Unsung heroes play it by ear

SOMETHING of a cultural revolution - music division - took place in the new LA Cafe in The Lippo Centre (aka the broken Bond Centre), according to a newspaper report last week.

The restaurant hired a local rock band as house musicians and they started to play, well, rock. The management asked them to play something softer but they did not do anything quite as well as rock, if at all, and they refused.

For a moment, it looked as though the beef trolley would be torched and the National Guard would have to be brought out down there in LA but instead, the band turned on its heel and walked.

''The lead guitarist had an attitude problem,'' said a restaurant spokesman.

''I bet he did,'' said a long-standing freelance house musician who has tickled the ivories for the chattering masses longer than most. ''It is idiotic. Where did the management look for its music? The Yellow Pages, a catalogue? The restaurant must have known it was a rock group and you cannot play soft rock. It would come out like apple crumble. Musically, that is probably what they want.'' Last week, I wandered the better lounges and bars around the harbour, through tiffin, tea and tequilas looking at the loneliness of the long-distance house musician and listening to the worry soaking wallpaper they put up around the customers, who sit with their backs to them waiting, wasting or wiped.

Noise is a politically sensitive subject between musicians and management. Like people who like fish as long as it is not too ''fishy'', the porcelain eardrums of the Hongkong loungers like music as long as it is not too musical.

They do not want to be aware of it.

''This can be quite a problem,'' admitted Peter Lally, pianist and accompanist, who now works at the Academy for Performing Arts but used to head up a full-time lounge trio.

''Music, by its very nature, must be heard. Some managements think that in hiring you, they have employed a live version of piped music. They imagine that, like a radio, they can just keep turning you down and down.

''Getting low, unvarying sound from a live musical instrument is physically impossible.'' They give it a try though. The violinist with The Tiffin Strings in the Grand Hyatt demonstrated what the restraining ''mute'' does to volume, playing with it across the bridge of his violin.

Unmuted, the note sang out clearly. Muted, it was softer, more nasal, as though it was talking with a finger and thumb pinching its nostrils.

In the venerable Peninsula Lobby, the Lobby Quintet was arranged up on its balcony. The baby grand had been opened side-on to the room below and was giving the tea slurping Japanese and chocolate cake chomping fraus an earful of piano forte beyond the call of atmosphere.

The quintet is delightfully restrained. It strokes away through natter and dropped tea trays without demur, although the baby grand now pokes out into the first-floor shopping mall.

Lalley recalls an occasion when he was playing a duet with a flautist and there was a ''supposed'' complaint.

Supposed, because he wagers it was a lie on the part of a maladjusted waiter captain.

''I was simply told to stop playing the piano as a way of reducing the volume,'' he said. ''The flautist was left wandering around the tables like a distressed pied piper. It was pathetically funny.'' ''House'' musicians seem to fall into three broad categories. There are the wandering professional Westerners, who can tell tales of community singing at holiday camps and raunchy cruise liners with steamed-up windows; the amateur gweilos, who have a dayjob and do it in the evenings for fun; and the vast majority, Filipinos, who do it full-time in earnest as though their very visas depended on it.

Amongst none of them could I find true resentment at being a gallery minstrel. The part-timers enjoy it. John Tate, an English Schools Foundation teacher and one of the gweilo cabal who play the Pacific Place pianos, said: ''I enjoy it immensely. I try to play on regardless of requests and the only thing that upsets me is the tendency to put pianos next to plate glass windows. I see my reflection.'' Filipino players have a more cautious, diplomatic approach. They tend to stay with a hotel or restaurant for surprisingly faithful lengths of time. Most of The Peninsula's Lobby Quintet have been there for five years.

''I need a break,'' suggested violinist Racel, who works 4.30 pm to midnight with Tuesdays off and is savouring imminent leave away from ''the standards'' - as the bone-achingly popular numbers are courteously called.

The Tiffin Strings have been with the Grand Hyatt from its opening. From its very beginning The Regent has had Mignonne and The Jets, a largely and unusually Sri Lankan band which plays the Mezzanine and for ''society'' at the ballroom functions.

Mignonne is very much the grande dame of the expatriate musicians and takes a high view of her profession.

