For the last year my wife, Janejira, and I put on a monthly DJ night in Saigon. We called these nights Beat Kontrol.
Like most things in our life, we took a very DIY approach to Beat Kontrol — we made our own flyers, we bootstrapped any costs involved in the event and we didn’t seek out corporate sponsorship; we did not seek to earn a profit. Our focus was, and remains, playing non-commercial deep house and techno.
These are two styles of music that many people in Saigon said there was no audience for. We didn’t agree a year ago and we still don’t agree. In fact, we would argue that we have proven that statement wrong.
After the first few editions of Beat Kontrol we began to meet other DJs in Saigon. Conversations quickly moved from favorite music to a singular problem: where can a DJ in Saigon play non-commercial house and techno music to an appreciative audience?
Some DJs simply threw their hands up in the air and said “just play what people want, you can’t play what you want.” Others schemed up massive events in the vein of Ultra Music Festival or Glastonbury, complete with A-list acts and fireworks shows.
The problem as we saw it was quite simple to resolve. The music wasn’t being presented in a proper venue and in a proper way.
The proper venue would have three essential characteristics. Firstly, it needed to be intimate, rather than intimidating. There is no shortage of clubs in Saigon with eye popping lighting rigs and many of the elements of European and American style clubs.
However, for the average person these clubs are intimidating. There is an expectation to spend quite a bit of money on alcohol and become part of an artificially contrived spectacle. And hence, the focus is not on having an experience with other people based on enjoying the music.
Secondly, the proper venue would have a high quality sound system allowing listeners to hear and feel the dynamic range of the music — deep and warm bass, punchy synthesizers and snappy hi-hats — while also socializing.
This was an essential issue to resolve because nightlife in Vietnam is not focused on dancing, it is focused on socializing. Therefore, the music needed to be amplified at a volume that would allow people to hear its qualities while also interacting with each other.
Finally, the ideal venue would not put the DJ on a stage. A DJ is not a performer or a rare species to be put on display. A DJ needs to be in direct contact with the audience in order to choose the right tracks at the right time in accordance with the attitude of the audience. Therefore, we sought out a venue which would allow us to be as much a part of the dance floor and audience as possible.
In short, we felt that the perfect venue would be minimalistic, yet welcoming, one that allows the audience to interact with each other in a relaxed environment while also feeling stimulated, but not dominated, by the music.
A Rocky Start
For about six months we tried Beat Kontrol at a number of different venues. Some were intimate, but had terrible sound or poor service. Others hired special sound equipment for the night, but the venue itself lacked vibrancy.
The process of finding a proper venue wasn’t exactly inspiring. In fact, it was often disheartening and discouraging.
The process of finding a proper venue wasn’t exactly inspiring. In fact, it was often disheartening and discouraging. We had many nights of wanting to give up and stick to mixing in our living room. But, we tried and tried and tried.
In the aftermath of yet another mediocre night at a less than mediocre venue, we were invited to put on a Beat Kontrol night at Bootleg DJ Café. Little did we know Bootleg would become our new home.
Enter Bootleg DJ Cafe
If you enter Bootleg DJ Café on any given afternoon you are greeted by a smattering of people working from comfortable couches and benches. Coffees and snacks dot the tables, as well as laptops and sketch pads. Loungey trip-hop and indie dance tunes filter through the conversations and moody lighting.
Further back in the space sits a DJ booth next to a striking mural from multimedia artist Dan Nguyen, aka DMNSLYR.
As the day turns into night laptops and work are replaced with cocktails and conversations.
The DJ booth will be manned and the music shifts towards underground sounds mixed by local DJs such as Drew Tudose, also a co-owner of Bootleg, or DJs like Pe Dro, Dezz Desmond, Tue Eskerod and Nic Ford.
It is important to make note of what Bootleg does not have. There is no disco ball. There is no lighting rig. There is no dance floor. So, this may not seem like the ideal DJ venue. But although Bootleg lacks these things it has what matters most – an excellent sound system and an intimate environment.
In fact, it is because this is not a stereotypical club that DJs here are able to play music that is not typically heard in Saigon. There is no VinaHouse or EDM. The focus is on deep house, techno and tech house.
You will not hear this:
You will hear this:
And something like this:
Quantity vs Quality
It is not difficult to find a night of techno music, or any variation of house music, in Saigon. In fact, there is a saturation of it in the nightlife scene.
Unfortunately, many of these nights are put on in venues that lack a quality sound system.
Unfortunately, many of these nights are put on in venues that lack a quality sound system. Sadly, there is a tendency in Saigon for sound systems to be of mediocre quality and then overdriven, resulting in an audio experience akin to listening to a rave played back on a Victrola and then amplified 1000 times through a telephone circa 1934. Less than ideal, to say the least.
Furthermore, these nights are often in venues that are not welcoming. I can’t imagine young people today finding a dark, smelly and smoky concrete box appealing. Yes, this is how many of us from Europe and America first experience techno and house music. However, this is not Europe or America — this is 21st Century Southeast Asia and expectations are dramatically different.
Reduce to Gain Focus
When I was in university I had a writing professor who called herself a “reductionist.” She often told students, “Reduce until you find the core of the story. Then reduce more.”
This brings us to the second part of the problem to be resolved – how the music was presented.
“Reduce until you find the core of the story. Then reduce more.”
The focus of Beat Kontrol was and will always be the music. No bullshit. No smoke and mirrors. No silly videos on YouTube. No ass licking of corporate sponsors just to get a few bucks. No gilded LED lit DJ booth bejeweled with diamond encrusted corporate sponsored equipment. No funny clothes or ridiculous wigs or jiggling tits or laser hologram go-go dancers in birdcages showering champagne upon revelers documented on some attention starved idiot’s Facebook feed via Instagram. In other words, it is not your typical dance music event.
Beat Kontrol sought to reduce a dance music event to its essentials. We played music. People came and they enjoyed the music with their friends. And it worked.
One reason I say it worked is because over time we were able to build a following of people who enjoyed the night and spread the word among their friends. As it turned out, a small but dedicated following in a modest venue was much more rewarding than a large venue filled with people who will likely never return again.
Another reason it worked is because it was the natural way to solve the issue of playing deep house and techno, music typically labeled as “difficult,” in a city that everyone said had no appetite for it.
The point is this — by reducing the nonsense surrounding so many club nights in Saigon, by putting the focus on the music and a proper venue, we succeeded in doing what people told us we couldn’t do — we played deep house and techno once a month to an ever-growing audience of expats, travellers, and locals.
PS – If you missed Beat Kontrol don’t worry, you can still hear it on SoundCloud.