Dirty Boogie Rockabilly Festival brings timeless sounds and styles of the 1950s to Hong Kong

Travel back to the post-war years at a mini-festival drawing on the enduring music and fashions of those upbeat times

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 November, 2015, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 06 November, 2015, 10:31am

The world was probably the happiest it’s ever been during the post-war 1950s, so it’s not really a surprise that the era’s signature musical genres such as rockabilly still have enthusiastic followers all over the world.

We’re not just looking through rose-tinted glasses – the enduring popularity of rockabilly also comes down to its irresistible rhythms and upbeat, innocent themes, delivered  with twangy, reverb-laden guitar riffs.

There’s always been plenty of love for the sound around Asia too, and local followers are now getting ready for the fourth edition of the  Dirty Boogie Rockabilly Festival, to be held on  November 14 at  Grappa’s Cellar in Central. The event will bring together four Asian bands, with sounds ranging from traditional rockabilly to swing, blues and a more local take on the genre: Cantobilly.

Born when blues, country and hillbilly music came together in the early 1950s in the southern US, rockabilly owes its heritage and longevity to some of the era’s most influential acts, including Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Anyone looking for an alternative to the monotonous music emanating from Lan Kwai Fong will discover a range of unpretentious, upbeat acts at the retro mini-festival

After the 1950s, the genre went underground until it was revived in the ’80s  by the likes of the Stray Cats. It then mutated by adopting punk rock and horror themes into the heavier offshoot called psychobilly, as performed by bands such as The Cramps and The Meteors.

Hong Kong’s rockabilly scene may not be huge, but anyone looking for an alternative to the monotonous music emanating from Lan Kwai Fong will discover a range of unpretentious, upbeat acts at the retro mini-festival.

Los Rizlaz from Japan, the  Bembol Rockers from the Philippines, and Hong Kong’s own Boogie Playboys and Miss Cathy will be taking to the stage at the basement restaurant at Jardine House.

Rockabilly is hardly a slow-waltzing genre, but  Los Rizlaz always take things up a notch with their energetic live shows, lightning-fast guitar playing, and an infectious, party-starting mix of originals and covers.

Known for wearing Mexican wrestler masks and black denim, the headliners play rockabilly at its most rambunctious and saxophone-skewed. Lead singer “El Borracho” (“the alcoholic”) often chugs beer while “Super Serpiente” plays saxophone solos, but  the party animal antics are not there to compensate for a lack of musical ability.

Meanwhile, The Bembol Rockers –  making their fourth appearance at Dirty Boogie – will stick to their tried-and-tested formula of pretending the past four decades of music never happened. Incorporating the grit of jump blues, the energy of swing and the rhythms of Latin jazz, the quartet play feel-good songs about love, friendship and family.

Described by the festival as “the rockabilly queen of Hong Kong”, local soloist Miss Cathy was initially drawn to the scene by an interest in rockabilly fashion,  but her true talents were discovered the first time she was invited to sing. Her distinctive, raw blues vocals accompanied by acoustic guitar will be making their Dirty Boogie debut.

Festival co-organiser Bluesman Chan Sze-chai’s own band, The Boogie Playboys, will also be returning to the bill, playing a mix of Elvis and Stray Cats covers, as well as originals. Chan says his rockabilly events are largely attended by Westerners, and it’s a trend he expects to continue despite the growing interest among locals.

More young people are embracing retro culture, including old-school tattoos, classic barbershops, greased-back hair, the ‘pin-up girl’ look, hot rod cars, and ’40s- and ’50s-themed shops
Bluesman Chan, The Boogie Playboys

“This kind of retro-themed party is more familiar to Westerners, as it’s the root of many of their modern subcultures,” he explains. “Events like these are often a welcome sight for those working and living abroad in Hong Kong, but even the locals can’t resist tapping their feet once the music starts.”

He attributes the genre’s appeal to its rebellion against the mainstream, and the striking fashion associated with the style. “The rockabilly movement is growing in popularity in Hong Kong,” he says. “More young people are embracing retro culture, including old-school tattoos, classic barbershops, greased-back hair, the ‘pin-up girl’ look, hot rod cars, and ’40s- and ’50s-themed shops. The fashion and the music unite to create a strong but small scene.”

The genre’s low profile in Hong Kong means Chan often has to put his own group on the bill because “there are no other rockabilly bands in town, and we think it’s important to have one local band involved”. That said, the bash proved so popular last year that it had to move from the Fringe Club to Grappa’s to accommodate the 300 ticketholders.

Chan hopes the festival can eventually become a full-day event with an expanded line-up, and says he’d like to book Stray Cats members Slim Jim Phantom  or Lee Rocker to play in the future. “We’re not quite able to have hot rod cars or Jerry Lee Lewis at the festival,” he laments. “But we have some of the best Asian rockabilly bands, a bunch of pin-up girls as well as  Star Crossed Tattoo offering free tattoos. It’ll be a lot of fun.”

Dirty Boogie Rockabilly Festival, Nov 14, 8pm, Grappa’s Cellar, B/F Jardine House, 1 Connaught Rd, Central, HK$280. Inquiries: www.ticketflap.com

Rockabilly of ages

Don't know rockabilly from reggae or ragtime? Check out these five classic rockabilly albums

Elvis Presley - Elvis Presley (1956)


After releasing his explosive debut single That's Alright Mama in 1954, Elvis committed his rockabilly period to vinyl on his first album, which contains the genre classics Blue Suede Shoes and I Got A Woman. The cover art proved to be almost as influential as the music.

Carl Perkins - Dance Album (1957)

Dubbed "the king of rockabilly", Carl Perkins helped kick-start the genre with his self-penned debut single, Blue Suede Shoes, in 1955. His debut album also contains the Perkins anthems Gone, Gone, Gone, Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby and Boppin' the Blues.

Eddie Cochran - The Eddie Cochran Memorial Album (1960)

Cochran's rockabilly songs, such as C'mon Everybody, Somethin' Else and Summertime Blues, perfectly captured teenage frustration in the late 1950s and early '60s. These classics were compiled onto one album after he was killed in a car crash in 1960, aged 21.

The Cramps - Gravest Hits (1977)

By combining garage punk with rockabilly, The Cramps helped create an offshoot that became known as psychobilly. Their debut release, recorded in Memphis, is notable for the horror-themed Human Fly and a demented version of the 1960s surf classic Surfin' Bird.

Stray Cats - Stray Cats (1981)

This US trio, formed in 1979, were heavily influenced by rockabilly icons such as Eddie Cochran and Carl Perkins. After they moved to the UK, the band's debut album gave them British hits including Runaway Boys and Stray Cat Strut. The band last performed together in 2009.