BackArts & Culture » Music & Art » The Music Man: Mark Gergis' Old-School Saigon Soul

The Music Man: Mark Gergis' Old-School Saigon Soul

When he was young, Mark Gergis – like most American teenagers – spent a lot of time sifting through records (or cassettes or CDs or iTunes...whatever your generation did). It was the 1980s, and there was a plethora of good American music available, from 60s garage bands to punk rock, psychedelia, experimental and new wave.

Eventually, a younger, music-obsessed Gergis ran through the entire canon of American music. But instead of revisiting old favorites, the composer, performer, producer and international audio-visual archivist started looking elsewhere for the same first-listen thrill that had captivated him in his earlier days.

“I try to keep that thrill going no matter how old I am or jaded I get,” the Hanoi-based Gergis tells Saigoneer.

Years later, Gergis is still on a mission to uncover new sounds. The man behind Saigon Rock & Soul: Vietnamese Classic Tracks 1968-1974, a compilation of 1960s and 70s Vietnamese rock released in 2010, is back in Saigon tomorrow evening at The Observatory to play a mix of rare Southeast Asian, African and Middle Eastern tracks.

While album-hunting is not an uncommon hobby, Gergis has made it into a career. Thanks, in part, to his Iraqi father, who often played Middle Eastern music in the Gergis household, the multi-talented music producer now curates different sounds from around the globe and presents them to western audiences through his American-based label Sublime Frequencies.

“In my latter-20s, I made my first trip to the Middle East, to Syria and Lebanon, which took things to the next level,” he says. “As I got deeper in [to international music], the collecting became more specialized.”

Omar Souleyman's 2013 music video for 'Warni Warni'.

It was on one of these trips that Gergis serendipitously discovered the music of Omar Souleyman. A Syrian wedding singer whose live recordings were already ubiquitous throughout the country, Souleyman went on to achieve international success after Sublime Frequencies released a 2007 album of his work to western audiences.

“We got to witness him become a real phenomenon,” Gergis says of Souleyman, who has since toured in Europe and North America. “He was essentially the only musician and cultural export from Syria at that time, and it was the first time that an Arab singer has broken through on that particular level to that particular audience.”

Following the success of Souleyman and the rise of the Syrian conflict, Gergis began to focus on Southeast Asia. As a former resident of San Francisco, the music producer already had a sense of Cambodian, Thai and Laotian music during the 1960s and 70s. It wasn't until 2013, however, that Gergis visited Vietnam for the first time and began to explore in-depth the music of decades past.

I was always curious as to whether there had been a vital rock and roll scene in Vietnam, as there had been in neighboring countries during the 60s and 70s,” he explains. “When I could, I would visit local Vietnamese shops and try out CDs and tapes...They were cool, but most of them were long, languid ballads – some very beautiful with great arrangements and instrumentation – but nothing really stood out to me as being heavier than that.”

Still determined to find Vietnam's rock and roll, Gergis continued his search for old recordings. Most had been thrown away years before, however the music producer found a treasure trove in Rick Foust, a collector with a similarly interest in Vietnamese music. During the late 80s, Foust stockpiled boxes of cassette tapes featuring Vietnamese music, much of which would later be used on Gergis' Saigon Rock & Soul.

Sublime Frequencies' 2010 album Saigon Rock & Soul: Vietnamese Classic Tracks 1968-1974.

“It turns out that Vietnam had an amazing music scene in the 60s and 70s...Saigon groups managed to create some incredibly soulful music, and some of the heaviest rock and roll to come from the region at the time,” he says.

Whether it's compilations of vintage music, radio recordings or single-artist full-length albums, Gergis is just happy to see western listeners taking to international music in a real way.

For Sublime Frequencies, it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. The label, which launched in 2003, seemed to come on the scene right as western listeners were beginning to regard international music as more than just a novelty.

“People were ready to hear sounds from elsewhere, but not in a fusion-y world beat way that international music had been presented in the west for decades,” Gergis says. “There was an intended genuineness and rawness in what we were releasing in the early 2000s on Sublime Frequencies that tapped into something for people.”

Leading up to tomorrow's gig, Gergis is excited to bring some of Saigon's rock and soul back to the city that created it.

“Playing a few tracks from 1960s Saigon will be a particular treat for me, bringing the music back to its place of origin,” he says.

You can listen to the full album below: 

 [Top photo courtesy of Mark Gergis]

Related Articles:

 -Old Songs and Album Covers from Vietnam's Musical 'Golden Era'

Can Vinyl Make a Comeback in Vietnam?

[Photos] A Look Back At The "Golden Age" Of Vietnamese Music

[Top photo couresty of Mark Gergis]

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