Can there really be Made In Hong Kong music- good enough for the world?

By Hans Ebert
@hanseberthk

Many want to put the house in order- and put Humpty Dumpty back together again- but, gawd knows, it’s not easy when there’s such a lack of genuine musical talent, creativity and originality around. It’s enough to make a grown man cry into his bowl of wonton noodles.

That’s not being cruel, just being brutally honest about what’s keeping the music scene in Hong Kong from going anywhere except where it’s been going for almost three decades- back to mimicking the current hits, or playing this flaccid stuff some suffering from delusional behaviour believe to be “Jazz”, or, if young enough, and with the mandatory K-Pop accessories- new nose, lips, chin, eyes and forehead- selling your soul and becoming a Canto Pop moppet.

It’s not exclusive to Hong Kong, but does the world need another soundalike- another Ed Sheeran, or Adele, or Rihanna etc- and especially out of a city not exactly known for its music? Cheap suits, yes. Music? Never, which is weird when one thinks back to those original Shanghai Divas and when that city was known as the Paris of the Orient.

Is there a way to remedy this problem by creating a sound that is intrinsically Hong Kong without going back in time to all the clichés of East-West musical doodling and adding an erhu and bibs and bobs of someone wailing away in Putonghua? Didn’t many of us try variations on this theme with varying degrees of success when World Music had heard enough of Peter Gabriel chanting “Biko” and was looking towards some Rainbow Connection that never materialised? We thought it would when approached by some of our musical heroes from the West, but all those conversations about projects turned out to be pocketful of mumbles that are sometimes promises.

Can there ever be a Made In Hong Kong sound- and please let this not be Canto Pop. Canto Pop only made sense when singer-songwriter Sam Hui fused his knowledge of chords from songs by the Beatles, the Zombies, Searchers, Kinks etc with the mood and humour of this city through his Cantonese lyrics and vocal delivery. But that was over forty years ago.

Canto Pop today is purely style over substance, and where plodding ballads based around a song like “Casablanca” or “Desperado” are churned out at some canoodling factory and with the magic of it all coming together when given to a hairstylist and set designer. Singer-actor and former dancer Aaron Kwok riding out onstage for a concert at the Coliseum on a horse and dressed like the French Lieutenant’s Wife might be a spectacle for his fans, but it has nothing to do with music. It’s to do with a three-ring circus.

Damon Albarn, Jamie Hewlett along with actor and director Chen Shi-Zheng, who conceived the idea, made a stab at “Westernising” Chinese music with their stage show “Monkey: Journey To The West”, but, though ambitious, and probably done for all the right reasons, “Monkey” was a bit of a jumbled mongrel with too many involved in what was just another running dog that never raised a yelp as the music fell on deaf ears. It was a musical chop suey. An unattractive Eurasian.

The real problem with trying to create original music in Hong Kong are the lack of collaborators. There are many who believe they’re original and “get it”, but they don’t. Not when they ask for “references”, and return with copycat versions. The bigger problem is that they don’t hear it. Or pretend they don’t.

There are many technically good musicians in Hong Kong, but having to eke out a living playing covers, and with any free time spent learning more covers, making that quantum leap to actually creating bona fide original music and seeing the Big Picture regarding what to do with this end product, is lost on them. It’s simply not in their DNA to see any further, and actually think and look beyond the next gig.

Guess the next gig is what pays the rent, and many are staring down the barrel of the gun called uncertainty and reality bites. But, if so, let’s not make false promises about being able to deliver, and then play for time. This wastes everyone’s time. This isn’t a collaboration. This is procrastination because Truth Time is up, and the guilty parties not wishing to be seen as a cast member of “Lost”.

It’s extremely tough to teach people what they will never comprehend, so finding the right collaborators, especially in something as subjective as music, often becomes an exercise in futility. They waste your time, and you waste theirs. The marriage is not a blessed union. And in Hong Kong’s small talent pool, a major factor in music not going anywhere is that there are not enough creative musicians to take it anywhere. Where’s there to take it, anyway? Peel Fresco? Orange Peel? Grappa’s? And what happens there- or anywhere in this city that has ‘live’ music? Nothing except for chump change, some random doodling, and a smattering of applause.

