Acoustic scene is finding its feet in Hong Kong
Showcases such as Crossed Wires and Acoustic Angst are helping Hong Kong's acoustic bands find their footing in welcoming venues, writesHans Schlaikier
A reported surge in worldwide sales of acoustic guitars, banjos and ukuleles in recent years, plus the popularity of bands such as Mumford and Sons and Bon Iver, all point to something of a renaissance in acoustic and folk-based music.
Whether it's because of the emotionally charged songs, the diverse and sometimes quirky instrumentation or the stripped-down sound that shifts the focus squarely to songwriting and melody, indie folk and acoustic bands have struck a chord with listeners.
Hong Kong has not been immune to this global wave: while the city has always been home to an abundance of musicians and songwriters, the number of outlets available to folk and acoustic songwriters is on the rise too.
They mostly have to thank events such as Acoustic Angst, a popular acoustic night held at The Wanch, and Crossed Wires, a recently launched monthly showcase. On arriving at the debut Crossed Wires night at Dharma Den in Central, a commotion can be heard even before the elevator doors open. A buzzing din is concentrated around the bar as punters try to get some drinks in before the show starts.
A small line-up of local bands and songwriters are hoping to showcase their talents in the bare-bones format and cosy atmosphere of Dharma Den where a microphone and sound equipment have been set up just off the centre of what is often a dance floor.
The show is due to start in just under an hour and the place is filling up. The people gathering are more than just the usual suspects seen at local band nights, displaying a refreshing diversity ranging from hipsters to lager louts and a good mixture of locals and expats all out to support, sway along or simply survey the acts that have come together for this acoustic showcase.
Crossed Wires is not the first of its kind. Several venues around town have experimented with acoustic nights over the years, often fizzling out after a short run. Other venues have offered open-mic nights as an alternative to the regular pub DJ. More often than not, the bands end up providing background noise for drinkers who chat over the music, pausing only to offer the occasional half-hearted clap between songs.
This lack of enthusiasm isn't helped by most venues' lacklustre sound equipment and disinterest in promoting anything other than happy-hour drink prices.
But at Dharma Den there is a sense of purpose. The event feels like a proper show, anticipation fills the air and it soon becomes apparent that the bands are here to be heard and the crowd to genuinely listen.
Most people who have spent any time in Hong Kong know that the city isn't exactly awash in international acts and it is all too often bypassed by touring bands. This lack of live musical inspiration, however, has done little to curb the enthusiasm of the bands that make up Hong Kong's independent music scene, which has intentionally positioned itself outside the mainstream. This defiance has helped shape the bands' angst-ridden sound and DIY approach, and it's reflected in the often-unconventional songwriting.
Crossed Wires is the brainchild of local musicians Stuart Lennon and Luke Chow, and on this night they have lined up jazzy singer-songwriter Winnie Lau, the gypsy-esque flavours and soothing clarinet of Head Clowns, the soulful folk of 9 Maps, and the dual-guitar rock sensibilities of The David Bowie Knives. Before the night is done, litres of alcohol will be consumed as patrons brave rising temperatures and fill the bar to near-bursting point.
After the gig, David Bowie Knives guitarist and singer Shaun Martin offers his thoughts on Crossed Wires: "Stuart and Luke have put a lot of effort into it and it is great to be a part of it. We've always known that there is great music out there, but it's the venues that are the sticky bit. At Dharma Den, it was like a trial to see how many people you could get in - and it worked well."
Crossed Wires started life as a weekly podcast produced by Lennon (a member of local band Papancha) and comedian Nick Milnes covering all things theatre, comedy and music in Hong Kong. After the podcast came the monthly Acoustic Angst nights, which have evolved further into the Crossed Wires showcases.
"[Luke and I] were going to acoustic nights in Hong Kong and getting the sense that while a scene was starting to take off, there still appeared to be a need for some sort of showcase night that would highlight the best acoustic acts," says Lennon. "We would like to make [Crossed Wires] something to aim for; something for bands who have played at acoustic nights before and built up a bit of a following."
Chow adds: "Stuart had been consistently promoting acoustic events at another venue, which I also performed at, and we agreed it was time to find a bigger venue so we could do things better. With my experience as a singer-songwriter and as a member of various bands over the years, I felt I could help improve the sound at the event to hopefully increase the overall quality. I think that we make a great team."
The popularity of the showcase at Dharma Den, the monthly Acoustic Angst nights, and regular gigs on Fridays and Saturdays at Java Java in Sheung Wan, is a testament to the growing interest in folk and acoustic sounds here, which is also evident in the increasing numbers of acoustic buskers seen on the streets.
Local indie mainstays, such as Dark Himaya, Noughts & Exes, Heather Lowe, The Bollands, Sun Eskimos and Joven Goce just to name a few, have all graced the stage. "Things are definitely growing," says Chow. "There are now enough people passionate enough about music, not only the artists, to fill specific areas and build a foundation for things to grow further. It's a great time to be involved with music in Hong Kong."
Gabe Andre, who drums for 9 Maps and The David Bowie Knives, is a mainstay at such nights. "A bunch of people have been making good acoustic music for a while, but they have mainly been involved in well-known bands," he says. "Now people like Winnie Lau have started doing their own thing and trying to find their own voice, almost as a reaction against what is already here."
And if it's not about the money - which it obviously isn't - where does the impetus come from?
"It's great to be in a band and mess around with your mates," says David Bowie Knives' Martin. "As long as people like it, we will continue to do it. Some of the bands here have done very well, but if you want to make it big you have to get out of Hong Kong. If we were serious about wanting that we wouldn't be here, but [as] long as it remains fun that will be what keeps us going."
Lennon adds: "We do it because it's who we are. We do it to try to connect with people, or to capture an emotion or a feeling and to convey that to the audience. When you do manage to connect with someone else and convey that feeling or that honesty of what it is to be human, whether you are the performer or listener it really is wonderful and can't be beaten."
Events such as Crossed Wires and venues such as The Wanch and Java Java have helped give direction to a scene that has otherwise lacked coherence. They have given emerging acoustic artists something to strive for - and could be the spark that ignites a larger Hong Kong indie phenomenon.
And to make this happen, "the artists, practice spaces, recording studios, venues, soundmen, photographers, journalists, bloggers and the fans must keep going", Chow urges.
"It's happening and we need each other."
Crossed Wires, Sep 15, 8pm, Dharma Den, 2/F The Workstation, 43 Lyndhurst Terrace, Central; Acoustic Angst, Aug 31, Sep 25, 9.30pm, The Wanch, 54 Jaffe Road Wan Chai, all free. Inquiries: www.facebook.com/crossedwiresHK