Triple OG

Tri Minh is deep in his set at Saigon’s Arcan club, bathed in laser lights and fog with a wall of electronics in looming front of him. He’s performing a live set of ruthless techno, reaching into crevices between the stacks of machines to twist knobs, play keys, and tap out rhythms while the crowd shuffles along intently. The set is geared strictly towards the dancefloor, a purely analog affair with very little trace of acoustic instrumentation or Vietnamese influence. But this is just one of his musical lanes. He’s been a face of electronic music since the early 2000s, before it was even really a thing in the country. He mixes experimental sounds with classical and traditional Vietnamese music, composes and produces tracks for V-pop artists, teaches production classes, and more.

Tri was born into a musical family in Hanoi 51 years ago. His late father was a well-known composer, first in the era of propaganda songs, then in the 90s as part of the movement of romantic songs. “When the communists took over Saigon, they regarded romantic music as weak, so it was discouraged unless it was about soldiers. Then in the early 90s, it came back,” he says from his home studio. His mother is a traditional string instrument player and his sister is Tang Lam, a pop star whose career started when she was 12 years old. “I’m kind of the black sheep of the family,” he laughs. It was clear from a very young age that he would be a musician as well, and he was enrolled in a music conservatory at the age of seven. When he got older became part of the local jazz scene and by the late 90s, he started exploring computer music.

The first electronic music Tri ever heard was from the Soviet Union, which he found at the market. “There was a group called Zodiac, it was famous electronic synthesizer music from what’s now Georgia. Very influenced by Kraftwerk,” he says. “There were a lot of Vietnamese workers in the Eastern Bloc, and when the communist system there collapsed, those workers came back and brought along vinyl.” Pretty quickly afterward he found Western electronic music as well. He says that in the late 80s and the early 90s, Vietnam was pretty open, following the lead of that era’s Soviet policy. After the Soviet collapse, Vietnam started aligning with Chinese policy and withdrew again in the early 2000s. “But we were already opened so they couldn’t really close it again. We were already playing a lot of jazz, which is very Western. Then there were big waves of pop from the West, but mostly from Germany. Then American bands like the Beatles. So we found a way.”

When he got access to a computer in the late 90s, Tri started making very simple electronic music, basically just reproducing other people’s acoustic music with software. But in the early 2000s, international institutes started bringing artists from around the world to the country, who in turn brought new ideas and equipment along with them. “Electronic music had a very narrow and small audience at the time, mostly students learning foreign languages,” he recalls. “There were also the discotheque DJs who wanted to explore something different. But when the institutions organized something, they’d bring large crowds.” At this point, Tri was producing a basic fusion of computer sounds and straightforward traditional music. Over time, that interplay between the two would get more intricate and experimental.

Vietnam’s economic struggles in the late 2000s led the to opening of borders again, and locals were already gaining access to the outside world because of the internet, according to Tri. “Most of the Westerners had left because of the economy, so the cities were quieter and lots of stuff closed down. That made it easier to have shows,” he says. Facebook had been allowed and then blocked a few times already, but by 2010, social media was wide open (as far as culture goes) ushering in a new world of sounds and visuals.

Tri built a name for himself as an artist who combined electronic and traditional musics and was traveling regularly. But he started to feel like it was expected of him and by the 2010s he became jaded. “I recognized a kind of racism where people abroad expected an Asian electronic musician to play with some kind of traditional music, whether it be in samples or actual musicians,” he says. “I played at an established techno club in Berlin where I brought traditional musicians and had a very good time. But I started to wonder: Why is it necessary?”

To push back against this, Tri reoriented himself and his music. He still combines the music of his heritage into his experimental work but in less obvious ways. “I take inspiration from traditional music in spirit, not actual instrumentation. I’ll mimic the scales, and notes, and flavors,” he explains. “I want to create new things, rather than replay something.”

These days, there’s a new generation of producers drawing inspiration from their roots to create something new, and he’s happy to see it. He points to the homegrown dance music vinahouse, and says that the genre’s use of Vietnamese elements makes it special. “They fly vinahouse DJs to huge clubs in the UK and Europe and they’re full of only Asian or Vietnamese people,” he says. “When I toured Europe, it was mostly European audiences.” He also points to the use of traditional sounds in local pop music and underground electronic music as well, which he’s fascinated byβ€”but follows up with a warning: “It’s easy to become an ‘Asian DJ.’ If you want to use traditional music, do it. But be creative. Create your own identity, that’s what’s most important.”