Love affair with Italy blossoms into multilingual musical performance for Hong Kong jazz singer

Heidi Li, 32, can sing in 15 different Italian dialects, and will incorporate Cantonese opera into her music aimed at sparking cultural exchange

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 February, 2018, 8:32am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 February, 2018, 8:32am

The joy of rediscovering love in a foreign land steeped in art and history cannot be captured in words alone.

That is why Hong Kong jazz singer and songwriter Heidi Li intends to let music do the talking, singing in English and Cantonese, as well as in various Italian dialects, as she tells her story of enlightenment while reminiscing love lost and found in the European country.

Through her multilingual version of a “belt and road” journey, Li, 32, hopes to inspire Chinese audiences as she takes the stage at Sai Wan Ho Civic Centre on 12 February in an event organised by the Italian consulate.

Old-school Cantonese opera performer looks at how to keep the art alive in Hong Kong

Her performance is the culmination of an eight-year stint in Italy, which opened up a world of musical possibilities for the singer.

The revelation transformed Li from an amateur Cantonese opera singer during her teenage days into a dedicated jazz artist who engineered her own “Heidi sings in all Italian dialects” project, taking it throughout Italy and performing in front of amazed residents.

“Italy is my home now. I want to bring this project as a live show to audiences in Hong Kong and China. Through music I want to show them the beauty, passion and diversity of Italy as well as to promote cultural exchanges between the two sides,” she said.

I want to show them the beauty, passion and diversity of Italy as well as to promote cultural exchanges
Heidi Li, singer

Li’s Hong Kong performance is on the tail end of a music tour which kicked off on Sunday, taking her through Guangzhou, Zhuhai and Macau. She will present her full repertoire, consisting mainly of folk songs in various Italian dialects, infused with jazz and given a Cantonese opera twist.

“My music will also be mixed with some Cantonese opera elements to recapture the flavour of its unique vocal styles as I want to preserve Hong Kong’s musical heritage,” she said.

In fact, it was Cantonese opera that sowed the musical seeds in Li, who was born and raised in Sha Tin, Hong Kong. Under the influence of her father, a Cantonese opera enthusiast, she started to sing songs from the genre at an early age.

At 11, Li proved her musical prowess when she beat adult contenders to win a Cantonese opera competition organised by TVB. But as the years flew by, music remained only a hobby for her.

In 2010, she moved with her then boyfriend, an Italian, to Perugia, a medieval Italian city after finishing her degree in international studies and politics in Britain.

The clerical work she took up was tedious. As she walked down Perugia’s picturesque small alleys where jazz artists often gathered for live performances, she would join the chorus of musicians, and there, a spark was reignited.

While the relationship with her boyfriend did not last, the warm, carefree lifestyle and passion of the locals made an impression on her, beginning another love affair, this time with music. “The beautiful scenic views of Italy, people’s appreciation of heritage and their warmth, gave me a lot of inspiration in my quest for music,” she said.

A turning point was on a hot summer day in 2014, when she was writing a love song called “Sto Qui” (I am here) out of boredom in her flat.

Her roommate decided to add a quirky touch to the song by translating some lyrics into the ancient Umbrian dialect. The song was uploaded as a YouTube video and became a hit, drawing over 25,000 views within a few months.

The success made Li decide to take the project, which she calls “Heidi sings in all Italian dialects”, further. Ditching her clerical job, she travelled around 13 different regions in the country, including Tuscany, Sardinia, Sicily, Lazio and Lombardy, where she performed her own compositions and traded folk songs with local artists in various dialects.

“The people there were amazed at how a Hong Kong stranger can sing Italian folk songs in 15 different dialects and embrace the Italian culture so well,” she said.

Her music project started to gain greater attention and in October 2016, she was invited by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to perform live at the States General of the Italian Language in the World in Florence, an event attended by Italian President Sergio Mattarella.

With a group of Italian musicians, Li also recently made her jazz debut with the album “Third Cultural Kid”, in which the song Dream Chasing in Italy best captures her love affair with the country.