By Hans Ebert
It’s tough being what is often described as a “lounge singer”, especially in the bar of a 5-star hotel in Hong Kong and having to please everyone- the Food & Beverage Manager, the customers- mainly tourists wanting to hear something familiar and- quelle horreurs- sometimes, the head bartender who somehow sees themselves as an A&R genius who knows music.
The latter species reminds me of my days in advertising when the ad agency producer needing to say something just for the sake of saying something asked the session singer to record another take and make it “more punchy.”
“Punchy”. It’s a strange word that could mean anything. Maybe this was the idea. If you are clueless about what you want use a non word. I lost track of the ad agency producers I either kicked out of recording sessions or just let them go as they were a waste of space.
In Hong Kong, every five star hotel lounge seems to need a resident chanteuse- never ever a male singer- and over the years we have sat through the good, the mediocre and the Rocky Horror Show.
How some of these performers end up in hotel lounges charging five star prices for drinks remains a mystery. But with most hotels clinging to the past and dealing with the same old, and now much older, booking agents with their own roster of artists for the past thirty years, this might be one main reason.
Even if the wheel has fallen off, these partnerships continue because there’s really no confidence in the music and in a down economy, there’s an aversion to change as many making the decisions might be okay hoteliers, but they’re extremely poor marketing people often with a smidgen of musical knowledge. Yet, they’re in charge of the music including what is usually a D Grade sound system and everyone joining in to critique everything except for the service and what is always ridiculously high prices for a very average Red from Mudgee. Fawlty Towers? Que? Yes, Polly.
Of course there are those singers who know how it all works and are in a class of their own. They’re experienced, they’re professional and they’re realistic.
Most are Filipinas and with at least one- Jennifer Palor, below with champion jockey Joao Moreira- balancing out her career by performing in the best hotel lounges in Hong Kong with being booked for black tie functions and side projects.
She’s a no-nonsense artist who knows her worth and, unlike many others from the Philippines, she has no need to reduce her asking price because she needs the gig.
This leads me to a singer named Kathleen Leslie, another Filipina and, at least to me, very much underrated.
This girl can sing. She doesn’t need to shout to be heard. She can whisper and it connects with a listener. Plus she has a great repertoire and some very interesting arrangements of even the tired and the listless.
Why she doesn’t have a permanent residency somewhere is confusing. But maybe not. Hong Kong is not London or New York when it comes to venues for ‘live entertainment and the more dubious joints that actually want to lose money-hmmmm- wanting what they term “jazz”. It’s not Jazz. Hardly. But this is another story for another day about money laundering and the corruption of the Hong Kong entertainment business going back decades where everything was stopped to buy and sell Canto Pop “idols” and with everyone else fed the scraps.
As for the Lounge Singer in Hong Kong today, they’re usually hitting forty. The smart ones do the maths and know how long they need to keep going until they can afford a good lifestyle, most likely in the Philippines, and have enough in the kitty to travel and enjoy life. It’s a sensible career plan.
Ironically, those facing the bigger hurdles are the rest of whoever is out there. Black lounge artists have a certain niche market in Hong Kong who believe white men can’t jump and all Black artists must be good musicians. And so, most get gigs because, yes, they’re okay performers, but because of, well, their blackness.
Most Hong Kong audiences are nothing if not gullible and really not knowledgeable when it comes to differentiating jazz from jizz. Blame this on local promoters and the shake your money makers not really understanding one from the other…and not really giving a damn.
It’s been like this for almost four decades and still limps along with wistful reminiscing about distant memories of JJ’s and when places like the Champagne Bar had a pulse. Get over it.
For the white fortysomething musician in Hong Kong, things get tough. Do they become a nostalgia act and give the audiences the past or try to create a brand that has the musical chops to go on tour with someone like a Coco Lee, who has recreated herself more times than Cher has had face lifts, or a Karen Mok who sponsors book because, well, she’s Karen Mok and it’s a safe bet?
Meanwhile, there are a number of recording artists in especially the US and the UK and Europe with proven track records without gigs and more than open to perform in the region as part of a two week or one month tour.
Who knows about any of this? If some do, it’s kept under lock and key. Why? They’d rather not upset the apple cart. They’d rather keep giving audiences more of the same. It’s easier this way.
Hong Kong doesn’t have a shortage of venues. Not really. It has a very small talent pool who give the impression that they’re indispensable. No one’s indispensable especially those middle aged acts appealing to that middle aged audience who wouldn’t know Spotify from gratify.
It’s an important market but it’s been overlooked by oldsters and fraudsters who either don’t get it or don’t want to get it. But the winds of change are blowing this way.
Ironically, as it’s done with its Happy Wednesday brand and venues like Adrenaline and the Beer Garden, it’s again going to be the Hong Kong Jockey Club that will offer locally based- and overseas musicians with new opportunities and hopefully give the moribund Hong Kong music scene the kiss of life without depending on those who refuse to change with the times and are happy to just survive with the scraps and be big fish in a pond with no water.
Remember these two words: Tai Kwun, the old Central Police Station in Old Bailey Street and managed by the HKJC. There’ll be plenty of opportunities to go around and what one will see is an alternative lounge singer world. It promises to be a real game changer in Hong Kong. Someone like singer Kathleen Leslie will have more options than depending on the occasional gig in a hotel lounge.
#HongKong #nightlife #loungesingers #music #TaiKwun #HKJC