Sisters from Vietnam, making changes in the music scene!
From London, to New York, from Croatia to Vietnam, sisters around the world are connecting, bonding and sharing their experiences and knowledge within the music industry. If anyone were to be super happy and excited about it, you know we are! In this new interview, we present you with an awesome organisation from Hanoi, Vietnam - SYS Sister Sounds - that is running some interesting activities for womxn and non-binary people! We’ve spoken with Margaret Tra, the founder of SYS Sister Sounds, and you can read all about how she is something like this, and what it looks like across the globe, in the interview below.
What is SYS Sister Sounds?
SYS Sister Sounds is an organisation that runs workshops for womxn and non-binary people, currently based in Hanoi, Vietnam. The concept behind the organisation was to create a safe space for Asian womxn and non-binary people to learn, create and have a deeper understanding of how to earn an income in the creative/music industry. We do this through our #Phothegirls DJ Workshops, Radio/Postcast, and E-Book writing, as well as our new series The Mental Gym, where we will run workshops centred around mental health, and highlighting the importance of speaking out about it in Vietnam. These creative workshops are the first of their kind here, aimed at womxn and non-binary people, and have provided a platform for them to freely express themselves.
2. What motivated you to start doing this, why did you feel the need to do it and how was it in the beginning?
I grew up with Asian parents, but was born in Australia. Growing up, I knew it was really tough to tell my parents I wanted to be something creative. I remember loving art, and my mum commented that I would never make money off that. From then on, that’s when I thought I’d never make ‘money’ in the creative world so I concentrated on more money-orientated jobs. This is what it is like for a lot of women in Asian cultures. Myself, I could either be a doctor, lawyer or a pharmacist. I still rebelled a bit, and studied journalism, but I learnt as I got older that - whilst still being respectful to my parents - I still had to do what made me happy. That’s kind of what started this concept; I wanted to teach Asian womxn and non-binary people that they, too, can earn a living from the creative world, despite what is expected of us. Yes, I know I am privileged because I was offered so many tools and workshops in Australia and throughout my travels, but that’s why I came up with the concept. I have over 8 years of experience in the music industry, and I just knew that this is something I wanted to give back to the Asian community: to give something back to my culture and roots.
It all started about a year ago, when I started with Boss Lady Workshops. This is a workshop on how to make money in the creative and music industry for women in Vietnam. The first one I held was actually in Hanoi, and 20 Vietnamese women attended. It was overwhelming! Whilst shy in the beginning, eventually they all mingled, got comfortable, and had a ton of questions for me! Whilst they learnt and shared knowledge, a few of the women even ended up working with each other in a business capacity. I then took this concept to Amsterdam, London and Berlin. I was doing it out of my Stimulate Your Soul hip-hop blog, but realised that what I was doing did not fit the concept. So, I created SYS Sister Sounds, quite honestly during a time of heart-break... it was in those times that my sisters lifted me up...and that’s how it all started!
After I came back to Hanoi, I decided that I wanted to create a movement, so I started the Pho The Girls DJ Workshop. The women who have attended have loved learning new skills, and they show so much gratitude afterwards. The only thing they don’t know is that they’ve inspired me by taking the steps to come to these workshops, as it took me a long time to believe in myself enough to do what I am doing now.
3. Can you give us a little insight into the Vietnamese music scene? What is happening at the moment, what is trending?
The biggest scene here is Techno music. Dub, Garage and Reggae are shining through at the moment, and there a few (not many) Hip Hop parties. A lot of these parties, however, are influenced by Western travellers/expats who now call Hanoi home. They’ve created a safe space for music and a DJ culture. However, whilst I get a lot of support, it is dominated by men and male DJs. For the local Vietnamese people, they love blasting their VN Techno and karaoke out of their homes! I can’t stand it, but each to their own!
4. How engaged are women and non-binary people in the music and DJ scene in Vietnam, and are there enough spaces and places to express themselves in that field?
