In 2010, Sublime Frequencies released Saigon Rock and Soul, a compilation of wartime rock ‘n’ roll tracks from Vietnamese groups with distinctly American influences. Included among them was “Đêm Huyền Diệu (Magical Night)”, a slinky, horn-packed song attributed to a young singer known as Phương Tâm, though it later turned out to be artist Connie Kim’s rendition.
Magical Nights: Saigon Surf Twist & Soul makes up for this error and then some, putting Tâm’s powerful voice and entire prolific career on full display mainly at the behest of her daughter, Hannah Hà, who knew little of the true extent of her mother’s local stardom until 2020. With the strength of the Sublime Frequencies engine behind her project (one of Hà’s first steps was to contact Saigon Rock and Soul producer Mark Gergis), Hà has since succeeded in the very worthy task of bringing to light her mother’s fascinating work. Magical Nights is worth exploring, both for the stories detailed in its 40-page booklet and its vintage sounds, remarkable in their own right.
As Hà tells us in a biographical sketch of her mother, Tâm’s music falls into what was then called “action music”, a blend of new popular styles stemming primarily from the American military presence and thus banned and buried after the reunification of Vietnam. Bringing together the 25 tracks and archival photos and news clippings of Magical Nights required Hà and Gergis to search the Vietnamese diaspora for collectors and chroniclers. That’s exactly what they did, and thoroughly: the booklet is in English and Vietnamese and includes lyrics and details on composers and arrangers, a meticulous, 60s-colored masterpiece.
Tâm’s “action music” weaves together jazz, rock, and a handful of dance styles in what ends up being an impressive range of permutations. At the front of each track is Tâm’s voice, always energized. It’s a versatile instrument: twist “Có Nhớ Đêm Nào” opens the album with a Wanda Jackson-esque attack that quickly turns to a sentimental croon over sinuous guitars. By bittersweet album closer “Thế Hãy Còn Xa Lắm”, on which she has the golden throat and poignantly dramatic flair of a true starlet, she’s demonstrated a whole stylistic spectrum. She takes on elegant, piano-laced jazz (“Buồn Lên Thành Phố”) and smoky surf rock (“Tình Mơ”), solemn boléros, and a wistful hint of the blues (“Ngày Phép Của Lính”). All the while Tâm maintains an aura of confidence and has what sounds like a lot of fun when appropriate.
It’s been more than 50 years since Tâm stepped away from the club stage, and her music still holds up. Magical Nights is the sonic portrait of a paragon of rock ‘n’ roll, Tâm sounding like some kind of ideal of a youth music icon. The occasional tonal imperfection sounds perfectly organic, thrillingly real in marking some past time and place while still sounding musically relevant. Hà is doing good work here for not only retro music fans but, more importantly, her mother. It’s to Gergis’s and Sublime Frequencies’ credit that they’ve taken the time to help by revisiting a past area and go deeper into presenting Phương Tâm’s Magical Nights.