Melody maker

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 April, 2007, 12:00am

When America's leading jazz artists gathered for a morning photo shoot on the streets of New York in 1958, one of them explained his lateness by saying that most musicians have no idea there are two 10 o'clocks in the same day.

Although she might be relatively new to the jazz world, Ginger Kwan is keeping alive that laid-back attitude. She sleeps in through our first interview - arranged for 2pm - and arrives a little bleary-eyed and half an hour late for our second, scheduled for 5pm the next day.

The 25-year-old singer has been forging a reputation locally for the past few years, built on her ability to tackle any genre. For this week's jazz series at Grappas Cellar with the GK Project, Kwan's focus will turn more to urban acid jazz than standards. It's a style that comes easily, she says.

'Not many people try this style in Hong Kong, but it's much more to my liking. We do some Erykah Badu - things like that. I want people in Hong Kong to be more exposed to that type of jazz because that will help them understand the whole thing a lot more. People of my age, when they hear me sing, they dig it.'

The former St Mary's Canossian College student has been singing professionally only since 2001 but comes with a solid pedigree - her mother, Emelia Vargas, was a staple on the Hong Kong scene in the 80s.

'I've loved singing all my life,' says Kwan. 'I played the piano at school and my mum was a singer. But I was never allowed to join the choir when I was at school - they obviously didn't think I had the voice for it. Luckily for me, that's not the case any more.'

After graduation, Kwan worked as a secretary in an office, but it wasn't long before the breaks started to come.

'Some friends had formed a band called Popcorn and when their singer left they asked me to join,' she says. 'We were basically messing around, but one night I went with the drummer to a blues jam in Tsim Sha Tsui. After listening for a while I thought it was about time I tried to join in. So I went up to the band leader and asked to sing. The only thing I could think of was Aretha Franklin's Chain of Fools.'

It proved to be an inspired choice. The next day, Kwan received a phone call that led to a residency at the Royal Garden Hotel. 'They knew then that I wasn't a professional, but they were prepared to take a chance,' she says. 'It was tough at the beginning, but what a way to learn. We did everything ... oldies, ballads, pop, country.'

Not long after, Kwan turned her attention to jazz. 'I never really liked jazz before, but I've learned to love it. I go to a lot of local gigs and I was hearing other people sing, so I started to listen to various artists. If you don't know much about it, jazz can be inaccessible. But the more you listen the more you find that there are artists you like.'

As Kwan began to play around town, she caught the ear of more seasoned artists such as Kenny Bee, who took her on as a backup singer for tours.

Kwan says her success has been fuelled by an ear for a variety of musical styles and a diversity of influences.

'Stevie Wonder, I can listen to him every day - there's just so much going on with him. He's able to do everything,' says Kwan. 'My inspirations come from Stevie and Bob Marley because their music means so much to so many people.'

Live gigs are Kwan's priority, but she's hoping to record during the next 12 months and has begun experimenting with songwriting.

'I was always a frustrated musician,' she says. 'I didn't want to work in an office. I wanted to sing. Now I want to write my own songs. I've been experiencing things over the past year or so that I think have allowed me to try to write songs.

'It's not really about experiences, I suppose. People have always said I have the brain of a 40-year-old. Your age often doesn't tell you anything. I think it's more [about] learning how to express yourself.'

Another jazz cliche might have us believe that it's all about hardship, too. But that's not the case for Kwan.

'I don't find it tough,' she says. 'For me, life has been too kind. Luckily, I've found the right connections. I've been blessed by the support I've received - the help from experienced musicians who know what they're doing.'

Allen Youngblood and Jazbalaya, the Henry Chung Group featuring Tommy Chung, Ginger Kwan and the GK Project, Sat, 8pm, Grappas Cellar, Jardine House, 1 Connaught Pl, Central, HK$238 (includes one standard drink), HK$88 (students). Inquiries: 2521 2322