I landed in Hong Kong brimming with excitement for the week of shows ahead at the Ear Hub festival, and the opportunity to discover a music community that, until this festival, I knew very little about. Ear Hub is a multi-venue conference and festival created to provide the Hong Kong music scene with a platform to showcase what they have to offer the new music world. This was only the second edition of the festival, but from what I'd heard about the event, I had a feeling I was in for a treat, and Ear Hub didn't disappoint.
There were no shows on my first day in the city, but I was told on arrival at the airport that there was something I had to be at. So I was zipped from the airport on a high-speed train, which, being Welsh, seemed like something from the future, and, in what felt like no time at all, I suddenly found myself an ant in a jungle of skyscrapers, wrapped in the atmospheric noise of a hundred street food vendors in Central Hong Kong. I was completely naive to the fact that my landing in Hong Kong coincided with the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and the date of which was being marked with a huge vigil in the city centre. Hong Kong and Macau are the only places in Chinese territory where people can commemorate the activists killed in 1989, and, while I learned that this happens every year, with it being 30 years, and given the current political climate, I was told to expect a huge turnout, and it really was. 180,000 people turned out at Victoria Park, and with candles held high all around me, I listened to specially written protest songs from exiled musicians, and testimonies from those who were there. Impossible not to be moved by this. The people here are fiercely determined to protect their cultural freedoms, and this coming together sets a powerful tone for the days ahead.
It's the will to protect their cultural freedoms - a term I hear a few times on this trip - that is at the heart of why the team behind this festival are doing this event. The music community in Hong Kong are keen to engage with the rest of the world, ensuring the voice of this new generation can be heard, and Ear Hub is a great vehicle for this. Across the four days of the festival I was treated to a wide variety of bands, and here's a selection that caught my attention:
Luna Is A Bep
Luna Is A Bep are a trio who create their own brand of fun Hong Kong hip-hop. Singer and rapper, Chui Ting 'Luna' Lee, brings buckets of energy to her performance, and they're the first act I see here to truly engage the audience. I'm watching them thinking how they could so easily work well touring with the likes of Kero Kero Bonito. This is a new act, which will no doubt grow and develop, but it's exciting to see something still in its early stages, and yet bringing so much energy and confidence to their show.
Sometimes you can just tell from the line-check that you're going to be into the next band, and it was the case with Virgin Vacation, an instrumental doom rock force. Going from Luna Is A Bep into this is an indicator of things to come, with such a wide variety of music on offer here, it's a musical fun house, and not easy to predict what's coming up next, but I'm certainly not complaining. At times this band will enter more technical math rock zones, where they remind me of Welsh band Gallops (if they only lent into slightly more psychedelic regions), and then back into the Sabbath-laden drones that you'd expect from the likes of Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard. So there's a lot going on here, but they have nice ideas and it's all tastefully done, and very promising for such a new band.
More on Virgin Vacation:
With Prune Deer I immediately think that this is a band that would work perfectly on tour with the likes of Black Midi. Lots of ideas and creativity, and, generally I could see them winning over audiences in Europe. The difficult thing for bands like this is to get that right balance between technicality and playing just what the music needs, and Prune Deer keep a nice balance throughout, with tasteful guitar and drum parts, and lots of exciting moments. One of the best bands at the festival.
NST & The Soul
NST & The Soul Sauce are a seven-piece band from Seoul, Korea, who flow between dub, reggae and funk at times, and yet it's most definitely Korean with the beautiful vocal of Kim Yulhee. NST truly bring the energy, with singer Kim donning a golden crown for this performance, she swaggers through the set, as the band deliver their own unique Korean blend to the festival. This Hong Kong audience are completely captivated by the offering, and she's definitely the queen of the festival on the night.
iii are a promising new alt-folk and classical influenced band, fronted by Iris Liu, who I later learn is the driving force behind this project. The set begins with Iris dancing with an illuminated moon, followed by a voice that cuts the room dead, and everyone looks at everyone else and we know we're in for a show. It's a very experimental set from a new artist still finding her feet with it all, but iii leave everyone excited for what this project could become. This is one to watch.
More on iii:
The next band to catch my attention took to the stage with a fair amount of hype, which can sometimes work against a band, but, thankfully, the band in question, Stolen, are great. This six-piece synth-heavy indie band from mainland China, deliver a huge live production, and they truly get the defibrillators on Saturday. As their set flows on I'm hearing the influences of New Order, Battles, with a healthy dose of German techno, and it's a combination that works really well. The show is a full-on audio visual experience and the audience love it. They have 500 people packed in at 4pm and they're all dancing. Expect to see this band headlining big stages in Europe soon.
Next up is something quite special. Zhou Yunpeng is a singer-songwriter held in very high regard here. Pre-show I learn how he developed a rare condition aged nine, which resulted in him becoming blind, and, inevitably having a huge impact on his path in life, he developed his love of music early on. This multi-award winning folk artist has been prolific in his output since the early '90s, but due to some of his writing proving to be too challenging for the government in China, some of his material is now banned on the mainland. People speak of artists dancing too close to the red lines on the mainland, and Yunpeng is a good example. I’m treated to a heart-warming set, which veers between light-hearted and fun moments – reminiscent of legendary Welsh folk singer Meic Stevens – and stark, harrowing moments. The latter mood is palpable thanks to the translation of his lyrics displayed on a huge video wall backdrop detailing multiple examples of shocking events in modern Chinese history. I'm told that these are things not openly discussed on the mainland, but due to the cultural freedoms of Hong Kong, this songwriter can use his platform, and he's loved here. It couldn't go unnoticed that as I turned to observe the audience half way through the final song, that many people among the 800 strong audience were in floods of tears. It was a powerful moment.
The festival closed out with a DJ set from Japan's Fuji Rock festival booker, Jason Mayall, playing a selection of his favourite classics; including '50's hits, Latin music, and Northern Soul. It was a fitting energy for a finale to such a special event. As I looked around to see people from all across the globe pulling their best moves, I was reminded how events like this can create such special moments, bringing people from different parts of the world to share ideas, discover new music, and party.
So does the event work? It certainly does. The event will surely grow and develop, and I'd expect even more bands and possibly more stages for its third edition. Ultimately, I'm left in no doubt about what a strong force for good Ear Hub is and will continue to be for Hong Kong and its music community. Roll on Ear Hub 2020!
This review was written by FOCUS Wales co-founder Andy Jones. Regular readers of Gigwise will be aware of our curation of stages there and our overall praiseworthy reviews of his great festival.