''We play for a very mixed bag, everybody from the young jetset to the social ballroom dancers,'' she said. ''There is nowhere they can easily ballroom dance, I know who they are or sense what they want and get them on to the floor with a few numbers.'' Did she ever feel resentful; that she was not listened to? ''In an early set, the crowd will be thin - businessmen talking,'' she said. ''You pull back and then you move forward with the music when you think the moment is right. Part of the skill and theambience you create is feeling when the audience is with you.

''Of course things liven up in the evenings. Sometimes you have to play a number that will quieten them down a bit.'' The sound at The Regent Mezzanine at 10 pm was certainly more ''gig-like'' in volume than anywhere else. The Count and Countless von Glowurm und Blottelstop were stepping from their airport Daimler into the lobby with Pretty Woman thumping away over their heads. Mignonne, temporising, explained: ''We have to play in the 'middle of the road'. The sound goes up and down; you can't help that. But there must be no racket for the front desk downstairs.'' Over in the Hyatt's Champagne Bar, pianist Raoul was at peace with the world. ''I never worry about them not listening,'' he said. ''You get used to it.'' It was an acceptance, a conclusion that all the musicians had reached. ''In the early days it intrigued me whether they were or they weren't, so as they were talking away to my music I would slip in, not a wrong note exactly, but an inappropriate one. Believe me heads turned instinctively. They are listening whether they know it or not.'' According to Racel at The Peninsula: ''It is much more difficult to tell up here how many are listening and how many aren't. When they are definitely switched off to me, then I play what I like.'' Being? ''Meditation from Thais by Massenet. That is my real private favourite.

''On the other hand, sometimes they are all with you on a particular number and they sing along.'' The image of 100 tourists and loungers belting out a song in a sort of Albert Hall rattling with tea cups and cake stands took some digesting.

Interestingly, all the musicians asked said that, if the audience did not have to be pandered to they would tear into one sort of jazz or another.

The Grand Hyatt, notable for its house-music standards, features jazz musicians in The Tiffin in the evening. They are very popular. One evening recently Natalie Cole, possibly ambushed by originality, started to sing along with the musicians and invitedthem to play around her table.

''Listening to them you could be anywhere in the world,'' declared Cole, against a floor to ceiling view of Victoria Harbour.

Requests are a tribulation to be borne. The passions are for ''the standards'' and Broadway. Sometimes one number dominates the collective mind to the eventual despair of musicians. Cole might well have been kicked down the hotel stairs for reviving Unforgettable ad nauseam.

Racel recalls Unchained Melody, which was requested at least once every set. ''I never want to hear it again.'' The boys in the Tiffin Quintet wince faintly if you mention the theme tune from Robin Hood. They also chuckle over the orchestral ignorance of the average lounger who will ask you to play Pretty Woman on the violin.

A string quintet is asked for Tchaikovsky's piano concerto.

The 1812 has been demanded of a piano and violin duo.

''If you cannot manage a request, the lounge captain will often put that down in the duty report book,'' Lally said. ''We rarely have problems with the F and B [food and beverage] managers who hire us but their flunkies, their so called 'executive assistants' or 'captains' - even the waiters - try to give us hell.

''They put us down in that blasted report book if we are a minute late for a set, but never when we play 15 minutes over to complete requests. They lie to management about complaints. Once, for the first time in weeks, nobody bothered to dance on a quietnight. That went into the book.

''Tonight, nobody danced.

''No house musician will have failed to experience a hotel coffee shop waiter who tries to delay serving him his 'duty' meal before he goes on because that will make him late.

''We musicians always speculate why local hotel staffs are out to get us. Maybe it's because we are foreigners. Possibly it is because we don't fit into their authority structure.

''Most probably it is jealousy, because we are paid more and work fewer hours.'' Musicians being artists see everything going wrong.

''If you go around and listen to the standards these days,'' claimed one, ''you cannot imagine what is going through managers' heads. They must have cloth ears.'' ''Audiences are settling for less,'' said another, with a wide, pitying smile. ''But then audiences are changing.

''You know what I mean, Stuart,'' he confided, casting a baleful eye round one full of late night half-horsing locals. ''They do not have the aah, savoir faire of the past.''