After fighting in the war between America and Vietnam, Jake T Snake turned to music for catharsis during the years he lived on the street in the US. Now, in the six years since his return to Vietnam, he has played with many of the big names in Vietnam’s music industry. He relates his story to Michael Tatarski. Photo by Fred Wissink.
Jake ‘T. Snake’ doesn’t have what you would call a common name. He introduced himself as just Jake, and when I asked what his surname was he smirked and handed me his business card. I wondered aloud where the Snake part had come from.
Jake explained that as a high school student in Detroit he would cut class to go visit the part of the city where Motown musicians gathered. He says at first everyone wondered what a white kid was doing in that part of town, but he gradually ingratiated himself into the community and was occasionally taken into a set of recording studios nicknamed the Snake Pit.
Later, when he was living in California, Jake was bitten by a rattlesnake on the left calf. That experience, combined with his fond memories of Motown, inspired him to take on the name Snake. He even has a tattoo of one uncoiling where he was bitten.
His first exposure to Vietnam was not pleasant. He fought in the war from 1967 to 1969 and admits that his time here left him mentally broken, and life after returning to the US from his deployment was difficult. He wandered the country, homeless, for several years before finding himself in California in 1974.
To help ease the emotional pain Jake began playing a few different wind instruments in an effort to restore his soul, but none of them matched the mood he was trying to evoke. He then decided to attend the Ali Akbar Khan School of Music outside of San Francisco, where he studied under a master Indian flautist.
This inspired Jake to take up the flute, specifically the bamboo flute, since it recalled the images of rural Vietnam he saw during his time here. At first he had little interest in playing regular music, so instead he focused on ambient sounds. He recalls, “I would play music in laundromats because I would sync with what the washing machines were doing and what the overhead fans were spinning and what the dryers were doing, and I would create a sound in relation to those goofy ambient sounds.”
Eventually he moved on to playing actual songs, combining what he learned in San Francisco with the Motown music he grew up with in Detroit. Playing music was deeply personal for Jake, and for many years no one even knew he could play the flute. “I was a closet musician, and sometimes I would just let my flutes sit for a while. I would go through these phases where I would want to express myself musically, so I did.”
As people began to discover that Jake could play they would ask him to do so, but he repeatedly refused. After living an itinerant life for years he returned to Asia in 1999, and has been living in Saigon for six years now.
The decision to come back to the country he fought in was agonizing, but necessary, he says, “It was in an effort to complete the circle of regret, of guilt, that revolved around my years as a warrior. But it took 30 years.”
He continued to play music when he arrived, though it was still largely personal. He then worked up enough courage to begin playing to the public, mostly around the Opera House and the Caravelle Hotel since they were two of the only buildings he recognized from his time here in the 60s.
He began going to the Sax n’ Art Jazz Club on Le Loi to watch musicians, and one day he was asked to play in the breaks between acts. He did that for a bit but the pressure became too intense and he stopped, preferring to play to people on the street.
Since then his musical life has evolved and he has worked with many of Vietnam’s most prominent musicians, including Curtis King and Juram Gavero. He still plays outside though, usually by the Continental Hotel, and loves seeing the reactions of passersby, especially the locals, as he plays everything from Jethro Tull to hip-hop on his flutes.
As painful as Jake’s return to Vietnam was at first, he is now visibly happy to be here. His move to Saigon has turned into a personal renaissance after years of sleeping in cars and under bridges in the US. He is raising his young boy with his Vietnamese wife and is even contemplating moving his family back to Michigan so his son can go to school there.
While Jake’s family has become his number one priority, music will always be linked with his time in Vietnam. It was part of his healing process, and it was part of his rebirth. Next month he will be travelling to Europe to tour with several of Saigon’s most well-known musicians, adding a new milestone to what has already been a remarkable journey.