Fanfare Ciocarlia

Date: February 20, 2016
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Fanfare Ciocarlia is a twelve-person gypsy brass band hailing from northeast Romania. Suited up in black slacks, shiny shoes and oversized belt buckles, they dressed moderately, but there is nothing moderate about their music. Vibrant and punchy, their music speaks the language of a crackling dynamite. Slick trumpet lines show off their dexterous fingering. Horn and tuba provide the assured carpet flooring on which the human vocals and tweety brass lines dance. A bass drum not only anchors the procession with head-bobbing beats but awes with the occasional whiplashing sticking. The twelve musicians may each be doing something different, and the overall texture could sometimes sound cacophonic, but their phrasings always end with a rewarding unity that declares any turbulence merely temporal and insignificant. It takes no more than a song or two before the aisles of the concert hall at the Cultural Centre were filled with a large dancing audience. Gypsy reincarnations of Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” or Ellington’s “Caravan” could sound cheesy at first, but upon closer inspection, these makeovers sound sincere — more like a fair commentary than an infringement of the original. Jazzed-up gypsy fares such as “Toba mare” and “Iag Bari” reflect their music’s full potential as a voice of lyricism and message. Fanfare Ciocarlia is a rare gem in today’s world of music, of any kind. If one were to nitpick, their facial expressions could be dull and stoic. Contrast that with the vibrant music, however, and one could sense the genie in the bottle lurking impatiently from within, and a fully gratifying, coordinated menace awaits.

Fanfare Ciocarlia in Hong Kong.

Fanfare Ciocarlia in Hong Kong.

Bobby McFerrin

Date: March 13, 2015
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

When Bobby McFerrin last visited Hong Kong in 2004, he sang with Eason Chan and Candy Lo. His duet with Eason Chan, My Funny Valentine, garnered rave reviews. Eleven years later, he sang with Madison, his daughter; and spirityouall, his band. Sidekicks have changed, but the ethereal beauty of McFerrin’s voice remains. McFerrin’s voice, effused with an eternal lightness and a soothing quality that can’t be described in words, exhibits therapeutic effects not dissimilar to those offered by gazing aimlessly at white clouds floating in blue sky. McFerrin’s audience is global, but his sound, particularly in this spirityouall World Touroozes with an unmistakably all-American blend of soul, gospel, blues, and rock. From the contemplative meditation of “Glory, Glory” to more robust locomotion of “Joshua”, McFerrin runs his show with a wide range of tempi. A master of audience interaction, he does singalongs with willing audience members who would approach the stage to sing a verse or two of “Whole World (in His/Her Hands)”, with the band in tow. McFerrin’s voice can’t be pigeon-holed into any genre, but by any objective analysis he has a natural gift in syncopated rhythms, and in mixing his chest voice and falsetto to achieve a vibrant fabric of vocal goodness. Even as song lyrics verge towards proselytizing, he sounds grounded and earnest. The highly skilled group of musicians provided much support throughout the evening, but its dramatic highlight belonged to drummer Louis Cato. A multitalented musician, Cato warmed the Cultural Centre with beautiful fret work on acoustic guitar and vocal output, in a solo rendition of “Amazing Grace”. Notwithstanding a brief but annoying intrusion of the sound system by a cellphone nearby, the performance left Cato in tears and McFerrin leaving his position onstage to give the soloist a long embrace. At that very moment, it was as if McFerrin was declaring that his whole world was in his embrace.

Bobby McFerrin in Hong Kong.

Bobby McFerrin in Hong Kong. Photo credit: Hong Kong Arts Festival.

Wong Sze Ma’s My Boy the Musical (飛行棋)

Date: August 8, 2014
Location: Kwai Tsing Theatre, Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong Children’s Musical Theatre
Millennium Youth Orchestra

The musical is based on the comics and the life of the late Mr. Wong Sze Ma (王司馬), the Charles Schulz of Hong Kong’s world of illustration. Wong’s comics often depict the real life events of himself and his family. The musical, penned by playwright and lyricist Armando Lai (韋然), was borne out of an exchange between Lai and Wong’s siblings during a Macau exhibition of Wong’s works in 2013. Soon after the exhibition, producer and art educator Justine Woo (胡寶秀), co-founder of the Hong Kong Children’s Musical Theatre, contacted Lai and told him that they should, together with composer Frankie Ho, work on a piece based on Wong’s works. One thing led to the other, and six months later the script and score were completed.

