Far Eastbound (and Not So Down): A Madison Musician Performing in Asia

Brett Newski

Brett Newski is a Madison musician who, upon his band The Nod ceasing operations this summer with a great show opening for Flatfoot 56, ended up on the other side of the world in Asia performing concerts and traveling with just his guitar and few belongings. You can follow his wanderings and adventures on his travel/music blog, Homeless in Narnia. He was kind enough to share via email some of his adventures for Musical:Mondiale, a feature that incorporates the world around us and music within it. He’ll be back in Madison for Christmas with a CD release in December. Thanks Brett! And safe travels (don’t get kidnapped)!

My travels were based around the shows I booked in Saigon, Hanoi, Luang Prabang (Laos), Pai (Thailand), Bangkok, Manila (Philippines), and Hong Kong. I played about 30 shows total. Some at venues, but others in makeshift venues. My favorite show was on a rooftop in Hong Kong for 15 people, unplugged.

Couchsurfing made the megaAsia tour economically possible. It also led to many intimate house shows and sometimes spontaneous sets on the street. Many of the shows were played to audiences who had never heard folk or rock n’ roll music.

Vietnam has fueled songwriting inspirado indeed.  It’s a chaotic city, but it’s a controlled chaos. My own head is chaotic. There are always words colliding and stories manifesting. It reminds me of Saigon traffic sometimes. It’s not always healthy, but some good songs can come out of that Saigon smog.

After traveling, I pulled out a map and put my thumb on Saigon. It was my favorite spot on the trek and cost of living for a writer/musician is possible. Vietnam is kind of a blank canvas as far as music goes. The country opened its doors to foreign investment only 15 years ago, so the scene is still forming. The pavement is still wet. Rock n’ roll hasn’t been around all that long yet. Vietnamese crowds really eat up new ideas and musical styles and are stoked to be in front of a live band. The city is fully alive. Music every night. It doesn’t matter if it’s a weekday or weekend, people are out in force. It’s ripe.
The venues in Vietnam are a bit more limited, which makes each one more cherished by the people supporting arts & culture. I was asked to play a Folk Festival in Hanoi (Vietnam Capital). The city is ancient looking. Jam packed with motorbikes pushing through tiny French colonial streets with little cafes on each corner. The French ruled Vietnam for 100 years. Of course baguettes are everywhere.
The show was packed to the rafters. As it was my first time playing in Asia, people really had no idea who I was, but they showed up anyway. All 300 of them. This was the first folk music night the venue ever had. There is not yet a smoking ban, so there’s a smog that sits under the room’s lights like the “smells like teen spirit” music video.
The Vietnamese get excited about rock n’ roll, even if many of them don’t understand the lyrics. It’s about the energy and attitude for them. I put a mic on the floor and turned the bass up all the way. Stomped my foot next to the mic for this massive boom percussion effect. They thought that was neat. One Vietnamese man told me I must have a really strong leg. People clapped along and chanted stuff like they were at a high school basketball game. It was all very positive and the audience was down for anything I threw at them. At one point I just made up an improv song thanking the opening acts just to see what would happen. The expats got it, the locals pretended they understood. It was all good.
People also get less shitfaced in Vietnam than in the States, so there is an attentiveness in the crowd even in the later stages of the night. It’s a great place to play and contribute to a scene in need. If you’re a musician, come here, look me up and let’s play a show.
Brett Newski
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