them all in 2016 and post them at my other blog so stay tuned.
More about the trip in my next post.