If you haven’t already, click and watch the music video. It was made by Iranian-American music producer Alexei (@sabzi) and his collaborators for TOWNFOLK, their experimental art endeavor being funded through Kickstarter. I got wind of it via an email and then my niece Paulina, a college senior, wrote me about it on Facebook.
The video is a smart and culturally spot-on survey of Vietnamese pho culture, particularly that of South Seattle when Alexei (a.k.a. Sabzi and Saba) lives. He's captured it all in a rap video, which has a certain Beck element of humor.
Aside from the music and video, Alexei and his pals went the extra step of getting the language right. Their Kickstarter page has Vietnamese and video is subtitled in Vietnamese! Either someone has amazing language skills or he/she got an older person to translate and type it up with all the diacritic marks in place. I was mightily impressed with the polished and thoughtful effort.
I passed TOWNFOLK’s Kickstarter link around via Twitter and Facebook but wanted to know the back story. How and why did Alexei do the video? That’s the reason for this email Q&A with Alexei: (Note: his are presented as is/as were received)
Why did the campaign name change from Pho Life to Phở 99? I thought the first was clever and modern. The second seems to speak more to the Viet-Am enclave/ghetto experience.
"Pho Life" originally was chosen simply as the title for the Kickstarter page. We didn't think much about it.
Personally, after seeing the project take life and an identity in Internet discussion, I didn't feel the name did justice to the true nature of the piece as a whole.
The word "Life" appeared too broad and definitive, as if suggesting that the characters in this piece were only about pho, or all of the identities and components that interacted with the project revolved entirely around just soup.
We are all much more than that. Also, perhaps more importantly, adding the term "life" as a suffix to something rap-related has been a little overdone at this point. Played out!
Pho 99 fits better for various reasons. It's more subtle, isn't a broad generalization, anybody who's a super pho fan has eaten at a place called Pho 22, 55, 66, 95, 96, 99 etc and knows how common a name like that can be.
"99" is the catchiest of all these in our opinion. Furthermore, it seems to stay "on brand" more than Life.
What is Townfolk's mission?
i think i'll be perpetually discovering what that is. first and foremost, it's a space to explore and test ideas. today i'll say that one thing the TOWNFOLK project does is look at these ideas from multiple angles. much like the answers i listed at the top. i find it very difficult to give short and simple answers that i feel are informed by so many different components that all deserve attention. TOWNFOLK is a workshop that gives me free range to go nuts.
How did pho get to be subject for the Kickstarter campaign? What is the rationale behind the different items that you developed for Pho 99?
it began here a cpl years ago. the music video for "Fou Lee" by Blue Scholars (rap group i'm in) features a group of us cooking chicken adobo. we considered doing a poster of all the raw ingredients of chicken adobo as a piece of merchandise connected to the song, but for some reason it didn't really come together. shortly after this, over a pho lunch with some friends i realized the same concept could be applied to pho ingredients and would probably turn out great. and it did.
what followed was a whole lot of "wouldn't it be cool if we did THIS too?"
a second poster, buttons, stickers, music video, raps, Vietnamese subtitles etc.
Your pronunciation of Viet food terms is great and the Vietnamese lyric translation is fabulous. How did that all come together? Why did you include the Vietnamese lyrics?
when i think of pho, i think of soup… and it also makes me think of the neighborhood i live in, restaurants, concert posters, Vietnamese fonts/lettering on menus and signs, Banh Mi sandwiches, the time a friend accidentally drank fish sauce thinking it was apple juice, late nights at the billiards, coffee shops, the bakeries, friends, family, a food that historically comes from a part of the world i haven't yet had the privilege to visit and also makes me feel at home when i eat it. and that's just a few things. i'm certainly not the only one that feels that way in South Seattle. it's a part of who we are.
you could say this project explores some of those connections in a fresh way that's fun and looks good.
photography, assistant producer:
@canhsolo (Canh Solo; Canh shot pics of all the ingredients for the
poster, then Canh's dad made pho with the props)
illustrations: @MIS0HAPPY (Nina Nguyen)
video: @Harry_Clean (Harry Clean)
subtitles/translation: @joanne_nitsua (Joanne Nguyen-Austin)
You've already raised more than your goal. What's next?
now that the goal's been reached, we can make the posters! after shipping the first round to all the pledgers, the remaining product will be available for sale at TOWNFOLK in January.
I’ve said this many times before on VWK: You don’t have to be Asian to understand Asian food and culture. What Alexei and TOWNFOLK are doing reflects the fluid movement across cultures happening now, in urban and suburban neighborhoods. There's little that's novel about their take on pho culture. It's done with respect, creativity, and fun.
Btw, this set of buttons of Viet singer Tuan Anh (think: a cross between Liberace, Lady Gaga, and Michael Jackson) is part of the Pho 99 merchandise line-up:
TOWNFOLK's Pho 99 campaign goes on till December 4, 2012. Check it out on Kickstarter and if you're inclined, support this intersection of music, art and food.
Thoughts and reactions? Or tips on similar art and food projects? Please share your knowledge.
Related posts and links:
- Beef Pho Recipe
- Chicken Pho Recipe
- Pho Secrets and Techniques
- History and evolution of pho in Vietnam and America
- I Love Pho -- 2008 visual arts exhibit in Australia