The Hong Kong artists on Ryuichi Sakamoto’s latest album and what it meant to them to work with the Japanese great

‘Async’ features narrations by Hong Kong artists Tang Kit-ming and Priscilla Leung, thanks to music critic Wong Chi-chung, the man behind David Bowie’s only Mandarin song, who connected them with the Japanese musician

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 May, 2017, 2:03pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 May, 2017, 2:03pm

In the myth of the Tower of Babel, humans were divided by languages as God’s punishment for trying to build a tower to reach the heavens. But in his latest project, Ryuichi Sakamoto does the opposite, using different languages in an attempt to bring different nationalities together.

On the track titled Fullmoon, from his latest album “Async”, the famed Japanese musician has created a conceptual ambient piece inspired by a text written by American author Paul Bowles. It is constructed of samples of the passage being narrated in several languages, including Cantonese and Mandarin – performed by Hong Kong artists Tang Kit-ming and Priscilla Leung Siu-wai.

“Async” is the first album Sakamoto has released since his recovery from throat cancer.

“In making Async, my first solo album in eight years, I made the ‘sounds/music’ that I wanted to hear,” the world’s best known contemporary Japanese musician wrote in an article that accompanies the album.

“I was preparing to compose an album in 2014 until my illness interrupted me. I discarded all of the sketches that I had made until then and started from scratch. I asked myself what I wanted to listen to, and how I should approach this empty canvas.”

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The Hong Kong artists were connected to Sakamoto by local radio DJ and music critic Wong Chi-chung, the man behind David Bowie’s only Mandarin song, Cha Na Tian Di, the Chinese version of the late music legend’s Seven Years in Tibet.

Wong, who has been friends with Sakamoto since he first interviewed the artist in 1989, said he was asked to find a female voice to narrate Bowles’ text in Mandarin last year. He then started searching among his friends.

“But none of it worked out until Priscilla Leung came on board. She has a a voice that is mature, wise and dramatic,” Wong says.

Leung is a well-known artist who has contributed her voice to various theatrical and artistic productions, including Pretext Quartet at the 2016 New Vision Arts Festival in Hong Kong and musical theatre Subway, which was also staged in Taiwan this year. She said her narration was not about the language, but the emotions she felt in the text.

Bowles’ text reads: “Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well [...] How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps 20. And yet it all seems limitless.”

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Leung said when she was first asked to do the vocal performance for Sakamoto’s new album, Bowles’ text was all she had.

“The text is a simple message about life experience. I understand the background, and what Sakamoto has been through. So I used a lot of imagination. I had a feeling that he was searching for life experiences from others,” she said.

Wong says Cantonese was not included at the beginning but in the end, Tang’s Cantonese narration also made it to the final cut. The former radio DJ and film scriptwriter says it was an honour to contribute to Sakamoto’s project after listening to and playing his music on the radio for many years.

“It’s a completion of my broadcasting career,” says the 30-year broadcasting veteran. “I agree that this album is like a watershed of Sakamoto’s life, as the works are inspired by important life events. But this work is not about him. It’s about a vision.”

Tang says she adopted a different approach to the performance compared to speaking on radio. As a radio DJ, she says she must be in the spotlight, but when recording her vocals for Fullmoon, she wanted to use a voice that had experienced life.

Wong says that Fullmoon features 11 languages, including English, German, Spanish and Italian, which was narrated by famed Italian film director Bernardo Bertolucci.

Tang says she was moved by the idea of Fullmoon and, despite the differences in the performances by various narrators from around the world, the piece’s message was clear: the experiences of life are shared by all humans.

“Music is a global language. It sounds clichéd but it is very true in Sakamoto’s music,” Tang says.