SIU2: Shenging It Up in Hong Kong

Ian Patterson By

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It shouldn't really come as a great surprise that China hasn't produced an abundance of jazz musicians, while neighboring Japan continues to turn them out at a great rate of knots, given the very different histories the two countries have lived post World War II. The traumatic Cultural Revolution, under Mao Zedong, shunned all things western, whereas Japan's rebuilding was dependent on western countries, and it was therefore wide open to cultural influences. Now, with China gradually opening up to the outside world, the country is going through another form of cultural revolution, one which welcomes jazz artists, once viewed as purveyors of "decadent music." An increasing number of jazz artists is including China on Asian tours and, in recent times, saxophonists Gilad Atzmon, John Zorn and Tim Garland, guitarist Jacob Young, accordionist Richard Galliano, singer Youn Sun Nah and violinist Christian Howes have all performed in China to enthusiastic audiences..

Given its increasing exposure to Western culture, It seems only a matter of time before China starts producing jazz musicians who will make their mark internationally.

On the surface, Hong Kong appears to have all the ingredients to be a catalyst for such developments. This pulsating, cosmopolitan city is culturally diverse, and a large proportion of its densely packed seven million inhabitants speaks English—a result of years of British colonial rule. In Asia, however, little is ever quite what it seems, and mainland China and Taiwan may well have the edge over Hong Kong in terms of producing progressive-thinking musicians.

One exciting Hong Kong band which has emerged in the last few years, and which is just beginning to spread its wings, is SIU2, founded by multi-instrumentalist and composer, Ng Cheuk Yin. His main instrument is the sheng, an ancient wind instrument of vertical bamboo pipes, with origins dating back 5,000 years. The sheng sounds like a mouth organ, with all the emotional depth and the range of its pocket-sized cousin.

The sheng also gives the band its name, Sheng it Up, which for Ng Cheuk means: "do something exciting with the sheng." Ng Cheuk is certainly a virtuoso on this instrument, also common to Japan and Korea, but it's his overall musical concept to which he surely refers. The sextet combines traditional Chinese instruments—the long-necked, guitar-like sanxian, played by Cass Lam; and the zhither-like zheng, played by Jason Lau—with a western rhythm section of piano, bass and drums, but familiar east-meets-west fusion this is not.

"For me and Jason," explains Cass, "we have very traditional Chinese musical training. We don't have a background in improvising in a jazz way or a rock way." In fact, the only improvisation going on is with drummer Tsui Hip Lun, bassist Chan Hok Ming, and Ng Chuek's Hammond organ (on which he doubles). SIU2's music is essentially composed music. So, not jazz then?

For Ng Cheuk, the labels that people care to put on his music have little meaning: "There are many people who say that you're not doing Chinese music and you're not doing rock, so what are you doing?" he says. "We have elements of jazz and elements of world music but it's neither this nor that. We don't really care; we just want to do something original and something new.

"We don't mind if people call us jazz or world music, we're just trying to do something we like. We just want to do what we are."

Rhythmic and dynamic, the music is also melodic and somehow happy. "Maybe I'm a positive person," states Ng Cheuk. "As a musician, being positive is important when making a band. It seems that most people in Hong Kong are unhappy," he says, adding wryly that he read this somewhere in some survey.

With the band members' ages ranging from mid-20s to early-40s, and with half the musicians traditionally trained and the other half more conversant in western musical idioms, SIU2 represents the meeting point of the old China—before the handover of Hong Kong—and the new, with its more open doors and an insatiable appetite. SIU2 is part of tradition, but the music is more rooted in the here-and-now.

SIU2's music is a positively energetic, sonic portrayal of modern Hong Kong, though it's not without some trace of the blues.

SIU2 started out in 2008, when Ng Cheuk put together what he describes as a fusion band with some Chinese instruments playing "some melodies, some chords, some covers." The band made its debut at the Hong Kong Arts Festival that year and released its debut album, Open Door (Flower Music, 2008) around the same time. Time Out Hong Kong gave the CD four out of five stars, though Ng Cheuk describes the band's sound then as "raw." Shortly after, Ng Cheuk started composing original material for SIU2. He composes all SIU2's music and is also responsible for the arrangements of each instrument.


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