A bulk of the musical alludes to the story of Niuzai (牛仔) and his family — they are characters in Wong’s eponymous four-panel comic strip published in Hong Kong in the 70s and early 80s. During that period, Hong Kong was recovering nicely from a past decade of natural disasters and political turmoil. Economically, the British colony was reinventing itself from an aging manufacturing base to a vibrant financial center. Optimism ran high, and citizens hoisted highly and held dear a can-do spirit. A lot of those sentiments is reflected in Lai’s lyrics:

“來給你繪幅漫畫 / 齊步行到未來 / 人生裡的歡樂與喜 / 會交替恨與淚 / 從不怕追蹤夢想 / 如未來有未來 / 給昨天的孩子 / 給今天的孩子 / 給明天的孩子”

“Let me draw you a comic / together we walk to the future / Life is full of happiness and joy / but also with scorn and tears / Fear not to reach for your dreams / If future has a future / let that be given to yesterday’s child / to today’s child / to tomorrow’s child” (Niuzai’s dad, to Niuzai)

Niuzai and his family, which are cartoon reflections of Wong’s son and his own family, represent a typical family of that era: guardedly confident of a promising future and happy to be living in the moment. Armando Lai’s lyrics provide a nice microcosm of that spirit of the yesteryear, and present a good contrast between then and now, where that sentiment was long lost under a thick cloud of social vitriol and political pessimism. Dramatically, Lai weaves two stories, one about Niuzai’s family in the comic strip and another about Wong’s family, together. Both stories have their tender moments of parent-child relationship, oozing plenty of parental love and a spring of youth. But in the latter, some moments, whether they be about manhood bonding through binge drinking, or about death and loss, tend to breach the limits of how far a director can go in a family-friendly musical where plenty of pre-teen kids attend.

The more serious topic probably aims to please the parents in the audience who grew up likening themselves to Niuzai’s parents, but could be too heavy for kids. True, even Wong’s comics sometimes weave these disparate topics together, but Wong did it with grounded realism inside four panels rather than through the sort of emphatic, animated dramatization of musical theater. Furthermore, ending the evening with dark chromatic music and death in the musical coda left a strange taste in the mouths of an audience expecting something more upbeat in a family-oriented evening. Wong would probably never drag out a death over a few minutes of dark music in a gloomy stage, even if given a stage to do so. The resulting effort tried to appease both adolescence and grown-ups, but fell somewhat short. Nevertheless, it was noteworthy that Frankie Ho’s music was well-orchestrated and truthful to musical theater, while Jennifer Ho (何嘉盈) conducted the Millennium Youth Orchestra with great attentiveness and courtesy.

Wong Sze Ma's My Boy the Musical.

Wong Sze Ma’s My Boy the Musical.

Anthony Lun: One Voice Ten Fingers

Date: September 1, 2013
Location: Queen Elizabeth Stadium, Hong Kong.

Hong Kong-born Anthony Lun moonlighted as a lounge singer-pianist in the United States before returning to his birthplace to make a successful career in cantopop. As a composer, he writes music, often oozy love ballads, that could be infectious: “Why Did I Let You Go?” (我為何讓你走), sung by heartthrob Aaron Kwok, became such a hit in 1992 that teenagers were heard humming to its melody inside classrooms and at street corners. His lyricist for that song, YL Poon, was even accused of poisoning the public with the prospects of reckless alcoholism: 從來沒有飲品只有酒迎著夜雨淚更爽快地流 / There were no beverage, just alcohol; let that flow along with chilling rain and tears”. As an arranger, he often reweaves old music into unique fabrics of his own, such as his lauded re-imagination of David Foster’s “And When She Danced” into “Fleeting Memory of this Love” 此情只待成追憶, a hit song he sang with Sandy Lam. Between the late-80s and mid-90s, during the peak of his powers, Lun has composed over 40 No. 1 chart hits – “Why” and “Fleeting” being two of them – no small feat as the period was widely considered to be cantopop’s commercial heyday. Over the years, he has collaborated with and composed songs for Faye Wong, Andy Lau, Anita Mui and Elisa Chan, to name a few; to say that he owned cantopop during that period was not an exaggeration. Since then, his career, though not drawing to a close, has become more subdued. After a very brief career in Japan, he has produced fewer hits, though, as a capable pianist, often found himself onstage as guest collaborators on other people’s stages. This weekend at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium, the stage was entirely his own. Now in his late fifties, he sang a few of his old hits while being his own accompanist on keyboard. His voice still lent a shimmering ring, and his piano playing was neat and tidy. Most importantly, he engaged his audience with such a flexible combination of acerbic wit and natural sincerity that would shame most of today’s cantopop wannabes half his age. His performance this weekend was not a Norma Desmond in search of past glory, but one that made a strong case that he, in fact, has never left.

