Hong Kong’s youngest world champion harmonica player on a mission to ‘rebrand’ his humble instrument
CY Leo, crowned world harmonica champion at the age of 19, will join classical musicians for a free concert this month and has been exploring another genre, jazz, as he seeks to elevate the mouth organ’s status
When he was 19 years old, in 2013, Leo Ho Cheuk-yin, better known as CY Leo, was named the youngest ever World Solo Harmonica Champion.
Now, one year into his full-time career as a musician, the 23-year-old is living the dream and is determined that his music reach a bigger audience. To that end he has been honing his talent and exploring new repertoire.
As a performer on cruise ships he has been to more than 40 cities. Just last week, the group he formed with friends from his alma mater, King’s College in Hong Kong’s Mid-Levels, the Veloz Harmonica Quartet, was invited to perform at a gala concert at Switzerland (where they live-streamed themselves playing an impressive rendition of Flight of the Bumblebee on the snowy slopes of the Jungfrau peak in the Alps). And earlier this year, Smash, a trio he formed with pianist Wong Ka-jeng and saxophone player Timothy Sun, showcased their music to audiences in London.
Such career success was entirely beyond Ho’s expectations, however. Just a few years ago, he considered being a full-time musician such a gamble that he studied occupational therapy at Hong Kong Polytechnic University to give himself a plan B.
Still, having remained active in the city’s music scene while a student, Ho built himself a solid following in Hong Kong and was able to book jobs even before he graduated.
It helps that he is a charismatic performer, having learned how to work the crowd and cultivate his stage presence when performing night after night alongside comedians, magicians and even a hypnotist while working on cruise ships.
A flair for music, especially the harmonica, runs in the Ho family. In total, family members own more than 100 harmonicas, including the world’s most expensive one – a HK$50,000 silver instrument made by Norwegian Georg Pollestad, who sells no more than five harmonicas each year.
Ho’s father, Ho Pak-cheong, is a founding member of the King’s Harmonica Quintet, which won the world championship in the group category in 1997. So picking up the harmonica was a no-brainer for both Ho and his younger brother, Felix, also a world champion.
“They practised at our home very often, almost twice a week. I was literally surrounded by these harmonica players ever since I was born,” says Ho.
In 2007, the older Ho received a Chief Executive’s Commendation for Community Service for his promotion of the harmonica. Now his son is poised to take harmonica playing further, and hopes not just to popularise it but also elevate the humble instrument.
“A lot of people only see the harmonica as a toy instrument. I would like to give it a higher stature in the music industry,” says Ho. “There are a lot of excellent players, but it needs someone to rebrand it, and basically do the marketing work.”
This is why, on October 21, Ho will join a group of Hong Kong classical musicians including violinist Chen Xi and pianist Colleen Lee on stage at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. It’s a venue where the other instruments are played regularly, but the harmonica not so much.
In the Our Hong Kong Young Notes Concert, presented by RTHK, Ho will play two pieces with Wong Ka-jeng on the piano – Intermezzo Giocoso, written by German composer and accordion player Rudolf Würthner, and Toledo Spanish Fantasy, a concerto for harmonica by James Moody – as well as a solo piece, Serenade, by Tommy Reilly, one of the best harmonica players in history.
He chose to play these pieces because they are by some of the first musicians to compose or arrange music for the harmonica and who introduced the instrument to the concert mainstream.
While Ho will perform classical music in this concert, since becoming world champion at the World Harmonica Festival in Germany four years ago he has turned his eyes towards another genre – jazz.
“Learning jazz opens the door to a lot of other musical genres such as fusion jazz, hip hop, soul and R&B, many of which are now trends of the world,” says Ho, who has taken jazz lessons from the likes of Ted Lo, known as the godfather of jazz in Hong Kong.
As the city’s first jazz harmonica player, Ho may be forging a new path, but it is precisely the challenge of being a pioneer that fascinates him.
In November he will return to the World Harmonica Festival, this time not as a competitor but as an adjudicator. “I wrote the test piece and incorporated many technical challenges,” says Ho. “It’s going to be a tough one.”
Our Hong Kong Young Notes, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, 10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Oct 21, 8pm, Free admission. Readers may request tickets by completing online forms (rthk.hk/hkyn) with the code: SCMP_OHKYN. Inquiries: 2794 6207