By Hans Ebert
It takes a lot to laugh, and a train to cry, and, sometimes, it takes someone or everyone to plant a seed for inspiration to grow. These days, inspiration is in short supply around the world where brother no longer trusts brother, and the world’s power brokers are trying to convert this choreographed hatred into even more divisiveness. But that’s another subject for another day…
In Hong Kong, a small city currently engulfed in rookie politics, where nobody’s right when everybody’s wrong, there’s a fledgling music scene trying to find its feet and get off the ground.
It’s been fledgling for around four decades, because of those who once controlled the local music industry. They saw the money to be made from what this writer coined Canto Pop when writing for the trade publication known as Billboard. This was when singer/songwriter Sam Hui, below, fused his vast knowledge of Western pop music from the British Beat Boom era, and the various chord progressions of the hits from this time with colloquial Cantonese lyrics that spoke to local Chinese through a genre of music they had never heard before. It was tremendously commercial music that’s stood the test of time.
Canto Pop became Mando Pop when Hong Kong singer Jacky Cheung recorded his first Mandarin album, which became a massive seller in Mainland China. Suddenly, the musical floodgates opened and the long march by Chinese pop and classical artists began.
With these recording successes came new “business models”, the start of the mantra and dream that “China is potentially the largest music market in the world” along with the various cons in harmony with this promise by music companies here to Head Office abroad who naively bought into it by investing millions into different schemes and dreams. With all this focus on Chinese music, the plug was pulled on Western music.
Led Zeppelin, Woodstock, Hendrix, Dylan, the Let It Bleed period Rolling Stones, the tripped out Sergeant Pepper-inspired Beatles came and went with very few in Hong Kong knowing or having access and information about this particular musical time capsule.
After a brief two years during the Sixties when there were local pop bands singing in English, tea dances, pop concerts and some ragged recordings produced mainly by a local company called Diamond Music came a roaring silence.
It probably explains why Singapore, a city once derided by many in control of the Hong Kong music industry as being a second rate music market with second rate music talent, went their own way and created a music scene where the standard of locally produced English music today is of a very high standard. Artists like Gentle Bones and what Sony Music Singapore are trying to do with their signing and one-time Singapore Idol runner up Tabitha Nauser, thankfully not another Lorde clone, should be applauded. Anyone trying to do anything different with music should be applauded. And supported. Supported financially would be even better, but this requires a business model that’s still not in place. Art should never be free. It devalues the original product.
The challenge for Sony Music Singapore will be how to break this home grown talent outside of home base, especially at a time when travel bans exist along with markets outside of this region already having their own local talent. Why let in competition? But as mentioned here before, this is where a musical “exchange programme”, even bringing art and fashion into the equation can work. World Music today are no longer collaborations between artists from around the world, where the first “One Giant Leap” project was probably the most successful. But we need new challenges to keep one from navel gazing.
As for Hong Kong, there seem to be many musicians who aren’t Chinese wanting to belong, and where backing any Canto artist in concert or in a recording is seen as something that elevates them to another level of importance. Really? But why, when though there’s this pride of having these jobs on one’s CV, there’s also the constant chatter about how the most talented person in a Canto Pop concert is the makeup artist and hairstylist? Anyway…
What’s forgotten in all this nattering are the music fans, because despite Hong Kong being pretty much irrelevant when it comes to music, the handful of ageing “ready for prime time players” engage in tedious gossip. All this does is stop progress. Move on, people, and don’t cling to old wounds and past axes to grind. You might end up chopping off your ear like dear Vincent did.
This is where Singapore is different. Of course, the flow of gossip is never ending-la, especially from the music companies, but the local music fans absorb everything happening outside of this region. Same with a handful of Singaporean music executives who are passionate tastemakers, just like the few in the Philippines, where my old friend and ex-colleague Twinky is still leading the cheerleading squad for the music and musicians and not working cons, and Malaysia, where the wonderfully creative artist Yuna reigns supreme. Yuna is a prime example of a singer-songwriter, performer and entrepreneur. It’s probably something all artists today should adhere to be as it opens things up into a creative whole.
Who and where are Hong Kong’s taste makers? Certainly no music executive. One particular major music company is notorious for being everything except about the artists and fans and music. Why? Bad mentors and having someone given the task of managing this region- from Sydney, but leaves the decision making to another Australian in that useless role known as “Human Resources”. And you wonder why the cons taking place by many of the company’s executives in the region are universally known? Managing from afar never ever works. It gives the rats all the space to play.
Almost ten years ago, there were some signs of creative music life here. My girlfriend at the time and I were keeping company with Hong Kong based artists Jeff and Leora Caylor. As The Weathering, they were showing so much creativity as multi media music artists. But that was a lifetime ago, and we’ve now all gone our separate ways. Are they still making music? I hope so.
My friend Morton Wilson from Schtung Studios, meanwhile, will always have the projects we worked on for Bowie, Robbie Williams, Gorillaz and Placebo as great memories and examples of some outstanding work. But one cannot live in the past. You’re only as good and as relevant as your last success.
Morton is the complete total studio man who’s seen much of what has gone on here, and is currently working on getting the career of Chinese singer-songwriter Wendy Z up and running.
