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Linh Ha's Ethereal Vocal Harmonies Push the Boundaries of Hanoi's Electronic Music Scene

When Linh Ha hosts Xom Nhac, Hanoi Social Club’s regular live music showcase, her electronic instruments, all sleek plastic and snaking black wires, lie on top of a silky floral scarf. The scarf is spread in front of her on the floor, where she sits throughout her performance, level with the audience. Everyone can see the precise motions — a button pressed here, a pedal held there, a shaker up to the microphone, and Linh Ha’s careful, clear singing — that produce the ethereal music we’re hearing.

This is the music Linh Ha has been bringing to Hanoi and taking on tour around Vietnam and Thailand over the last few years. As a solo performer, her sets consist of songs that build on simple themes and sounds, gradually adding and looping tones, her own voice and light percussion. Many of her songs feel like an engrossing journey.

Though she has been playing around Hanoi since 2015, the last year has been full of what she calls “breakthroughs”: moments when she realized that she’s committed to making electronic music, helping to grow the scene here and, hopefully, support herself through her art.

“This song is about live music — why we’re all here, together, tonight,” she declares at Xom Nhac, introducing a song in which she repeats the word nhạc, the Vietnamese word for ‘music.’

When Xom Nhac is over — the headline performer that night in July was Ly Trang, a young experimental artist whose music samples natural sounds and traditional instruments — once the machines have gone silent and rest on the floor as the audience trickles out, I ask what the scarf means.

Linh Ha performing solo in Bangkok.

The scarf’s purpose, it turns out, is both practical and totemic. Linh Ha used to live in the room once occupied by the former manager of CAMA ATK, the now-defunct Hanoi music venue. When she moved out and Linh Ha moved in, the scarf remained in the room. She now uses it at every performance, both to create a consistent surface for her instruments and as a kind of symbol of her connection to the broader history of the Hanoi live music scene — a spot of ritual and tradition in her practice of a musical genre that relies on tools that have existed for a tiny sliver of human history. 

Partly because of its youth and partly by design, electronic music can sometimes seem cold and rootless. It was born in the late-19th century as the preferred soundtrack of Futurists, who sought an expansion of the concept of music to include the sounds of the industrialized urban landscape, such as the whistles, clangs and roars of a factory. They aimed to escape the conventions and tools of traditional music, which they regarded as unable to reflect the complexity of modern society.

Today, the EDM DJ is the archetypal figure in electronic music. He (it’s usually a he) appears alone on stage, surrounded by machinery and disorienting lights, seemingly arrived fully formed from The Future. Though the hedonism of 21st-century rave culture seems to contain no trace of the concepts associated with early electronic music, the genre remains resolutely individualistic. Edgard Varèse, the composer of the early 1950s electronic orchestra Déserts, said he chose the title because it represented physical deserts, “but also the deserts in the mind of man; not only those stripped aspects of nature that suggest bareness, aloofness, timelessness, but also that remote inner space no telescope can reach, where man is alone, a world of mystery and essential loneliness.”

In this context, Linh Ha’s music stands out for its warmth, collegiality and, at most of the Hanoi venues where she plays, accessibility. At Xom Nhac and a recent show at Soul Bar, a seat close to the artist allowed you to get a sense of how she was making music. By blending chill-out music with looped vocal harmonies and traditional instruments, she creates an immersive, meditative sound. For those who appreciate, say, the obvious relationship of a person and a guitar to the sounds that follow, this is electronic music at its most interesting and rewarding.

Even before Linh Ha started playing electronic music six years ago, music had been part of her family’s life since she was young. Her parents have videos of her dancing to Michael Jackson in her diapers. Her grandmother, who also sings, used to take her to perform in front of neighbors near Doi Can Street. As a teenager, she loved Linkin Park: “It was like, ‘Oh, he understands my pain!’ Like, ‘No one understands me but Linkin Park! Linkin Park says the truth!’” Her parents listened to New Wave, which she now calls a guilty pleasure. She played in bands in high school, performing “really poppy music.”

Linh Ha performing with TOMES.

Her involvement in electronic music also stemmed from relationships with other people. She had gotten into ambient and wondered if she could sing with electronic performers. A friend invited her to jam, donated her first two pedals, and played with her at Hanoi Social Club a week after that. She’s been playing in Hanoi ever since. She’s also a member of the afrobeat band Zamina, has toured with fellow electronic musician TOMES and joined a project with a Korean band that involved translating lyrics from Korean to English and then Vietnamese, practicing separately and finally performing together in Hanoi. As the host of Xom Nhac, she’s also put an emphasis on showcasing acts that display the diversity of electronic music, running the gamut from beatboxing duo Loopernatural to Ly Trang’s blend of ambient pop.

Large parts of her performances are improvisational, but recently, for her solo sets, she’s started writing more, including lyrics in Vietnamese and English. A performance at Jai Thep Festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand this past February felt like a breakthrough, she said, because a crowd of people she’d never seen before showed up to watch her set at 3am. At the end, a man in the audience came up and said, “You did everything from doing nothing.”

“I’m not sure what he meant by that but I guess like…My approach to music, it doesn’t have to be a lot of layers of sound,” Linh Ha says. “Try to be minimal. Try to pay attention to the environment surrounding you, to the people and to yourself…with my music, my biggest goal is just using that to connect with people, everyone is in the same room with each other, be in this moment, pay attention.”

The downside of this is that if she plays in venues where live music is a sideshow, “it kind of hurts my musical ego.” Certain bars and clubs are uncomfortable places to perform because of that. Linh Ha’s music is not a display of isolation-in-a-crowd, as DJ performances sometimes seem to be. Nor is it a sonic representation of Varèse's lonely “inner space no telescope can reach." At the end of her performance in Chiang Mai, she breathed into the microphone, and everyone in the room started breathing to the same rhythm, bound together by sound. 

Check out Linh Ha's Facebook page for upcoming events.

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