Hong Kong A Cappella Portrait: Zense
by Edison Hung, Hong Kong
Music is probably the earliest kind of art we humans ever had. Throughout a long period of time, it has developed into enormous numbers of genres such as orchestral music, jazz, R&B etc, which have been blooming in our music world nowadays. However, among hundred types of music, there is one remains quite primeval in concept that we can still enjoy to date – ‘a cappella’.
A cappella is an Italian word, which means ‘in the manner of church’. It is primeval in the sense that it has no instrumental accompaniment, the music comes solely from the natural instrument we have since our birth, our own voice.
Such kind of singing is originated from the church music in the medieval time, when musical instruments were not that popular. One typical example of a cappella music in that period is Gregorian Chant. It features one unaccompanied melody vocalized by a choir or soloist in a droning unison that matches metres to the chanted words.
Of course a cappella music is no longer a patent of church now. It is well-received by professional as well as amateur singers, and even college students. Just like the other kinds of music, a cappella has developed into different ‘types’ which can be differentiated from song style (e.g. pop songs, classical), combination of vocal parts (all men group or all female group) and even identity (collegiate type).
Nevertheless, all types of a cappella music usually share some common elements: 1) seldom does an a cappella group compose a brand new song for itself. Instead, it rearranges the existing songs into a cappella version, or occasionally arrange several songs into a medley. 2) Beatboxing is widely used in a cappella music. It is used to add colors and give the pulse to the song. 3) Apart from beatboxing, some songs require the singers to imitate various kinds of instrumental sound such as brass during the performance. Usually such a passage becomes the highlight of the song. All these elements have made a cappella music today much deviated from the traditional one, therefore some would specify it as ‘contemporary a cappella’.
A cappella is popular in western countries, especially in America, where countless a cappella groups are active now. Compared with the west, however, it is still a rather new music to the audience in Hong Kong. Many of them have no idea what a cappella is. Even so, if you browse the website of the Contemporary A Cappella Society of Hong Kong (CASHK), probably the biggest and the only a cappella agent in HK, you can find that there are already more than 20 a cappella groups registered. Together with the unregistered like the Metro, the HKFYG Hong Kong Melody Makers, there are more opportunities to hear a cappella in HK, and surely the audience pool is getting bigger and bigger.
Currently, almost none of the a cappella group in HK is able to establish itself as a full-time performing group. So how do an a cappella group run in Hong Kong? Let’s have a look on Zense.
Zense is a group founded in 2009 with all the members coming from the Opera Hong Kong. Due to the small number of members, they don’t need a spacious room for practice. Therefore the practice usually just takes place once a week at the home studio of their ‘captain’ Bryan Woo. What they required is an instrument for tuning, but they have adopted a modern way to replace a piano by downloading one into their mobile phones. And recently they have bought a mixer and several microphones in order to resemble the real performance situation, so to as improve their quality. The rest of the practice then relies on good ears as well as musical sense.
Every performance group longs for shows, so does Zense. In the beginning, they grabbed their opportunity via their personal network. Bryan still remembered it was the time when the centre he works for wanted to organize a concert, he self-recommended Zense to it and succeeded to make their debut on stage. After that, they started to promote themselves by sending e-mails to shopping malls. They then take a step further when they registered in CASHK. Having an agent as intermediator, they have to worry less about finding performance opportunities and can focus more on the music.
Since their debut, Zense have had appeared in different occasions like festival and press release organized by malls and hotels, or even private birthday parties and weddings. The more gigs they have done, the greater their fame and network gets, and hence more invitations come along.
But what make a cappella long lasting and being welcomed from west to east? Ernest Hui, the resident composer of CM Singers and resident artist of the Hong Kong Melody Makers believes it is because a cappella is a flexible artform that the repertoire can range from pop to jazz, from rock to classical, plus the fact that human voice has infinite possibilities, two things together can lead to infinite variations which keeps the vitality and the charm of the music.
“Although there could be hard times in rehearsals and practices,” Hui added “it is rewarding especially when you are able to lead the audience in a trip through a cappella music, and share with them the joy of music making. Not to mention, it is satisfying to work hard with friends.”
Music-sharing is always fun and is easier with a cappella music. Since it is just as easy as ABC – you don’t need a Stradivari violin nor grade 8 piano to play a cappella music, all you need to do is just sing, at anytime, anywhere.
A Cappella has become a global phenomenon – let us know where you do your vocal music thing, how you try to develop the art form or simply have fun singing: Anytime, anywhere! We would love to feature you on Vocal Blog, so send your suggestions for VB content to firstname.lastname@example.org and if you haven’t done yet, like our Facebook fanpage and follow us on Twitter. Thanks, Edison for contributing this post – hope to hear from you and the Hong Kong A Cappella community soon. By the way: I’m going to be in Hong Kong (on a very special a cappella mission) on June 25 & 26) – hope to see Patrick Chiu and you there!