It’s going to be be tough as, like I have been going on and on, making the time to know and hear and understand and network with others in music outside of this region is not a priority to many. They want the mountain and all the goats to come to Mohammed. There’s also very little interest in discovering and sharing the music of young, new artists with others. Without this interest- this inquisitive mind- one’s just going around in circles, happy being a big or medium sized fish in a very small pond.
It’s a lifestyle choice and a key reason why gifted musicians will always be unoriginal copyists. There’s very little teamwork in Hong Kong because few share the same objectives and fewer wish to make the time to make things happen. And then they wonder why nothing is happening and how money’s too tight to mention.
Wake up, because trying to help those who can’t help themselves is a waste of time. There comes a point where one says, enough is enough. Find another career because you don’t deserve the miracle of music.
As for recording in Hong Kong, there’s always a danger of trying too hard to be accepted locally without a business model in place that delivers a return on time and investment. And how big is the Canto Pop market these days, anyway, if a complete unknown with no direction of home? Some chump change for dim sum?
Sometimes, there’s a need to lead with one’s gut instincts, get something going and see where this leads- internationally- instead of too much time taken overthinking, then finally doing something, and this falling on deaf ears in the clique city that is Hong Kong. Why? Time waits for no one, music keeps constantly evolving, and what might be new to one person is another person’s leftovers.
We’re not dead yet, and before we go, surely we’d like to go out swinging by breaking the pattern and not regurgitating the past. It would be horrible to become caught up in the same mindset of those ageing Canto Pop artists trying to cling onto their youth. That’s Spinal Tap stuff, and it happens every time a new million dollar opportunity comes their way. They’ve already made it. Now they want to make more because nothing is never enough.
Having gone to Shanghai a few months ago to watch the much anticipated comeback concert by Canto Pop diva Faye Wong, who, once, could do no wrong, was tough to take. It was a robotic, dull, out of tune performance, where the singer looked like she didn’t want to be there, but the Alibaba money was too good to give up. If you ever wanted to know whatever happened to Baby Jane, she has grown to be a withered looking Faye Wong. She could have had it all and been an international success. Maybe she didn’t want it badly enough?
Reading what’s been written so far, it’s interesting to note that it’s all about the past. And people from the past. Gawd, let me not depress myself by mentioning those local “nostalgia concerts” by those not even good enough to be average ageing Canto Pop performers.
In Hong Kong, too often, it’s all about the past and not having the internal fortitude to break free from this thinking and those connected with it. It’s the thinking, people, and the DOING and the constant need to be relevant and keep being inspired. It’s not whining about the lack of local venues for ‘live’ music.
If there were a hundred new venues in Hong Kong for music tomorrow, where are the artists good enough to attract audiences other than the same old same old who move from the tedious MOR hotel lounge circuit to the occasional gig at Peel Fresco, Grappas and the spooky Orange Peel? And how big are audiences in Hong Kong to sustain growth?
At least, The Wanch is whatever one wants it to be, and Iron Fairies and Ophelia offer some hope- but where’s the new, young talent performing original material in English? Where’s our version of Melbourne’s Tash Sultana? Or the brilliant Maggie Rogers? Are we not creating an environment conducive to being creative?
More to the point, knowing some supposedly in marketing, how many even know what’s creative? And what’s with this preoccupation for average singers to try and reinvent themselves as quasi “Jazz” performers? Why, gawd, why? Perhaps because they don’t know of the talent pool already out there, not only from the UK and the States, but in every country in Scandinavia, where there are so many very good unknown artists trying hard to be heard. Even today, I listen to the Danish band Nephew and wonder why the hell they didn’t break on through to the other side with this track. As for Lorde, Scandinavia via the groundbreaking work of Bjork had hundreds of more original versions of Lorde almost ten years ago.
This leads me to where this journey began- the need for something or someone that can shake off the lethargy hanging over the city like a gloomier Gotham City.
Not because I know her, and her father, who is a legendary jockey associated with Silent Witness, this city’s most famous race horse, but in three short weeks, South African born, Hong Kong raised Kat Coetzee has woken up many who’s come in contact with her- musicians, sponsors, promoters and local music fans.
She’s played everywhere from the no-frills atmosphere of the Morrison Cafe and The Wanch to Carnegie’s and the very popular Beer Garden at Happy Valley Racecourse during the past two Happy Wednesday nights and has won over the most jaded of people purely through her enthusiasm, energy and positivity.
Kat Power is still very much a work in progress, but she’s also the first to understand this. She’s not defensive. She’s not precious. She’s not just willing to learn, she WANTS to learn. And she’s multi-talented knowing how social media works and how to create and produce content. These extras can only lead to more multi-faceted areas of creativity.
What Hong Kong needs are a hundred, or even twenty Kat Coetzees to resuscitate this moribund music scene for the city’s English speaking audiences- and have these artists see their music travel.
If Singapore has created for itself a music scene with international potential and has an artist the calibre of Tabitha Nauser and the creative team behind her excellent video for “Bulletproof”, one has to wonder what’s keeping Hong Kong shackled to the past and with no game changers in sight for the present and the future…