He also has many students. As a drum instructor, he currently sees about 20 students a week, ranging in age from six to 60, (not including the 78-year-old man he once helped rock out).
Tan sees many bands. His home doubles as a practice studio with three rooms for rent, which are almost always fully booked each week with the over 20 bands that come in and out. Of the bands that rent practice space, about two-thirds are Vietnamese and one-third are foreign, from Japan, Korea, Eastern Europe and America. He has only one price for his students and bands, though, and that price hasn’t changed much since he started teaching in 1983 and renting out his space in 2000.
He has also played in many bands. From his first gig in 1976 at the Youth Theatre when he had to step in for the drummer who was too drunk to play, to the early days of Hanoi’s most famous rock band Dai Bang Trang (White Eagle) in the late 1980s. From his collaborations with Hanoi’s leading jazz musician Quyen Van Minh to the wedding party disco he played “to survive, to feed my passion and feed my family”, it would seem that Tan has touched, in some form or other, every note in the history of post-war Hanoi rock.
But what Tan has the most of is the “human friendship and passion” he describes as integral to making music. He is a man who wants to be around people, a person who wants to chat, who’s quick to crack a joke and laugh at it, and who wants everyone else to as well. He’s a man that wants to feel, deeply and genuinely, that which his students and his friends wish to express through their music.
If You Build It…
“In the late 1970s and 1980s, playing music and just picking up an instrument was a luxury,” he explains. “It was very underground.”
At the time there was little exposure to music from overseas and no technology. For music lovers such as Tan, it was difficult to share his interest with other people.
“I thought the only way to approach some kind of community and always be around music was to teach people,” he continues. “I opened a space so people would come and keep doing it.”
Between 1995 and 2005 Tan organised and promoted national rock concerts that brought bands from the north, middle and south of Vietnam all around the country. It was a struggle. Gaining permission for the performances was tough until 2000, when the Ministry of Culture organised a huge concert to celebrate the new millennium.
“The part for live music was lacking in interesting stuff for youngsters,” says Tan. “So they called me for help.”
It worked. He brought six bands to the August Revolution Square (opposite the Ly Thai To statue) for what turned into a legendary show. The bands played from 12am to 6am.
“Since that time, I feel like rock is not underground any more,” he says. “It’s easier for it to breath now; people watch it officially and go to it with an easy feeling. It’s like a kind of door opened.”
Heart and Soul
Arguably more than anyone else, Tan has seen and felt the changing landscape of rock music in Hanoi. His home, formerly on Hang Bac (hence the nickname Tan Hang Bac) and now in an alley off of Ton Duc Thang, is a hub of music, full of people playing it and talking about it. Old-timers come around to shoot the breeze, nascent musicians come to pick up their first drumsticks.
At 54 years old, having lived through those difficult post-war years when every concert was a struggle, it would be understandable for Tan to look down on the younger generation of musicians who have it easier today. And though he is wary of those with “perspectives mutated by desire” and those who “are distracted by the shadows of art and rock music itself”, there is not a glimmer of jadedness on his face when asked about the future of rock music in this city.
“People have different talents and different senses of music,” he says, “but I love to feel the good vibe from the youngsters.”
And it’s no wonder. When Tan is around, good vibes seem to be contagious.