A band of ten (From left to right) Back row: Quang Nguyen, Tung Mai, Duy Le, Vu Nguyen, Nam Vu Hoang. Seated: Linh Nguyen, Yen Mai, Van Nguyen, Nga Phan and Tuyen Nguyen (not in picture).
From their band name, one could assume that VietSpirit’s performances are in Vietnamese. While this is true to some extent, the ten-piece band has quickly distinguished itself with their willingness and flexibility to sing in other languages that suit the theme of any particular event they happen to be appearing at.
Since forming late last year, the band has performed a range of material on a variety of stages, with a recent gig seeing them add an 11-minute epic to their repertoire.
SixDegrees sat down with Yen Mai and Vu Nguyen to hear about their spontaneous origins, the symbolism behind their songs and how they manage to learn to sing in different languages.
How did the band start?
Mai: All band members knew each other prior to the creation of band. One of the band members was my flatmate; at home he played the guitar and I sang. Then the other band members started to join like Vu, his wife and the rest. But it was only for fun. Our band was created after the first time we performed at the Colourful Espoo event last December.
So, are you saying that the band was created “spontaneously”?
Mai: It was created spontaneously because of that event. Even at that time we didn’t think we would become a band; it was more like just playing music, just for fun. Then, people kept asking us to perform, so we had to prepare ourselves for event after event. And, after every event we stick more together and became more solid. Also, because we don’t have our family here, us getting together to sing and play our instruments gives us the sense of home.
Do you sing only in Vietnamese or in other languages as well?
Mai: When we formed our band we didn’t aim to sing in one language. The language of our performance depends on the demand, whatever the event organisers and audience wants.
Nguyen: In our first performance the audiences were more English-speaking, or more international, so we sang in English for the Christmas atmosphere, and also in Finnish. Then the Lunar New Year event was about our Vietnamese culture, so we sang in Vietnamese. Our last performance was at a Russian event at Caisa cultural centre; we sang in Russian.
That’s interesting! How did you learn to sing in different languages?
Nguyen: Nam was the one in touch with the Russian community in Finland; he lived in Russia for 16 years, so he speaks Russian fluently. He convinced us to perform in Russian. So, we could learn how to sing in a language that we do not know, as long as there is someone who could tell us how to pronounce it. My wife in the beginning rejected singing in Russian, but later on she tried to pronounce it and now she sings in Russian everywhere and all the time – in the bathroom, when she is working on her computer, even though she doesn’t understand it.
Mai: It does take some time, but not long, I just keep listening to YouTube songs for a week and then it kind of gets into my head.
Nguyen: It is interesting to learn and sing in many languages.
Tell me about the instruments you use.
Nguyen: Out of the ten members, at least seven can play one instrument and some play two or three. Nam, for example, plays the piano and guitar; I play the guitar and Cajon. Every instrument has a function, some of the members play at the treble level, high tone range, and some play at the bass level, low tone range, and this range is what keeps the rhythm.
Mai: I have to synchronise myself with how Vu and Nam play their instruments, so I go on YouTube to listen to the sound of their instruments, make notes, then sing according to these notes. It takes a lot of time and effort.
Nguyen: It took two days to just write down these notes.
How long have you been playing instruments?
Mai: I played the piano ever since I was five.
Nguyen: I played the guitar since I was 17. I took a guitar course for the first five months and then later on I learned it by myself. So, during a year, little by little, with the help of my friends and our band performances, I learned to play more instruments. I think we all learned to play instruments by ourselves, even if we took courses earlier.
Mai: Actually one of the band’s goals is to help us improve our musical skills and instruments.
Nguyen: One of my Finnish friends said that if you don’t know how to play a guitar then you are not Vietnamese, because he has many Vietnamese friends that play an instrument.
I saw the video of your Vietnamese song performance at Caisa recently. Are Vietnamese songs symbolic, and does this feature in your song choices?
Mai: Yeah, some of the Vietnamese songs are symbolic, but we perform according to the need of the event. We know that the Vietnamese people would want to listen to something with deep meaning, but, for example, when we performed on Valentine’s Day, the audience was more young and fresh, so we performed more lively music.
Nguyen: We didn’t plan to choose a symbolic song for our performances, but the event was about the Vietnamese culture so we picked a really good, yet difficult song. The Vietnamese song performance video you watched is by a very famous Vietnamese composer, Trịnh Công Sơn. He is one of the most popular and famous composers in Vietnam and that song is his masterpiece.
Mai: The meaning of this song is actually very nice. It is about how things are constantly transforming and that nothing is permanent; everything is always changing. The song resembles these transformations with the four seasons: spring, summer, autumn and winter.
Nguyen: He wrote this song for his love. At first he described the good feeling he had towards her like spring, then in winter it becomes really sad, leaving the lover.
Mai: The good thing about the song is that even though it has a sad part, it ends on a good note, like a positive and happy note, which is the reincarnation stage. So yeah, it’s like after the winter there is the spring again!
What are your future plans?
Nguyen: We are planning to set some directions and present more of our Vietnamese culture through performing some traditional songs and using traditional instruments. We will produce good quality videos through our own YouTube channel, so we could introduce ourselves to the world and in particular to Finland. At the same time, we will continue playing music on the weekends.
Mai: There will probably be upcoming events in the summer, and we are always open to invitations to perform.