9/11/2013 update: Lun’s collaboration with the young Sherman Chung was just announced this week, and will hit the waves and charts later this year.

Anthony Lun, in Hong Kong

Anthony Lun, in Hong Kong.

Anthony Lun, in Hong Kong

Anthony Lun, with Deanie Yip.

Anthony Lun, in Hong Kong

Anthony Lun, in Hong Kong.

CHAT live in Hong Kong

Date: May 23, 2013
Location: Sheung Wan Civic Centre, Hong Kong.

French singer-songwriter Charlene Juarez, better known on stage as CHAT, lives up to her stage name. Her voice has a mesmerizing timbre, whose fragile sentimentality belies her secure delivery, just like a cat whisking freely but surely atop an endless maze of Parisian rooftops. In Les âmes soeurs, which appears in her latest album, Le Coeur, her musical notes are placed with a meticulous delicacy, not unlike a cat’s paw kissing the edge of slender roof tiles. While Juarez sings, she often works the keyboard with blistering attacks of fast arpeggios. L’insouciance, a number from her debut album Folie Douce, reads visually like a fast cat skipping up and down an undulating terrain of hot tin roofs. While her fingers are at it, she raps too – not in the traditional sense of chimed rhyming but in the form of a spindle rapidly spouting delicate lines of verbal goodies. She carries an airy blond hair over her gazing eyes and a gorgeous body that swings deliciously while she makes music, in such a natural way that she seems to enjoy her music much more than that spotlight moment onstage.

Unlikely as it may seem, the biggest distraction of the evening turns out to be her music. CHAT readily allows her harmonic arch to go momentarily haywire, which is fine, but the finale of her music almost always resolves to a simple tonic, often in the major key, and often in the root position in unison with the routines of a finishing bass and a concluding drum sequence. If anyone has played music with preset playing patterns on a drum machine that has a handy <end> button, an evening with CHAT sounds like a bunch of amateurs clowning about in a record studio. That sort of association is regrettable, because the rest of CHAT’s music is, for the most part, cerebral and soulful. Her song Le coeur, in her eponymous album, provides a pleasing exception: it ends not with a simple resolution but with a subtle inversion that seems to echo the waffling emotions described in the lyrics, thereby giving more body and meaning to the harmonics. Perhaps that should be her blueprint for future compositions.

The CHAT performance is part of Le French May.

CHAT live in Hong Kong.

CHAT live in Hong Kong. Copyright: CHAT and Le French May.

Grasshopper VS Softhard

Date: October 31, 2012
Location: Hong Kong Coliseum, Hong Kong.

Grasshopper, comprised of brothers Calvin and Remus Choy and their childhood neighbor Edmond So, shot to fame in the late 80s by producing danceable music with sappy lyrics. The Softhard duo of Jan Lamb and Eric Kot, formed a few years later when the Hong Kong music scene was still a factory that churned out cookie-cutter soft ballads and 251 synth-rocks, shook the status quo with provocative rap and unapologetic emceeing. Both groups met success and peaked in the mid-90s, but slowly yielded to a younger generation of entertainers in the past decade. On paper, their collaboration this year is not unusual because of career timing (Canto overlords get periodic revitalizations all the time), but because their artistic and delivery styles differ so much that a concert union seems odd. How does one sell the premise of a show featuring these two distinct groups?

Jan Lamb, the show’s producer, had an ingenious solution: the show is basically a game show divided into segments where the two groups would compete against each other in rounds of singing, dancing and showmanship. The winner, measured by levels of crowd cheers accumulated in those competitive segments, would get bragging rights for the evening. The tasks for their respective fans became painlessly easy: purchase some tickets, show up, and cheer for their respective group.

