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Hem Hem Lights up Saigon With the Electrifying Riffs of Japanese Ska

The cheerful ska tunes combined with insanely energetic and quirky dance moves packed every inch of the indoor space of Indika with heat and pure joy.

A few months ago, Saigon residents and visitors from all over the world gathered for Hem Hem Saigon’s live ska music performance, losing themselves in the music and the energy. Some feet were inevitably stepped on multiple times, and everyone was soaked in sweat, but they couldn't care less. People who couldn’t fit into the indoor stage were still rocking and dancing to the music together at the outside sitting area.

To this day I still count my first experience of attending a Hem Hem concert as one of the most memorable things I did while staying in Saigon. The time I spent with Hem Hem, a Japanese ska band based in the city, was truly something different from any of my past music performances. It was mind-blowing, to say the least, to see so many people who come from all walks of life — with different occupations, nationalities, age, and styles of fashion — just congregate and unite in that moment with the medium of happy ska music.

The Saigoneer team met the band one night in early March at a local community center where they were having a practice session.

Hem Hem Saigon was formed in 2012, starting with three Japanese expats in Saigon who shared a passion for music. Over the years, members have come and gone, but Abe, the lead singer (also known as "spices") has remained as the backbone of the band the whole time. From starting with just three friends who loved music, the band has now transformed into a full-blown ska orchestra band with 14 members. It includes standard band instruments like drum, bass, guitar and keyboard, along with special brass instruments like the trumpet, trombone, saxophone and flute.

The founders started with ska in 2012 simply because they liked it. It’s fun music that can cheer up anyone — who can possibly deny that? In their early years, the band was influenced by, and covered songs of, the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra. “We now play ska, rock, reggae, and basically any nice fun music in general,” Abe said. “We just want to make fun music that makes it irresistible for people to dance and jump with us.”

For the uninitiated, ska is a special genre of music that originated in Jamaica in the 1950s. It was first influenced by American R&B, but has gone through many transformations, taking in elements of jazz, punk and rock. Japan's version of the genre is called J-ska with the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra being the biggest and most successful act of the country's ska scene.

After the practice session, which turned into more a private concert for the Saigoneer team, the band gracefully invited us to their little hangout at an izakaya they go to every time they have practice. As the "whiskey master," Yosuke, who plays the tenor saxophone, made us glasses of whiskey soda with his original "golden ratio recipe" and we devoured Japanese izakaya delicacies together, we had the privilege of getting to know a little bit more about the band.

Everyone in the group has a day job, as obviously a ska band is not what brought them to Saigon all the way from Japan. To just list a few, Gammy the drummer works as a general director for Kirin Vietnam; Megumi, who plays the keyboard, is a sales manager at Mitsubishi Elevator Vietnam; Maaya, who plays the trumpet, is an independent spa specialist; and Leo, the bongo player, is a founder/CEO of BPO.

When asked about his life as a full-time CEO running a consulting firm and also a lead performer in a band, Abe simply answered: “We work hard and play hard! Enjoying the band life makes us fresh and energizes us with more power for work.”

The band members’ families, some of whom were at first surprised or puzzled by the seemingly random choice to join a ska band in Vietnam, ultimately gave in, joining the crowd by supporting and enjoying their music.

When asked about the future of the band, the members all shared the same vision: “More people smile, sing, dance and jump with us.” Hem Hem Saigon, as a band, has become a medium that connects people. That’s also what the founding members originally had in mind when they first came up with the name. Hem, meaning a small street in Vietnamese, represents their value of connecting: linking people to people, people to place, and idea to idea.

“We especially connect people to people really well,” Abe said with a playful smile. “We had people meeting each other at our performances eventually getting married. It was our pleasure to be invited to play at a number of wedding parties in Saigon.”

The band also connects a lot of bars and venues with their loyal audience. With “No Rice, No Life” as one of their main concepts, they are currently working with Pasteur Street Brewing Company to make a Rice Beer “hem★hem IPA.” The release party, originally scheduled for May, is now indefinitely postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak, but this is a band to keep an eye once we're all allowed to go outside again.

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