Music offers balm to tortured soul of American veteran

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Jake, an American veteran who does not want to reveal his surname, often plays the flute near the HCMC Opera House, saying it soothes his soul which has been tortured since his combat days in the Vietnam War

The music sounds like it is coming from the Ho Chi Minh City Opera House, but it actually is being played by Jake on his bamboo flute out front.

The American, who refuses to reveal his surname, rides his bicycle there every morning if he is not on the road with other musicians for gigs in Nha Trang, Hue, Singapore, or Malaysia.

He hangs out near the Opera House's fountain and the statute of a young man playing the flute.

His loyal audience comprises of the security guards at the nearby Continental and Caravelle hotels, xe om (motorbike taxi) drivers, and anyone who spend their afternoon break on the street.

Jake, now in his 60s, has lived in Vietnam for six years. He is married to a woman from Soc Trang Province in the Mekong Delta and has a son. He makes a meager living performing at music shows.

But he loves to play outside the Opera House where his music mixes with the sounds of horns, engines, the breeze, and birds.

He told Vietweek last Sunday that he also performs on stage with famous artists like Curtis King, Tran Manh Tuan, and Quyen Van Minh.

Jake has frequented the corner long enough to know almost everyone who hangs out in the area, and he often practices his Vietnamese with them.

Nguyen Van Thang, a cyclo driver and one of Jake's regular fans, enjoys the show every day.

Thang says Jake sits by the street when it is sunny and moves under the hotels' eaves when it rains.

"It is amazing to hear the flute on a city street," he says.

A security guard at the InterContinental Hotel just opposite the Opera House says: "If a day passes by without the Jake's flute, it sounds like something is missing."

Jake plays 12 different kinds of flutes (wood, bamboo, plastic) and almost all styles.

Though he has a motorbike, he always travels by bicycle. He says it helps his lungs, and thus his his flute playing.

He once pedaled to Vung Tau, around 100 kilometers from the city.

A painful past

I went back to meet Jake for a second time last Sunday, explaining I kept delaying the meeting because I am a bit wary of talking about his painful past.

But he agrees to open up about it.

He was devastated by the time he spent fighting in the Vietnam War from 1967 to 1969. The 18-year-old Italian-American from Detroit left a disillusioned man.

"I was psychologically and emotionally destroyed. I was a walking dead man. I felt like I didn't belong there (America) any more and I hated the government (that) sent me there.

"I could not relate to adults but only to children at places such as parties. I went back to my family but could not fit."

He said he tried to cope with his anger by exercising, running, mountain biking, and playing hockey.

But at night he still had nightmares of killing Vietnamese people.

To escape he would run like a crazy man on the streets at 2 a.m. For 20 years he lived on streets and bridges, working when he needed to.

He was trying to exorcise his past.

It took him a long time to realize that if he did not face the pain he would never get over it.

He came to Hanoi in 1999.

"Sick people see the doctor to get well. For me Vietnam is the doctor and Vietnam put me back together.

"I had so much conflict inside me, and I was no doubt crazy, a veteran who was destroyed by the war."

During his time in Hanoi, he met Vietnamese soldiers burnt by napalm. "They talked to me. They were kind enough to talk to me. Wonderful country and people."

Napalm was the incendiary device that stuck to a person, burning right through to the bone.

He returned to Vietnam as part of a process to replace the negative with the positive. "People (Vietnamese) do not want to fight any more. They are kind, peaceful, and [do not] want to kill me. They treat me kindly."

Music heals the soul

Music had also provided him a catharsis.

There was a tradition of playing the flute in his family, and in the early 1970s he decided to give it a shot.

"Music was a more authentic voice than words to keep in touch with my pain. You never face the pain, you never get through it."

He enrolled at the Ali Akbar College of Music outside San Francisco to learn Indian music.

"I love the flute. The vibrancy [of the flute] can break a rock, a rock inside me. I can never express myself better than with a flute. That is my real voice."

The Indian influence on his music is unmistakable.

"I like the ambient sounds, like the sound of the car, the motorbikes there," he says, looking at the gently moving traffic around the Opera House that Sunday afternoon.

What does music offer him? "My friend told me "˜you are not the Jake that I talk to and the music takes over your body'."

He himself feels the music transports him out of himself.

He remembers the first time he played the flute in Vietnam. It was in a hotel room in Hanoi in 1999 when he could not sleep.

He was in terrible pain and in search of a balm. He wanted to express his feelings through his flute but was too shy to play in public.

He traveled back and forth between the US and Vietnam.

Finally, in 2003, he gathered up the courage to play in public. But Jake admits he was still shy.

It took him a few performances to finally put the fear to rest.

"The flute helps me face my inner devils and now [I have] more of a smile on my face.

"I used to be a person of great feeling [before the war] and I communicate what I feel. I communicate my honest feelings."

He gets a call. After finishing with it, he resumes: "Curtis King. He is the one allows me to play and add things to his music."

Jake is proud to have joined the Festival Hue and played old Cuban music.

Jake loves all kinds of music and says he can play jazz, blues, soul, African, Gypsy and other music.

His new life in HCMC is proving to be healing.

He says he is reborn. And every morning and afternoon he spends with his two-year-old son.

Yet, more than 40 years later, the Vietnam War continues to cast a shadow on his life - he can hardly fall into deep sleep.

"I wake up at the smallest sound, even when my son moves."

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