I’d say there are a few of us, but there aren’t many. Slowly but surely more women are rising into the DJ culture and that’s pretty beautiful to see. I’d love to see more female and non-binary producers here - that’s something I’ve got cooked up for next year. There are spaces for them to express themselves, however it’s not enough. A lot of the festival line-ups are also still very male-dominated. And I also find many of the female DJs are separated and have different cliques, so it’s hard to meet each other.
5. Can you present all the activities you are doing as a SYS Sister Sounds?
Of course! We run DJ workshops, radio/podcast, how to write e-book workshops, and our latest instalment is the Mental Gym - workshops that will be centred around mental health and how to deal with that as a creative/womxn or non-binary person. I want to create a safe space for women x non-binary people to express themselves and to be able to learn in a supportive and calm environment. Next year, I’d love to invite guests to teach them how to produce music as well.
6. What are the reactions to your activities? Are people attending your events and workshops?
The reactions have been so overwhelmingly beautiful. As far as I can see, I am the first one to be holding these kinds of events solely for womxn and non-binary people. I keep the workshops small, but there has been an outstanding number of sign-ups, so I have to run the workshops twice a month. A lot of them want me to do longer, full courses, because at the moment they are day/night workshops. I do this mostly for the fun of it, and I learn a lot from these womxn/non-binary people along the way. But of course, I always joke that Vietnamese people always want me to do more work! Still, it really is the biggest compliment that they want me to do more and are so excited about the concept and the ability to attend these workshops. A lot of them ask me why I do it, and my only response is: why not? I get as much out of sharing my skills as they get from it.
7. What are your goals and wishes for the next year regarding SYS Sister Sounds?
My goals are to get more Vietnamese womxn/non-binary people I have trained behind the decks. I’ve already had one do her first performance the other week, and it was beautiful. I also want to establish a live-streaming radio station here, as it would be great to get them on air and showcasing their new talents. But basically, my wish for my SYS Sister Sounds next year is to build a stronger community of support within the Vietnamese culture. This is especially the case in the music industry: whether I can assist them with public relations, teaching them how to be a DJ, or how to be a radio presenter, I just want them to be confident and proud. In this way, we can create a new wave of killer female/non-binary Vietnamese DJs that will take over the world! I’d also love to build more of a collective with my Pho The Girls concept too, and one day take them on an Asia tour with me. I’d also like to expand to Cambodia and other Asian countries...but one step at a time!
8. What is your message to the Asian women who are trying to get into the music industry?
The hardest thing about being Asian women in the music industry is that we are often fetishised. So I would say, stay strong! We get put into boxes and some assume we don’t even speak English, but you have to phase all that out. You know what you are doing, and you deserve a space here, just like everyone else. Be proud of your culture and use those morals to build your reputation as someone of worth and who is genuine. There is space for everyone, so make sure you support your sisters whilst you do it, too.
9. Can you recommend some up and coming female or non-binary artists from Vietnam to check out?
To be honest, there are not many in Hanoi that I know of, but I am digging Tiny Giant. They are an amazing duo, who just did a European stint. They feature Linh Ha, on the vocals, and their music combines live beat production and layers of vocal looping. Through digital manipulation of organic elements, the band blend traditional tonality with contemporary sonic environments. There is also an amazing Me2 Band , whom I have booked for a festival. They are a girl band with so much potential - one could say they are the Spice Girls of Hanoi and to be honest, I love an all girl kick-ass band!
10. What are the most important things you have learned on your own path in the music industry? Maybe you can share with us an experience and some anecdotes?
The most important thing I have learnt in the music industry is to stay true to yourself. Be honest and stand up for yourself when you can. It can be super intimidating, I know. I work with a lot of rappers in the hip hop industry and I have always been assumed to be the girlfriend, the assistant (who even has one??), or a groupie. For all the times I have stood up for myself, the artists have always praised me to the promoters and to other music industry people. Sometimes it does get tough, and you might want to quit. But don’t - keep pushing, being in the music industry, and being part of other musicians’ growth. Sharing music as a DJ is so rewarding: you not only help the artist, but you also help the audiences - who love to hear their music - to see them. And most importantly, take credit when credit is due. There are so many times when I’ve had people praise me, and I never know what to say. Now I own it, and say YES, I did that! I get shit done!