HomePop CultureThảo Nguyễn and Nikbo to play free concert May 18 in SF

Thảo Nguyễn and Nikbo to play free concert May 18 in SF

By Jia H. Jung, California Local News Fellow

Rocker Thảo Nguyễn will perform in a free outdoor concert entitled Directions in Sound: Thao to kick off the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival in San Francisco on Saturday, May 18 from 1-3 p.m. 

Third culture pop artist Nicole Bonsol, going by stage name Nikbo, will play the opening set.

The family-friendly event is made possible by CAAMFest 2024, the 42nd annual film festival organized by the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) and ongoing through Sunday. 

Days ahead of the show, Nguyễn shared her thoughts with AsAmNews on the phone. She was in New Orleans after stops in Virginia and North Carolina, preparing to go on stage as part of a double bill with psychedelic Colombian band Meridian Brothers at Music Box Village, an art site of musical architecture. 

The musician, born and raised in Virginia and now residing in the Bay Area of California, has been ramping up her public engagements after taking time to reflect, regenerate, and compose new works for an album slated for release in 2025. 

“It’s a different dynamic to be primarily off tour and then kind of coming out every once in a while to try out new songs and then remember what it’s like to perform. It’s exciting and helps encourage me to finish the next album,” she said.

Ideally, she rehearses for a couple of weeks before a concert and then with her companion musicians to jog the muscle memory and “make sure everything’s available.”

“I’ve tried to play music every day. But it’s not the songs that I’ve already written. You know, I’m always working on new material, especially now,” she said. 

The past several years have brought major transformations for Nguyễn as a creator and as a person. She has been processing her Vietnamese American identity. She came out as queer in the middle of the pandemic in May 2020. And in October 2021, her band announced its dissolution.

Nguyễn’s songwriting began with a rap for a book report on Charlotte’s Web in third grade. Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, the band she became known for as singer, songwriter, and guitarist, formed in 2003. 

Thảo Nguyễn in 2009, a year after the release of her band’s debut album.

In 2008, when the group’s debut album We Brave Bee Stings and All came out, Thao resisted being pigeonholed for her Asian identity and felt pressure to downplay it in order to be taken seriously in the industry.

She and the band toured widely as headline performers, gaining fans for their rocking blues and folk power, receiving coverage from Pitchfork to The New York Times, and performing in NPR Music‘s Tiny Desk Concerts, Austin City Limits, and KEXP.

The changing of the landscape for Asian creators since then has been concurrent to Nguyễn’s organic identity journey.

A pivotal time for her was in 2015, when she made her first visit to Vietnam. Her mother joined, returning to the country 43 years after fleeing the Vietnam War. 

Filmmaker Todd Krolczyk accompanied the mother and daughter in their journey and created Nobody Dies: A Film About a Musician Her Mom and Vietnam (2017), a documentary supported by CAAM and the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco (JCCSF) and aired by PBS. 

The film remains on several sites but Nguyễn does not actively share it. She is still pondering how she feels about it all, and how to utilize a wealth of additional footage in her possession after years of retrospection. She said she wanted to one day present the importance of that trip in a more concise way that is more sharply attuned to how she feels after having the chance to unpack it.

Nguyễn channeled the intense emotional experience of being in Vietnam into Temple (2020), the fifth and final album she published with the band. The work was Nguyễn’s tribute to being proudly Vietnamese and queer, with a title track that retold her mother’s refugee story in song.

Thảo Nguyễn in 2022, after the release of Temple (2020).

After issuing Temple, undergoing pandemic lockdowns and social upheaval, and going solo, she said to From the Intercom that she wished that she had always performed under her own name. 

“When I was first starting out, it was too exotic to perform under my name. And so when people would see it, they wouldn’t know what it was, and they would see this ethnic name and I just knew they would dismiss it. And so I created the distinction of this band so that it would be more accessible sounding,” she remembered.

In the same interview, said that she felt purified of the self-minimizing modifications of the past and that there was no longer anything standing between her authentic self and her audience. 

Nguyễn, who told the publication of the College of William and Mary, her undergraduate alma mater, that music signifies “liberation, communication, and solace to her, said to AsAmNews that her San Francisco appearance will find her in a place of openly acknowledging the gravity of current events.

Coming from her vantage point as a child of refugees, she said that Saturday will be “an opportunity to thank and pay tribute to and help encourage all of the organizing for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza.” 

She said that it was a gift to get to play music over the years and behold how the meaning of a song like Temple can evolve with the times. “That’s what the song is to me to play it at this point – to understand the devastation of war and the devastation of state sanctioned decimation,” she told AsAmNews.

Nguyễn also plans on trying out a few new songs from her still-untitled upcoming album – one that she says is her most direct dealing ever with desire and full embodiment. Having grown up within a culture that did not make it easy to be connected to herself or fully embodied, she has valued working through these themes through her music.