The night began with a fifteen-minute medley of oldies, sung by a tag team of various combinations of the five. Agile dancers, costumed as icons of the olden days, including Old Master Q (老夫子), Bruce Lee and the legendary Anita Mui, cavorted merrily on stage. Remus Choy sported fancy pants with the head of a psychedelic pink rhinoceros stuck in front. Jan Lamb lit up the Coliseum with his tireless stage patter. And all that was merely the prelude, before the first segment even began. This visual splendor would permeate the rest of the evening, and for the next three hours, Grasshopper fans soaked up Softhard’s colloquial talent and ludicrous comedy, while Softhard’s fans warmed up to Grasshopper’s unrelenting work ethic and melodious singing. Fan bases embraced, and the competition slowly evolved into a kumbaya of sorts.

While the two groups competed for love and appreciation, a theme emerged as they waxed nostalgia through the help of old classics or snappy lyrics. Even in new songs, the future seemed less revered than the past. In the song “你食咗飯未 / Have you eaten?”, when asked about having a late night snack, Edmond So retorted: “宵你個頭呀,晚飯都未食呀 / Late night snack? Seriously? I haven’t even had dinner!”, as if complaining about the working class’ hours which seem to extend year after year. In the cross-over collaboration “俾啲掌聲你自己 / Give yourself a hand”, Calvin Choy and Jan Lamb clearly had something to say about the tension between the working class and the elite ruling class: “明日你會有壓力牆 那裡再有特權 個個讚你 個個也傾慕 / You shall face life’s stress tomorrow; wherever there is political power, there shall be admiration and flattery.” Any fan base in Hong Kong can relate to and appreciate that.

Between songs, Softhard joked about Hong Kong’s unpopular chief executives. The three chief executives’ faces were then flashed on the Coliseum’s large screens, drawing loud jeers from the audience. Nobody would seriously believe that Softhard has a political agenda, though bashing the ruling chief executive is a popular agenda in the homes of today’s average working class. In a city as diverse as Hong Kong, the best antidote to bitter division is to find a common enemy that everyone rallies against. Grasshopper VS Softhard is therefore a condensed tribute to the Hong Kong Style – a three-hour medley evoking a shared, collective memory that brings all fan bases together under one roof, and uniting a diverse crowd that actually has more in common than meets the eye. The competition format was merely an apparatus to bring fans together to share a cheery moment. In that sense, Grasshopper VS Softhard is not so much about two groups duking it out (well, it never was anyway; and for the record, the final score for the kumbaya: a tie) as, whether intentional or not, about discovering common ground among us.

Grasshopper VS Softhard.

Grasshopper VS Softhard.

Grasshopper VS Softhard.

Grasshopper VS Softhard.

Grasshopper VS Softhard.

Grasshopper VS Softhard.

Karen Mok @ JZ Festival

Date: October 20, 2012
Location: Shanghai Expo Park, Shanghai.

Against the backdrop of the Bund, the JZ Festival Shanghai offers two days of non-stop music making on eight stages in the former Shanghai Expo site. Jazz musicians from all around the world, including international names such as trumpeter Roy Hargrove and local jazz jewels like Golden Buddha (金佛), participate in this jazzy love affair. The lineup also features an unlikely participant – Karen Mok – a pop singer from Hong Kong better known in the Chinese-speaking world for her long legs and outrageous, Gaga-like wardrobe than a jazzy voice. On JZ’s stage, her stage mannerism was clearly more pop diva than Ella Fitzgerald – at one point while singing she ripped off her rock star-esque leather jacket to reveal a tight, glittery tube dress that juicily flaunted her bodily goods. As she rollicked and frolicked on stage, and as she maintained sustained arousing contact with Xia Jia (夏佳)’s grand piano, Mok would easily be mistaken as Roger’s very badly behaving Jessica. Her timbre was serviceable, but exhibited neither a smoky, sultry texture nor a unique register that typically defines each jazz singer. In the few instances where she attempted at scat singing, the melodic train would come out sounding rehearsed and emotionally flat. As an artist, she excelled by being extremely engaging and communicating – with her killer seductive gaze handily roping in her audience. Her rendition of A Fine Romance was playful and rhapsodic, while a jazzified version of Cloudy Day, one of her top pop hits, oozed with melancholic solitude. Her supporting musicians: Lawrence Ku on guitar, Bei Bei on drums, and Xia on keyboards, were top-line folks in the China jazz scene who dutifully provided accompaniment, albeit arguably underutilized. This evening would mark Mok’s first live jazz performance in her storied pop career, and while on stage she announced, to approving delight of the fans, that her latest recording project would be an English jazz album to be released in January 2013. Her fans should take note.