"I remember Tet at the house of Brother Son," recalls Frank Gerke Trinh Cong Long, referring to the most influential and beloved Vietnamese composer of the new music movement, the late Trinh Cong Son.
"Together with fellow composers Bao Phuc and Tu Huy, we sat in the living room enjoying wine and Hue cake and waiting for giao thua (the moment when one lunar year passes and the next begins).
"He would hand out li xi ("lucky money," traditionally given to children in a special envelope at Tet). Then he would call his friends in Vietnam and abroad until three or four in the morning."
Nowadays the German is the accounts director of the communications company BHD in
Ho Chi Minh City. He holds a PhD, speaks Vietnamese like a native, and is an accomplished karate exponent to boot.
So how did a German become Trinh Cong Son's close friend, and come to share the master's name?
The road to Asia, Vietnam...
Gerke was interested in Eastern philosophy and values very early in his life. At the age of 16, he was reading Confucius, Lao Tzu and Meng Tzu, and practicing karate.
At university he studied Han characters, Chinese literature, philosophy and religion. He also took Vietnamese as a side subject, little knowing that it would become his second language later in life.
He would certainly never have imagined he would go on to translate dozens of books, song lyrics and other writings by Trinh Cong Son and composers and writers Xuan Dieu, Han Mac Tu, Nguyen Binh, Nguyen Duy and Nguyen Quang Sang, among others.
Gerke explains that it was the music of Trinh Cong Son that led to his learning Vietnamese.
TRINH CONG SON
Trinh Cong Son (1939-2001) is considered one of the most influential and beloved Vietnamese composers in the nation's history.
His songbook includes some 600 tunes, most of which are love ballads or antiwar songs. His works are not only poetic and surrealist but also convey his philosophy. Many consider his lyrics to be one of a kind.
His songs have been sung all over Vietnam and abroad indeed, some of his most popular ballads have been translated English, French, German and Japanese. Trinh Cong Son was also an amateur poet and painter.
"One day, one of my good Vietnamese friends gave me an album of Trinh Cong Son songs. I was impressed by the voice of the singer Khanh Ly (from the album) and asked my friend to translate the lyrics into German so I could understand them and sing along."
Understanding Trinh Cong Son's words proved very hard at times. Since Vietnamese people can have trouble with them too, Gerke's struggle was not surprising. But instead of giving up, he went to the heart of the matter by learning Vietnamese. ...and Trinh Cong Son
Gerke first came to Vietnam in 1992 to study modern Vietnamese literature under the German government exchange program Peutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst.
Soon afterwards he met Trinh Cong Son by chance when he visited the homes of notable artists to invite them to a German book show in HCMC.
"I don't know how my life would be if I did not speak Vietnamese. Living here would be boring without talking the language," says Gerke.
From 1995 to 1999, when he was working for a German project in Buon Me Thuat, Gerke translated 300 of Trinh Cong Son's songs into German for magazines about Asian culture in Germany.
"Sometimes I would phone him five times in one day to ask him about something in a song that I didn't understand. And very often I returned to HCMC on the weekend for further discussion."
And so their friendship blossomed.
Thanks to Trinh Cong Son, Gerke learned much about Vietnamese life and how to fit into Vietnamese society. "Somehow Trinh Cong Son made me change my view of life. He put the philosophy of Vietnamese people and Vietnamese folk songs into his compositions."
"Before I was very direct and hot tempered, but that changed after I got to know Trinh Cong Son. To translate his music, I needed to understand his life. That's how I learned to be patient, more flexible and less direct."
Through Trinh Cong Son, Gerke was introduced to many influential Vietnamese composers and other artists who become good friends and from whom he learned much.
These days, with help from the famous writer Nguyen Ngu, Gerke is immersing himself in the thoughts of the 19th-century military general, economist and poet Nguyen Cong Tru.
"I like the way Nguyen Cong Chu functioned in life. He was a mandarin in the morning, the afternoon was for friends and lovers, and in the evening he prayed and chanted like a monk, yet there was no conflict in the way he lived.
"I want to study his thoughts and see how they might be applied to Western society, where different religions have always been in conflict," says Gerke.