Saskia Laroo and Warren Byrd teach Vietnamese tricks of jazz

The Amsterdam trumpet player Saskia Laroo and US-born husband, pianist/vocalist Warren Byrd are frequently invited to play, often in distant foreign countries--so often that they are generally referred to in the press as "prominent Dutch musical export product". In America, Saskia Laroo has been coined 'Lady Miles Davis of Europe' in the press for many years. However, the invitation from the Dutch embassy in Hanoi, Vietnam was among the gems of the duo's foreign tours.

On the 26th of April, they highlighted the ambassador's King's Day reception in Hanoi with their music and followed that with three concerts during the prestigious Europe Village Event on the 4th, 5th, and 6th of May. But it would not stay that way. It was said that a highly musical couple from Amsterdam was in Hanoi and two cutting-edge venues came knocking, asking them to come and play. There was an invitation to provide two master classes for the jazz department of the Vietnam National Institute of Music. The fledgling musicians would learn the intricacies of jazz from these two seasoned professionals. The Dutch embassy chanced to entreat the Institute to host a special concert in honor of the 45-year relationship between the Netherlands and Vietnam featuring Saskia and Warren with select students and faculty of the Institute in their beautiful concert hall. May 2ndwould be the day. Saskia would play a trumpet made by Adams, a Dutch-based manufacturer, specially flown in from the Netherlands for the occasion. 

The Dutch Embassy in Hanoi financed the duo’s stay and their performances in Vietnam, and arranged for a number of workshops with students from the National Music Academy. It’s aim was to promote cultural exchange between Vietnam and the Netherlands. The Performing Arts Fund NL covered the flights of the duo.

Homesickness to Hanoi

Report by Saskia Laroo

In the effort of expanding our horizons, Cultmix Foundation reguarly attends gatherings of likeminded professionals in order to find avenues to new opportunities. In this context we were lucky to meet up with and speak with Dutch Ambassador to Vietnam, Ms Trooster while she was visiting the Netherlands. It was explained to her that Warren and I are very interested in exploring local music scenes, meeting up and performing with their artists. Especially to learn as much as possible of their own music and share our knowledge with them. To our joyful surprise, I received an invitation for Duo Laroo/Byrd from our Embassy to give three concerts during Hanoi's Europe Village Event 4, 5, and 6 of May and, in addition, a performance at the Koningsdag reception on the 26th of April. Per the invitation's somewhat short notice, hard work on both sides was necessary to clinch the tour, the sterling result: 1) two more shows in music venues in Hanoi, 2) we were honored to provide two master classes for the Jazz department of the Vietnam National Institute of Music, and 3) an extra concert was organized for us to give in their concert hall together with the students and teachers especially in commendation of the 45-year relationship between Vietnam and the Netherlands. The flight costs of our tour were reimbursed by the Performing Arts Fund NL. Before leaving for Vietnam I could not imagine much of what of the country would be like but came back with bright memories and made valuable contacts during this two-week tour-- which just flew by too fast.

At first there was talk of a performance in Ho Chi Minh City, but in the end we remained solely in Hanoi, a beautiful city with a small lake in the old center. You can circle this lake; it has a special monument or two in it, namely a pagoda and a temple. Especially in the evening it becomes enchanted speckled with reflections of myriad lights and sounds of a bustling city rife with denizens of many stamps. It is extra nice on the weekend in that all roads around the lake are closed off from the many scooters and cars from Friday to Sunday. The streets bristle with many people from young to old promenading and enjoying the perimeter. A particular climbing rock is very popular with the children. And there is another monument in the water that can be reached with a beautifully illuminated bridge. There are well-attended ballroom dancing and fitness classes on the street and on the grounds by the lake. For that purpose a circle is often formed and the music comes from a speaker on wheels like a trolley, so they are walking around with it. In combination with those differently lit monuments in and around the water, the city just seems like a fairy tale.

Our first gig was for the King's reception on April 26th in the Ambassador's garden. After the honor of playing both the Dutch and Vietnamese anthems, we played background music with a very good Vietnamese band "Fingers", and later, some quiet music with Duo Laroo/Byrd.

Then, on May 2, we gave a well-attended and very successful concert in tribute to 45 years of Vietnamese relations with the Netherlands in the beautiful concert hall of the Vietnam National Institute of Music. We then performed our own compositions in various assemblies of the Vietnamese students and teachers of the jazz department of this institute. The five-year-old jazz department was founded by and led by the young, talented jazz pianist, composer, and lecturer Dr. Nguyen Manh. After this remarkable artist distingushed himself in his native country, he completed his studies abroad in Sweden. Manh as well performed a piano duo with Warren during this concert. We also played one of his compositions and a traditional Vietnamese folk song arranged by him. The concert was sponsored by the Netherlands-based Adams, manufacturers of brass and percussion. They had brought a beautiful sounding trumpet to Vietnam for me with which to play the concert.

