In the rhythm

To friends Paul Tonkes is known for his big love of techno. To the niche community of electronic music he is recognised as the co-founder of Heart Beat Saigon, who boast sounds from minimalist Detroit grooves to energetic Euro tech house and help pave the way for a techno culture in Vietnam.

By Story: Duong Nguyen. Photos provided by Paul Tonkes on April 09,2015 06:02 PM

In the rhythm

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? What are you doing and what brought you to Vietnam?

Paul Tonkes
Paul Tonkes

After working for several years as a leasing and asset manager in retail real estate in the Netherlands then spending a year in Bangkok, an ‘accidental’ job offer came to me through a friend to work at Becamex. I was invited for a three-day trip to HCMC to meet up with the team and discuss how the work would be, and I said to myself ‘Why not?’ I come from Holland, a small country, and as you can see the scale of real estate development here is impressive and it’s been exciting to be part of that.

My move here was not scheduled and during my first six months I still very much focused on my life in Bangkok, but then I realised it was not going anywhere so I decided to focus on here or I had better go back. I obviously decided to stay, and life has been getting better and I’ve built up a social life. You can say that, after five years, I’m very much rooted in HCMC and it would be very difficult to just leave.

What was the inspiration behind you starting Heart Beat Saigon?

I met Chris Wolter, a DJ from Germany, and we became friends. We have one thing in common: we love the same kind of music, which is techno, and at that time we missed the techno culture in Europe. We thought we could organise something in HCMC and maybe just have fun. We could listen to our own music and maybe see more people listen to the music. So we started slowly with Heart Beat. We got initial funding from the Cultural Fund of the German Consulate, which helped us in organising our first events. Since then we’ve had a partnership with various businesses and organisations and Heart Beat turned two last December.

If you could use three words to describe Heart Beat Saigon, they would be …?

Our tagline ‘Underground body music’ is what it is all about.

In the rhythm

When and where did you hold your first event?

Our first event took place in Red Bar on December 15, 2012. It’s always fun to do something for the first time in HCMC. I think the event was really busy; we attracted at least 500 people. It was a very good night and it motivated us a lot. We did it once and we just had to continue.

We started regular small events at Queen Bar later, with DJ tAKa and his wife Mie. This was slowly becoming an incubator for the underground scene of electronic music, up until the time Queen Bar had to close. We have recently moved to The Observatory in District 4, with an event featuring Italian DJ Marco Effe.

Who is currently in the Heart Beat crew?

We have Chris Wolter as DJ, Eric from Sweden as VJ, and B.A.X or Bách, a local artist known for his House and Deep House style.

So you’re the guy behind the scenes then?

Yes, I am (laughs). I’m behind the scenes and also I’m doing a lot of marketing and networking with international DJs from Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Bangkok, to get them to come here.

What big names have appeared at your events?

DJ Marco Effe from Italy
DJ Marco Effe from Italy

We have a collective of international DJs from Germany, Thailand, France, and Vietnam. Previous guest DJs have included Emanuel (US), Hair Emmrich (Germany), Silvio Marquardt and Albee (Germany), and, of course, Marco Effe from Italy. We were very lucky to have them.

What makes you most proud about Heart Beat Saigon and what do you want to achieve in the future?

I’m very satisfied with the fact that after two years we are now established. I can feel it because now we don’t have to put too much effort into making an event. People are waiting for us; they expect us to make a new event soon. It used to be different.

One of the headliners in Heart Beat used to say, ‘Everything is like in Europe but the crowd is even better’. That was a big compliment for us.

For the future, we want to have a fan base that is big enough to hold an event every week with international DJs. That should be our goal.

We also would like to see more local DJs and local Vietnamese techno producers. That is why this year we would like to hold some production workshops to grow the community as well as potential local artists. You need events but you also need more people to produce and release music on our labels and international labels, to get recognition for the music scene in Vietnam, which is currently not on the international radar.

What do you think about the music scene in HCMC?

We are seeing booming interest in electronic music among young people and we enjoy being part of the scene. There are more Vietnamese in the audience. We now have young loyal fans and these are the people we need to build on.

Who can we expect at your next event?

On June 5 we will have Etapp Kyle from Ben Klock’s label Klockworks, so stay tuned.

That all sounds exciting. One last question - Do you have any advice for new expats who have just arrived in town?

Don’t tell anyone too loudly as I don’t want everyone coming here (laughs), but if you talk about cities, this is maybe the best place on Earth.

My advice is take your time and be patient, especially with the language. If you don’t manage to learn it at the beginning, just keep learning and don’t be frustrated. Knowing a little bit about the language certainly helps.

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