Cover Clockwise from left: CY Leo, Ka Jeng Wong, Timonthy Sun and Joyce Cheung (Photo: Affa Chan)

These musicians have already experienced international acclaim; now, they plan to spice up the city’s jazz and classical music scenes with a new music label that promotes local music to the world

In Cantonese, there is the saying “local ginger isn’t spicy enough”, which refers to the way local talents are often overshadowed by people hired from overseas. A team of Hongkongers is working hard to prove that the new generation of local musicians is a force to be reckoned with on both the international and local stages.

Meet Ginger Muse, a homegrown music label and ensemble which solely promotes instrumental music composed or performed by local musicians. Formed in 2020 by harmonica player Leo Ho Cheuk-yin, who goes by CY Leo, and pianists Ka Jeng Wong and Joyce Cheung, the group has performed at some of the top cultural venues and events in the city, including two sold-out concerts at West Kowloon: Jazzical, a 14-piece ensemble performance arranged by Cheung at Freespace Jazz Fest last July; and Ginger’s Tonic, a concert where classical, jazz and iconic Canto-pop tunes were reinterpreted by the trio, alongside saxophone player Timothy Sun.

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In 2020, when the pandemic led to the closure of live music venues worldwide, Wong, who founded Music Lab, a non-profit organisation supporting local musicians, decided that going online and recording albums would be the best way for musicians like himself to keep going. “One time after a commercial gig, I suggested to Leo that we come together to start [our own music label and group],” Wong says. “Ginger Muse was named after Music Lab’s festival a few years ago, the Cantonese name of which was Local Gingers’ Music Festival. It hints at how there have been fewer opportunities for local musicians to shine.”

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While globally, instrumental music has a massive following, it’s difficult to gauge its popularity in Hong Kong because of the dearth of representation; the team hopes to change that, and improve the city’s impression of the genre. “Five to six years ago, when I was just getting into the scene, I was looking for record labels to work with,” the harmonicist says. “They weren’t very keen to work on instrumental music. That’s for a start. Even when they were interested in signing me, I was required to do covers of movie music because they assumed that Hong Kong audiences didn’t like classical music or the harmonica.”

And although international labels such as Universal do represent instrumentalists, Ho says the chances of a Hong Kong artist being discovered aren’t particularly high, and that it mainly comes down to luck. It doesn’t help that, in his view, Hong Kong lacks agents or labels that understand local instrumental musicians enough to promote their work to the global market. Cheung adds that instrumental music’s lack of lyrics “makes it more challenging for people to sit still and just listen, even when we deserve your whole attention [as we perform]”.

Now, with Ginger Muse, the trio is working to change that. Since setting up the label, they have released five albums: Wong’s piano-focused Seasons of Life; Cheung’s jazz piano album Set Loose; Ho’s harmonica album Angel and Demon; collaborative album Smash: Original by Sun, Wong and Ho; and Jazzical, the live recording of Cheung’s West Kowloon performance in 2021.

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The group also hopes that with its work, it can better define what Hong Kong instrumental music is. “If you go to New York, there’s New York jazz; if you go to Tokyo, there’s a unique sound. Our goal is to find and form an instrumental voice that represents Hong Kong,” Ho says. He adds that the Hong Kong sound is a mix of cultures: western music, Chinese music, pop, pop based on classical music, “café music” and classical. “Sometimes we struggle to find our own voice, but [all of these genres are] a part of us,” he says. “When we’ve created a certain volume of work, we’ll naturally be able to see a style.”

This month, Ginger Muse is pairing up again with Sun—a frequent collaborator with the Hong Kong Philharmonic and Hong Kong Sinfonietta—to launch a saxophone album. “I knew Leo way back when I invited him to be a part of my performance,” Sun says. “I really appreciate him as a musician, which is why I wanted him to produce my album.” The record features new instrumental pop music written by several local composers who were given one rule: their music needs to be such that it could be sung by a pop artist. “Most of the time it’s us instrumentalists picking a pop song and covering it,” Ho says. “But this time we’re turning the table around.” Ho adds that the set-up “is pretty groundbreaking, and with it we’re hoping instrumentalists can gain the [same] attention” as pop songs do.

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The project is a perfect example of how the label hopes to amplify local artists’ work. “I chose to work with Ginger Muse because the team has been passionate in helping local musicians pursue their dreams of having their own concerts and albums,” says Sun. “In Hong Kong, there aren’t any labels that have released a purely saxophone album, not even big brands such as Sony or Warner Music. As an independent saxophonist, I’m thrilled to have my own album. Working with a small and young team like Ginger Muse is fun; it’s like we’re pursuing a musical dream together, not just creating a commercial product.”

Each team member has years of experience and substantial acclaim in their respective fields. Wong won the Alaska International Piano E-Competition in 2018, and came third in the Maria Canals International Piano Competition in Barcelona in 2019. Ho is a two-time champion at the World Harmonica Festival—one of the biggest international harmonica festivals in the world, which takes place every four years in Germany—as well as the solo champion of the Asia Pacific Harmonica Festival. Cheung is a pop, jazz and classical pianist and has been an accompanist for pop stars such as Joey Yung and the Grasshoppers.

They plan to work with more local artists, produce live concerts and make music videos. Ho hopes that, in the long run, they can create a strong community of instrumentalists and instrumental music fans in Hong Kong. Cheung is optimistic. She says, “Unlike our parents’ generation, who see music as a fun hobby instead of a serious career, a lot of us now have the chance to go abroad to see what music in the world is like, and bring back things we’ve learnt. With more people coming back, there are going to be more opportunities [for new musical ideas and collaborations] in Hong Kong. There’s definitely going to be a big explosion of not just instrumental music, but all sorts of music.”

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