She added, “I’m a huge fan of CAAM. And I’m, and I’m always happy to be a part of celebrating them and their work. They’ve been at the forefront of Asian American media and art for so long.” And she said that she was looking forward to meeting the opening musician.

Nicole Bonsol, a.k.a. Nikbo, among the California redwoods. Photo by Mogli Maureal, courtesy of CAAMFest

Nicole “Nikbo” Bonsol received CAAMFest’s invitation to open for Nguyễn when she was returning home from Oroquieta City in Mindanao in the southern Philippines, where her mother grew up.

Thúy Trần, CAAM’s festival and exhibitions director, had discovered Nikbo at a Filipinx arts night at the KQED headquarters and asked if she would like to perform. Once Trần booked Nguyễn, she reached out to Nikbo for collaboration.

“I was really honored and excited to get that email because Thao’s last album Temple – I listen to it all the time,” the musician told AsAmNews in a phone conversation.

Nikbo, whose performing name is a nickname from college days, is a self-proclaimed shapeshifter. Ethnically Filipino, she was born in Morocco and raised in Canada, Malawi and Kazakhstan among other places due to of her father’s work with USAID. 

She got her start in music early as well, and joked to AsAmNews that Disney’s The Little Mermaid is what got her going. She came to California for college in 2001 after graduating from an American high school in Kazakhstan and moving briefly to Mozambique.

She embarked upon her undergraduate experience amid tightened travel and immigration policies in the wake of 9/11. Being in the U.S. on a student visa and, later, on work visas, Nikbo was always exceedingly aware of whatever her immigration status was at any given time and bound to the jobs that kept her here.

Though she loved music, she did not create music professionally until she became married and obtained her green card. Feeling safer to pursue her true passion, she began working as a musician in 2017.

Nikbo’s sound, pop hooks infused with the earthy global influences of her upbringing, and her lyrics, focused on narrating the concepts of inclusion and belonging, soon put her on the independent music radar. 

Her debut music video for her 2019 track Be A Little Lonely won an Independent Music Award in 2020 as an audience favorite. Her 2021 song, We Need Each Other, was featured in Smithsonian Magazine and included in TRAKTIVIST’s We Rise editorial playlist featuring Asian American music in partnership with Spotify and the Hate is a Virus movement. 

In early 2022, Nikbo became a Balay Kreative Growth Grant recipient funded by an organization fostering Filipinx artistic expression in the SOMA Pilipinas Cultural District of San Francisco. 

She put the award toward interviewing her diasporic family members all around the world to inspire fresh music for a new EP. Her loved ones were scattered across the world; she caught up with those in Canada and the Philippines. Reconnecting with them was highly emotional, especially after years of not being able to travel anywhere because of lockdowns.

Then, an uncle in Canada whom she had not been able to see her last time there out of fear of transmitting COVID, passed away. Nikbo slipped into a period of depression from which she is continuing to heal. Grief and separation had already been emerging as themes in her project; she said that living through the extremes of these elements made her feel all the more equipped to vibe with the live audience on Saturday.

Nikbo finds home and solace in many places – Oakland, where she now resides, everywhere she has lived in and visited or has family. 

At the same time, she said, “I’m always missing home.” As an antidote to a multi-diasporic person’s perpetual homesickness, she involves herself deeply in communities that transcend borders.

A staunch supporter of social justice, she is part of the Gabriela Oakland network, a grassroots-based organization of progressive Filipinas housed under BAYAN, an alliance born in the Philippines out of the collective determination of oppressed groups such as workers, peasants, and women.

Of course, she also finds her people in music. “It doesn’t matter where, I have some really deep friendships and relationships with artists,” she said. She considers herself a community-supported rather than indie artist.

Since moving to the Bay Area, she has written and performed songs about books with the Bushwick Book Club of Oakland, one of several global chapters of a community begun by Korean American artist and multihyphenate Susan Hwang in Brooklyn in 2009.

Nikbo’s bandmates for Saturday’s performance are Claire Calderón (she/her) on backup vocals, Gem Datuin (they/them) on bass and backup vocals, and Luna Fuentes-Vaccaro (she/her) on percussion – friends from Oakland-based band Coraza.

Audience members interested in Nikbo’s upcoming EP can stay up to date on its release by signing up for her newsletter at nikbomusic.com. The title of her newsletter is Weird + Ugly, the subtext being that everyone ought to be accepted and beautiful for who they are.

Yerba Buena gardens, where Thảo Nguyễn and Nikbo will perform as part of CAAMFest 2024 on Saturday, May 18. Photo by Bob Linsdell

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Follow us on FacebookX, InstagramTikTok and YouTube. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts to produce diverse content about the AAPI communities. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

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