The sun had just set when Okamoto’s took the stage at the CAMA Festival in Hanoi. We opened with “The ‘M’ Song” and about halfway through, I could see the crowd getting into it. By the end of the set, I had them speaking Japanese.
This was the fifth CAMA (Club for Art and Music Appreciation) Festival, and this year’s event was organized in part with the conservation group Flora & Fauna International. With all profit from the all-day event going to FFI, the festival raised more than $12,000 to help the cao vit gibbon and the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey, two types of endangered primates living in the north of the country.
It was great playing for such a good cause, but I have to admit it was also really cool to play in a country that doesn’t have the same kind of rock ‘n’ roll tradition that either Japan or the West has. Bob Dylan played in the southern metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City a month earlier, so it felt good to be kind of following in his footsteps.
The crowd was mixed. From what I could see, there were just as many expats as there were Vietnamese people in the audience. There were also just as many girls as there were boys. The locals seemed to take their cue from the expats in the crowd, jumping up and down during the performance and really picking up when we played a cover of The Who’s “The Kids Are Alright.” But what really got the Vietnamese kids going was when we did a cover of Run DMC’s “Walk This Way.” I had no idea they’d know the words. After that success, I tried out a call-and-response trick that tends to go down well with audiences in Japan. I taught the crowd how to say “kimochii” (feeling good) during our song “Madara” and they totally got into it!
As a musician, it’s such a rush when you can make a connection with the crowd like that. I had watched some of the Vietnamese bands earlier and I got the feeling that they have a different kind of rock culture than the one I grew up with. That might seem obvious at first, but seeing it drives the point home. One band we saw, Recycle, had members who looked really plain at first. The band had a hard rock kind of sound, but when the singer opened his mouth his vocals were so high-pitched and melodious — it was really surprising. I was told later that this could come from the language, because tones are really important in Vietnamese (there are six) and many of the words used to express feelings of warmth and happiness tend to use rising tones. Since a lot of Vietnamese lyrics describe emotions, the overall tone of their vocals can sound a bit higher. I hope with my lower tone that they didn’t think I was angry with them!
Another band that really rocked were Grrilla Step. Founded by DJ Dexter of The Avalanches fame, they’re an Australian group that includes some Pacific Islanders. The group incorporated aspects of Australian culture that I had never seen before and the band used the space differently. What I really liked was how they stretched out their songs: the musicians would play for a while, Dexter would join in and then maybe 10 minutes later the vocalist would start rapping. We also enjoyed another Australian indie band called Ball Park Music. They’re kind of new and they’re around our age (we’re all 20) as well. The bass player and backing vocalist, Jennifer Boyce, was really cool. Jennifer, if you’re reading this — tweet me up!
It was really cool to experience a festival in a different country because you can see how things are done behind the scenes. We were at the South by Southwest festival in Texas last year, but in Vietnam everything seemed way less bureaucratic and more grassroots. In Japan, things are done like clockwork. Certain tasks need to be done on schedule and when things go off schedule it can be rough.
At CAMA, though, the stage was being finished the day before the concert — even the day of the concert two giant monkey posters were hoisted onto each side of the stage. You’d think that kind of last-minute planning would cause chaos in Japan, but at CAMA everything worked. It’s kind of like how when we ventured out into downtown Hanoi, there were no traffic lights and tons of motorbikes. You’re just supposed to cross the street and the traffic will drive around you. When I first saw a Vietnamese woman crossing the street in this way, I thought she was trying to kill herself! But everything worked, the traffic went around her like it was supposed to. When the band and I finally tried crossing the road ourselves, everything went smoothly — just like the festival.
At the end of our set we played “Run Run Run.” Our drummer, Reiji, threw his comb out into the crowd and a bunch of girls fought over it amid the applause. I’m really excited to see how rock ‘n’ roll evolves in Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia, and I hope that next time we go back there, it’ll be big news — as big as Dylan.
Okamoto’s will host a concert at Akasaka Blitz, Tokyo, on July 28 featuring Dragon Ash. They will begin a nationwide tour on Sept. 10 at Yokohama Baysis in Kanagawa Prefecture. The band release the single “Yokubou wo Sakebe!!!” (“Shout Your Desire!!!”) on Aug. 3. The new single will be the end theme to the animated TV series “Naruto: Shippuden” from July 7.