Ambassador of the people's poet

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An expatriate businessman in Hong Kong spreads a humanitarian message from one of Vietnam's greatest songwriters.

"After years of performing and researching Trinh Cong Son's music, I have come to understand tam (which means 'kind heart') through his haunting songs. I want to put tam to everyday use, make it concrete, intimate and tangible," said 36-year-old business executive and part-time vocalist Nguyen Huu Thai Hoa.

"Son was an outstanding talent with a kind heart. His music makes you want to be a better person," he said.

It was through his encounters with victims of the wartime defoliant Agent Orange that Hoa came to understand why Son's antiwar songs are so relevant today.

"As long as evil still exists, Trinh Cong Son's music will be played," Hoa quotes Japanese scholar and translator Michiko Yoshii.

Hoa feels the same. "His songs have an immense power and arouse strong feelings," he said.

"I've grown attached to Son's contemplative and improvisational style. The more I'm into it, the more fascinating as well as bitter things I see in life."

He's working hard to realize Son's last wish: to have Ca khuc da vang republished, and strives to make the music of his mother's close friend better known in the outside world.

"I want to make young people, both here and abroad, aware of how rich in humanity his music is," he said.

"After performing Son's music in several countries in the past eight years, I've come to realize that the geographical distance doesn't matter as every audience enjoys the music. I meet sympathetic souls wherever I go."

Still, it is hard for foreigners to fully appreciate Son's message as the translations often fail to get across the profound philosophical implications that fill his songs. In fact, more than a third of the meaning is usually lost, said Hoa.

Hoa has lived in several places besides Vietnam.

"It's hard to say which place I like the most. For example, I like the cultural diversity of North America, while Hong Kong is dynamic and the quality of life is higher. Then again, I adore the culture and serenity of France. In Vietnam, I can do loads of work in a day, and I have lots of friends.

"If I had to choose one, it would be Vietnam. As Son says in one of his songs: ‘I choose this place... as the country needs a heart... And I'm happy every day... I love this life with all my heart.'"

Hoa is nothing if not versatile. Always a keen singer, he was previously an architect and is now a quality control manager. He believes they complement one another.

"Working as an architect hones the organizing skills while being a quality-control manager helps me work to meet deadlines. Music, Son's in particular, enriches my soul and helps me do my work.

"Perhaps singing brings me the greatest happiness and fondest memories. It lets me bare my soul."

In 2007, Hoa published Hanh trinh van hoa ISO va giac mo Viet Nam (ISO cultural journey and the Vietnam dream) and Vuon xua - Hanh trinh am nhac Trinh Cong Son (Old garden - The journey of Trinh Cong Son's music). Both were instant hits with the reading public.

This year, he plans to publish Hanh trinh van hoa Trinh Cong Son (Cultural journey of Trinh Cong Son).

In 1982, Hoa moved with his family to Canada, where he won a singing contest.

But by 1985, Hoa was already back in Vietnam where he studied piano and singing at the Ho Chi Minh City Conservatory of Music until 1990.

After returning to Canada, he studied architecture, taught piano at Toronto University and did some cabaret work.

He came back home for four years and became operations manager of Schneider Electric Vietnam in 1997. During that time, his friendship with Son blossomed.

Transferred abroad, Hoa became the first Asian director of the international affairs department of Schneider Electric France in 2001.

In Italy, he set up the Trinh Cong Son library in Torino.

Wherever he happens to be, Hoa likes to perform Son's music in public.

Though he considers himself a mere amateur when it comes to singing, Hoa has released five albums of Son's music: Chiec la thu phai (Withered autumn leaf), Coi tinh - Phuc am buon (Love - the sad gospel), Lang le noi nay (Alone in this place), Vuon xua (Old garden).

The fifth album, Me - Canh chim co don (Mother - the lonely bird), came out just last week.

On April 1, Hoa performed at Binh Quoi Park in HCMC in an annual show to mark the anniversary of Son's death eight years ago.

These days he lives in Hong Kong, from where he oversees quality control at Schneider Electric's 40-plus factories in the Asia-Pacific region. He also runs the Da Vang (Yellow skin) fund to raise money for Vietnamese Agent Orange victims.

Every year, he returns home for Son's commemorative concert.

Son, dubbed the "Vietnamese Bob Dylan" for his antiwar songs, died in HCMC on April 1, 2001 at the age of 62.

With over 600 compositions to his credit, Son is widely considered the most important figure in modern Vietnamese music.

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