In a couple of hours’ time Yoko Bar will be splitting at the seams with friends, family and lovers of Latin rock-cum-reggae funk outfit Bad Neighbor. It will be the band’s final gig before talented and charismatic front man Claudio leaves the country he’s called home for close to two decades. He's off for a different kind of gig in Barcelona.
“Tonight it’s kind of exciting,” he says. “It’s sad in some ways, but it’s not the end. Well, it’s the end for Bad Neighbor, a band that will be remembered for years.”
The Yoko crowd will be a mix of young and the not-so-young, Vietnamese and foreign, equal parts male and female — a demographic of followers that stands testament to the widespread appeal the band has garnered since it was formed. An interesting quirk is that none of the band members seem to be able to agree if it’s in fact 12 or 13 years that they’ve been together.
“After all these years, the longest we’ve ever stopped playing for is one month,” says Claudio. “We’ve been playing on average 10 gigs a month, sometimes more.”
As the band’s drummer John says, “It’s incredible after so long.”
The show must go on
Indeed, Bad Neighbor’s run has been incredible, especially given that each band member has kept their day job during the journey, something which has in the end led to the band’s decision to break up.
Rumour has it that Bad Neighbor has played a thousand gigs, and not just in Saigon. They’ve played all over Vietnam, in Thailand and Macau, and across the border in Cambodia, a tour Claudio recalls with great satisfaction and pride.
“Our most memorable tour was when we went to Phnom Penh and two or three busloads of friends and fans followed,” he smiles. “It was a massive gig and before we even went on stage, everyone was firing.”
That Claudio and founding member Phuong have never cancelled a show despite bouts of illness here and there, demonstrates the commitment each member has to the group and the respect they have for each other as people and musicians.
“I once fell asleep on stage singing,” recalls Claudio with a flamboyant gesture. “People don’t really know what a musician’s life is like. In reality, a gig really takes five, six, seven hours, because we have to have a few drinks before and after the show.”
Having played so many gigs means the band has had plenty of memorable moments, like the one saxophonist Aaron, who’s been with the band for almost a decade, recalls.
“There was one night at Vasco’s when a fight broke out between a couple of guys,” he says. “They went at it. They knocked chairs out of the way, the staff got out of the way and then there was this realisation that there weren’t any bouncers to break it up, so they just went on for a while longer and we just played on.”
Kiss and Make Up
There have been a few internal rumblings in the band over the years, as you’d expect within any group, but Claudio is quick to point out that after any infighting, they’d sit down as a group and talk things over.
“We are very, very tight as friends,” he explains. “We’ve had almost no problems. We fight sometimes, but after probably a thousand gigs, we’ve only had about two fights.”
As show time approaches, John jumps in on the conversation with something he wants everyone to be certain of; the legacy to Saigon’s live scene Claudio and Bad Neighbor will leave behind.
“Thanks to Claudio and thanks to Bad Neighbor playing at the Caravelle all those years ago, other bands from Cuba have come into the music scene. Now we have live Latin music in Saigon every week. Before Bad Neighbor, we didn’t have that.”