Bruce Lee, Chungking Express lure singer Devendra Banhart to Hong Kong for first show in city
Venezuelan-American singer-songwriter Banhart has only experienced Hong Kong through the world of cinema, but in June he will get his first taste of the city when he performs at TTN
Venezuelan-American singer-songwriter Devendra Banhart gives off the impression that his life is full – and might just be overflowing.
The 37-year-old’s career has taken him in a range of unexpected directions since his breakthrough release “Oh Me Oh My” (2002). The album was part folk inspired but part something else entirely, with its esoteric lyrics, sparse low-fi sounds and songs that are often only two minutes long.
Since then, Banhart has continued to explore stripped-down sounds – in 2016’s mesmerising “Ape in Pink Marble” album, he even dabbled with Japan’s traditional stringed koto. He’s also worked on side projects with the likes of Antony and the Johnsons (“I Am a Bird Now”).
The Venezuelan-American spent his formative years in Texas, Venezuela and Los Angeles. Before music, Banhart’s creative impulses led him to the San Francisco Art Institute. Visual art has remained one of his passions since, holding his own exhibitions and curatorial projects that have also included collaborations with US singer-songwriter Beck.
The boundaries of Banhart’s art seem limitless and this is a notion that’s reinforced when speaking to the Post ahead of his appearance at Hong Kong’s TTN (the new venue run by the Hidden Agenda founders) on June 12, and he immediately wants to know about, well, everything.
“Do you speak Cantonese?” Banhart asks. “Do you know any good jokes? I’m just extremely curious. I’ve never been to Hong Kong but I grew up loving films from Hong Kong – Bruce Lee and then Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express. So this trip is a total adventure. I’m coming with such complete openness – zero predetermined ideas of how things might go.
“I am really embarrassed that I don’t speak Cantonese or Mandarin. This is a source of pain for me. So I was hoping you could tell me a joke I could share, but let the record show, you have given me no joke.”
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Banhart will be joined by Noah Georgeson, the musician-producer he has worked with across two decades and who picked up a Grammy award last year for his work with Puerto Rico’s Ile.
“We’ll be exploring a lot of things from each record, a lot from the last record because they are still such a big part of us,” says Banhart. “But we’ll get a chance to pull from the entire catalogue.”
Fans of “Ape in Pink Marble” – with soundscapes set in an imaginary Tokyo hotel – will be pleased to know the pair will recreate its magic. Or at least try, as Banhart explains.
“A koto is just a very interesting and beautiful instrument. We were very arrogant in thinking we could play it,” he says. “We didn’t do a great job but we tried. We wanted to give the record an imaginary setting that would give the record a non-specific narrative, or ambience.
“We do stripped-down versions live, using synthesisers or heavily treated guitars. The dream is to do it with a full band, but for this first tour we just really want to connect in the most simple way, which is how I started in music. It’s a very intimate and minimal thing.”
Banhart has just entered the studio to record new material, but the chance to tour Asia put those sessions on hold. “It’s just such a rare opportunity and something I have dreamt of doing for so long,” he says. “That’s why I am coming to visit you. The first thing I will do in Hong Kong is go to a museum and then temples. They are the two [things that] really interest me.”
Having never visited the city, Banhart says films have given him an idea of what to expect on his first visit – but not the full picture.
“Way of the Dragon, Chungking Express, Jackie Chan – you know Hong Kong has been a presence for me all along thanks to its cinema,” Banhart says. “But I have only seen it through the lens of cinema, and I am sure the city is more romantic than that.
“You can only really experience [a city] by going there, getting lost. So I have no idea what to expect. And that’s the way I like it.”
Devendra Banhart with Noah Georgeson, June 12, 8pm, TTN, 1/F Ocean One, 6 Shung Shun St, Yau Tong, HK$320, HK$400, Ticketflap