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Quyen Van Minh
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Unchained melody

Sep 27, 2002

MinhFeatures - The sound seemed to come from another planet. But for 14-year-old Quyen Van Minh, tucked safely beneath his blankets in his Hanoi bedroom, the music crackling through his broken-down radio was mesmerizing. The year was 1968 and the war in Vietnam had well and truly turned. North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive had stunned the Americans, who would begin to withdraw from the country within the next year. Still, in the north of the country, anything even remotely connected to the West was outlawed-and would continue to be frowned upon for most of the next decade.

But young Minh just couldn’t help himself. He was caught up in the magic that beamed north into his bedroom every night

via the BBC. He knew he could get into trouble for listening, but he didn’t care. Jazz had claimed another disciple.

“In those days, to listen to American radio or BBC radio was not good” Minh explains by telephone from Hanoi. “But I had never heard it before, I didn’t know what it was. I had just found this music. My father would say, ‘If you listen to this jazz one more time you will go to prison’ But I talked to my father for a while and he understood.

“The first thing I heard was Benny Goodman, so the first thing I thought about jazz was swing. But then I heard Charlie Parker’s Now’s The Time and I remember that very clearly”.

As a youngster learning first the guitar and then the clarinet, Minh would copy the sounds he heard on the radio and later – much later – he would turn to jazz as a career, picking up a saxophone, becoming the first Vietnamese jazz musician to tour oversea (Paris in 1996), and founding Vietnam’s first jazz venue – The Jazz Club (Hanoi in 1997).

This weekend, Minh’s long journey takes him to the 12th Macau International Jazz Festival where his Red River Jazz Band will join three other bands – the Storyville Stompers Brass Band (from the United States), Aires Tango (Argentina and Italy), and the Janos Nagy Trio (Hungary)- for two nights at the Macau Tower Auditorium (the Storyville Stompers will also perform two street shows in the town centre).

In the beginning though, Minh’s efforts to learn to play were a struggle, despite coming from a family with a musical background. His father played guitar and sax at weddings and parties, and his mother sang traditional songs for the Voice of Vietnam Radio. Minh’s elder sister gained a place to study viola at the Hanoi National Conservatory of Music but there was no money left in the kitty for Minh; he had to fend for himself.

“We had no recordings or anything,” says Minh, 49. “ We would sit around by the radio and learn it all by ear. Later, we went to school but all the start we didn’t really know what we were doing. So I would listen and listen and just try it out.”

In 1970, Minh’s talents were discovered while he was playing at school and he was invented to join an army band, stationed about 100km from Hanoi at Tay Nguyen. It was there, he says, that he received his first formal musical training. But it wasn’t to last long. The pay was insufficient to support his family and, after just two months, he was back on Hanoi playing on the streets and at parties.

Later, he played more classical Vietnamese music with bands in Ha Tay province, near Hanoi, but his burning desire was always to play jazz. “When the Americans left [in 1973], it was okay to start playing jazz,” says Minh. “But no one would listen to it anyway. There was no jazz in Vietnam then. So when I’d play, they would say, ‘Oh, this is crazy music. It’s not good music, it’s crazy.’ But I still kept going.”

About 20 years down the track, Minh was still playing in hotel bars, where he would throw the odd jazz riff into traditional Vietnamese songs, and touring as a back-up musician with a theatre troupe. But jazz was finally finding an audience in his country.

“People slowly started to listen and like what they were hearing,” he says. By the late 1990s, Minh was ready to take a chance and open his own club. Minh and his Red River Jazz Band usually play a selection of Charlie Parker tunesm some bossa nova, samba, some Antonio Carlos Jobim, a touch of Chick Corea ans some of their own songs – and it was a gig at the jazz club one night that les to him being invites to play in Macau.

“The music was being played in hotels but there is still no other jazz club in Vietnam apart from mine,” says Minh. “Pedro [Ascensao, Macau festival organizer] came into my jazz club one night to listen and we ended up talking afterwards. He told me about the festival in Macau and so I gave him a copy of my CD. That was just so he could hear some of my own tunes.”

Ascensao obviously liked what he heard. 12th Macau International Jazz Festival; Tonight – Red River Jazz Band, Aires Tango; 9pm, Macau Tower Auditorium. Sunday – Janos Nagy Trio. Storyville Stompers Brass Band; 9pm, Macau Tower Auditorium. Street shows – tomorrow, 4pm, the storyville Stompers Brass Band walk and play from Senado Square to the St Paul’s ruins. From 7pm, the Stompers provide the music before and in between displays of the Macau Fireworks Fiesta 2002 at the Macau Tower Piazza. Tickets for tonight and Sunday are 71717171 or visit For more information visit

South China morning post Features - Sep 27 2002

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