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The man everyone tried to silence and failed

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AFP - April 28, 2000.

HO CHI MINH CITY - Trinh Cong Son, the man whose voice the powers on both sides of the Vietnam war tried and failed to silence, is writing songs again. Now a gaunt and frail 61, he was in his early 30s when he was first persecuted for the songs that earned him the name of the Bob Dylan of Vietnam at the height of the war in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

A ban on his songs and attempts to intimidate him into silence succeeded only in taking the tapes of such favorites as "Wet Eyelashes" out of shop windows, but not from behind the counter. Saigon army troops and even some generals played them, university students sang them, and western reporters and friends smuggled them out to France and the United States.

Twenty-five years ago this month, when communist troops were knocking on the doors of the city -- with rockets not their fists -- Trinh Cong Son chose not to flee with thousands of his countrymen although most of his family did. At that time, the irrepressible composer didn't know what to expect, but simply told friends that Vietnam -- which he then likened to a football field chosen by the Cold War powers -- was his country. There was no hero's welcome by Vietnam's new communist rulers for the poignant songs he wr

"It was very hard," he told AFP, sitting sipping Chivas and water on the rocks in his home in a quiet back alley of what is now named Ho Chi Minh city, surrounded by unfinished canvasses and his guitars. He was speaking reluctantly of the four years he spent planting rice and manioc amid old American and Viet Cong minefields along the Laotian border. "But luckily I got out in one piece."

He said he wrote some songs then, in the hard years between 1975 and 1985 when he got his dose of political "reeducation" between the planting sessions, but "nothing beautiful" came out of that time and he did not publish them. "There are no hidden songs," he added wryly. "You need time to write, and changing a regime takes a lot of time." Government surveillance of him, "stopped a long time ago," although "they always seem to know what you are doing," he said.

Allowed to travel now, he has visited Canada and France, London and Hong Kong, Macau and Thailand, but always returned home, where he now says the communist government is used to him.

A visit to the United States, where some of his family lives, is still not possible because in California, where they live, some Vietnamese are still against him, he said. The rest of his family are in Canada, and since the death of his mother in his home city of Hue, he has been the only one of the family in Vietnam. But now the worst time is over, and the government leaves him alone.

"They know I'm not anti-regime, that I just tell it like it is," he said with a shadow of his old grin returning. There is no censorship, he said, but added that artists in Vietnam where he now belongs to the national and Ho Chi Minh city composers and artists' association, have learned a sort of self-censorship.

The wry grin returns. "It is like children in a family, you tell them they are free to do what they want to do, but that they must be responsible for their actions." The composer, whose failing health has landed him in hospital several times in the past years, and who has for the past ten years also turned to painting, has given up his five-pack a day cigarette habit, but not the whisky. He has also turned to meditation to find "peace of mind, peace of soul" and has closed the chapters of his past -- the persecution of the pro-American government in Saigon during the war and the hard years that followed. Nor does he want to revive those songs.

"Every song has its time," he said. "The young people now they don't understand what was happening in the war. it has no meaning for them." Life he says is easier now, and at long last he feels he can live "both inside and outside myself." His songs, now sold on compact discs, are being played in nightclubs here, especially the romantic ones with titles such as "You're Still the One" and "Feckless Flower". And he has become an inspiration to younger artists today.

He and other artists were asked to write songs to mark the new millennium and the 25th anniversary of the war, and he might feel moved to try a millennium song. But as for the anniversary: "Now people are in pursuit of the good life, everyone is chasing money. "The war is over for us, for me too."

AFP - April 28, 2000.

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