Prior to the concert we gave a master class for the jazz students on April 27 and rehearsed also the next day with a choice selection of students and faculty for the May 2nd concert. With them, we gave the three outdoor performances on May 4, 5 and 6 as well, on a square close to the city's lake, the Ly Thai To square where a large statue stands. These performances there were for the Europe Village Event, wherein assorted European countries held stands on a “European” boulevard. There were also stands on the square behind the stage with companies that sold European products in Vietnam, including Dutch companies. But for us the best thing was that these European countries had flown in acts that gave performances to show their culture to the people in Vietnam. There were a few Eastern European folk dance ensembles, a Spanish flamenco guitarist, French beatboxers, and a Swedish deejay. To my surprise, there was also a jazz duo from Austria that consisted of a guitarist and a blond lady on vocals and trumpet! That was very special for me because I had never heard of them before.

Our concerts on the square were very much appreciated, as were the acts of the representatives of the other countries. The audience sat, listened, sang, clapped and danced along too. On Friday evening, April 4, we were the final band and on Saturday and Sunday we played around 3 pm in the afternoon. That was OK on Saturday because it was cloudy but on Sundays there came from time to time bright sun on the stage which led to people having put umbrellas in front of us. That made a big difference, but still the heat caused me to think concerning the first song "Oh, I have to take it easy, otherwise I might faint". But apparently you get used to everything because at the end of the concert I was jumping around much, and with me, the audience ranging young to old.

In addition to all these performances, we had organized gigs ourselves. The Embassy had sent us a list of clubs so that we could "network" so that our visit to Vietnam to spread Dutch art also had an additional economic motive. We received several offers and we finally managed to do two extra performances despite the short organizational period of time and complicated logistics planning.

The first was a "tiny Music Club" performance at The Hanoi Social Club on May 1. In principle, this event was held with several acts and on the roof of a trendy and alternative cafe/coffee house, run by an Australian. There was an electric piano but it was downstairs and had to be carried up two floors first, which they took on without murmuring. Once at the top it appeared that no sound came from the piano. Fortunately, as plan B, I had taken my laptop with backing tracks, but that was not necessary because the repairers came quickly, the piano was taken apart, electronic parts were replaced and our concert could take place under an attentive and enthusiastic audience.

The second performance was on May 3 at Soul Bar Hanoi, a new jazz club where we played fine acoustic jazz with our duo for an intimate and attentive audience, including the Dutch ambassador and her husband. Earlier that day we had given a second workshop for jazz students. This time, however, it was not as a Duo, but paired apart, such as I taught saxophone students and Warren attended to all other instrumentalists. Amongst other things, he was asked to demonstrate "block chords". I taught the saxophonists as many melodies of different jazz standards as possible in one-and-a-half hours and hadthem improvise. The highlight of my class was the three-part playing of "Bags Groove", which has also been posted as a video on Facebook.

Finally, on Saturday evening, May 5, our "free evening", we went to the oldest jazz club in Hanoi, the "Binh Minh's Jazz Club". Owner is saxophonist Binh Minh, who holds a session there every night and also plays along. We were just in time to "jam" two songs with this sax pioneer of Hanoi, who also played with students from the jazz department of the Vietnam National Institute of Music; I recognized one of my saxophone masterclass participants. The band had to stop so quickly because of a seemingly eternal global jazzclub obstacle, the neighbors' noise complaints.

I was actually late at the jazz club because before that, I had just stepped on stage and jammed with the Swedish DJ who performed for an enthusiastic audience at the Europe Village Event as Saturday evening's closing act. That was a nice spontaneous gig especially because the stage translator was there and also with MC-ed and danced. As the event's Vietnamese MC, she also translated the English spoken in announcements by all the European acts, including our Europe Village concerts and, with my encouragement, started to be more and more cozy with us on stage. So now, with the DJ, we had just jumped around with the tireless audience shouting rants such as "hands in the air" and so on.

But a jazz club is still the oasis and although we could only play two songs, it was nice to sit on the patio of the "Binh Minh's Jazz Club" for a spell with a cozy shock of musicians. Warren was quizzed by the music students and I was talking to saxophonist Binh Manh and my fellow female trumpet player from Austria and her husband-guitarist. Too bad, they really came to the club too late to play but luckily this trumpet lady spontaneously played some soft a-capella improvisations on my muted horn over our tables. We enjoyed that and talking about jazz in the sultry evening sky of Hanoi.

We are already homesick for Hanoi and hope to come back to Her in the near future.