A well-known singer tried to explain why so many musicians in Hong Kong end up in covers bands or playing the hotel lounge circuit. “Most think they’re better than they are, and the others are just lazy”, was the succinct answer. “Push them, and they’ll get into a group huddle and label you as being ‘difficult’.” Frankly, in music, being “difficult” should be worn like a bloody big badge of honour.

Lennon and McCartney, Don Henley and Glenn Frey, Phil Spector and everyone he worked with, Bowie, Paul Simon, they have all, at one time or another, been described as being “difficult”. Often, this is another word for being a perfectionist, and being “difficult” has produced brilliant music.

Creating music is not some popularity poll where one needs to be liked. It’s fighting for the song in your heart and head, and making sure that the art running through your veins is never ever compromised. I was reading today that it took Glenn Frey three days to record the word “city” in the opening line to “Lying Eyes”.

The rest of the Eagles didn’t understand it at the time, but now they do. Glenn Frey was protecting his art- this pop song that told a story he had written and starred in. Unlike many musicians, and not just in Hong Kong, he wasn’t going to settle for Okay Is Good Enough, or lend credence to that dumb throwaway line that no one these days listens to lyrics. Tell that to Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer, Jimmy Webb and any great interpreter of original songs- someone like Francis Albert Sinatra.

Hong Kong music needs more “difficult” talent- not just musicians, but perfectionist arrangers, engineers, session musicians and producers. These are all sorely lacking in the creative process. It’s why we continue to produce such putrid crap over and over again. And whereas there was once a market for accepting this because no one knew better, this doesn’t exist anymore.

Like the days of dining outside every day, music fans have become more discriminating. They don’t see a buffet, and no longer want to eat everything. Today’s economic downturn has taught them the importance of being selective about who and what they invest in- and whose careers they might wish to kickstart.

Of course, those only creating music in English often tend to forget the obvious- that this is Hong Kong, China- and where one, too frequently, cannot or refuses to see the forest for the trees.

Ever since Sam Hui stopped trying to be a one-man British Beat Boom pop band singing covers, and became the pioneer of real Canto-Pop by singing in Cantonese, music recorded in English has become a second class citizen. And when Jacky Cheung began to record both in Cantonese and Mandarin, it paved the way for Hong Kong recording artists to enter the far bigger and more lucrative Mainland China and Taiwan markets. As a music market, Hong Kong became, and has become, less and less important.

So, what might a “Made In Hong Kong” sound be like today, and what will finally deal the death blow to the slush funds of Canto Pap (sic)?Like the man-eating plant in The Little Shop Of Horrors, Canto-Pop has been fed too much for too long.

Though there have been some valiant attempts to rap in Cantonese, none have really gone the distance. Apart from LMF, Canto-Rap lacked cred. It wasn’t exactly Public Enemy or the Wu-Tang Clan. It was some overseas Chinese returning to Hong Kong and trying to be what they couldn’t be in the States: Gangstas. But, LMF were different. They were Made In Hong Kong, and they woke up the neighbourhood.

Hong Kong, Version 2016, is a very different place. The government is distrusted, big business is under scrutiny, and what we have is a fractured society. Hong Kong needs a Voice, but not all these empty voices trying to be heard over each other like a murder of crows.

One of the most powerful voices has always been music. It’s a journalistic cliché, but Dylan, Lennon, and before them, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, spoke to generations through their music.

In Hong Kong, one really doubts that Joey Yung or Hins Cheung will be the musical Voice of the people. Good gawd, that’s a scary thought, and I hope not. But, now more than ever, Hong Kong needs its own sound- its own music that should be as international as the city itself, but never losing sight of the “Chineseness” that it must have. The person who manages to capture the sights and sounds of Hong Kong and brings this all together in Cantonese, Putonghua and English and brings together traditional and classically-trained Chinese singers and musicians to collaborate with creative writers, producers and musicians from the West to produce this One Voice could be an interesting new starting point.

Right now, there is no new starting point as laziness has set in and sapped many of us of our enthusiasm, inspiration and interest in music. Instead of going out there and doing something productive, we’re reading about what’s been done, and those who have come and gone and left us such rich musical legacies.

To not take their incredibly brave adventures of Ch-ch-ch-changes further will not only be letting them down, we’ll be letting ourselves down. And here in Hong Kong where we have been let down by so many, it’s surely time to look beyond venues and jam sessions and tedious Canto pap (sic)? It’s time to create music that can be exported, but which first resonates with the people of this great city we call home.

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