Let there be praise
Hamish McKenzie reports on an underground scene lifting its believers up high
Turns out it is possible for a noncommercial band to fill a large venue with fist-pumping, high-energy, hard-core Hong Kong music fans. In December last year at a 1,000-seat venue in North Point, The Vine Band played a night of upbeat rock on a big stage with top-end lighting to a more-euphoric-than-thou crowd that earnestly sang along throughout (it helped that the lyrics were projected on a large screen). The lead singer, Tom Read, didn’t have to shout to the crowd to “put your hands up”. They were already up. Eyes were already squeezed shut. Feet were already jumping. The fans were rhapsodic.
Yes, it is possible. But it takes a lot. The Vine Band, for instance, had a special advantage as it tore through songs such as Desperation Song, Then Sings My Soul, and God of Justice. And if that’s starting to sound like a Creed album, there’s good reason. They were playing modern worship music; The Vine Band’s special episode of Pimp My Hymn. God was playing bass.
That show, held at the International Christian Assembly church, resulted in a slick CD/DVD set called From Ashes to Beauty, recorded and mixed by a professional producer from Australian mega-church Hillsong and now on sale in Christian bookstores throughout Hong Kong, as well as on iTunes.
Donations gathered on the night totalled $300,000, which went to the Care for Children charity for orphans in China. That came on top of donations earned from the band’s first album,* Who May Ascend?, recorded in 2006 at the Sheung Wan Civic Centre. It might not seem much compared to the blockbuster figures we’re used to seeing out of the US – where Christian music has much more than a cult following – but the 5,000 copies sold matched the number of CDs shifted by The Smashing Pumpkins for their latest album, Zeitgeist, in Hong Kong last year. Not that that’s the point.
“For me the goal isn’t to become famous or write a hit record,” says singer Read, 29, who’s also worship and creative arts director for The Vine Christian Fellowship. “It’s to get people to become closer to God.” Read has written about 30 songs for The Vine, a church that preaches an undiluted message of God’s power in a contemporary way. He’s the leader of a group of about 60 musicians who take turns at performing in bands for the church’s many weekend services.
Sitting on a couch in the reception area of The Vine’s 10,000 sq ft premises in a Central office building, Read admits it can be a challenge to come up with fresh material while operating within a narrow framework – after all, there are only so many ways to say, “God is great” – but says the music is more about connecting hearts to God than moving people with words.
Words pose a different sort of challenge for John Laudon. A gweilo Canadian who has been living in Hong Kong more than 20 years, Laudon first made a name for himself here in the 1980s with City Beat, notable as the first popular foreign band to sing in Cantonese (search “City Beat Hong Kong” on YouTube to see some mean keytar and ’tache action). Today Laudon, an ex-pastor, turns a dollar writing songs in Cantonese for both Cantopop stars and Christian singers.
Christian music in Cantonese sells surprisingly well in Hong Kong, he says, sometimes more so than mainstream Cantopop, which uses CDs as marketing tools to drive people to more-profitable concerts. Canto- Christian music in the territory would normally sell between 2,000 and 10,000 albums, with occasional hits hitting the 30,000 mark, which happens every two or three years, says Laudon.
Part of the explanation for the healthy sales is that honest Christian folk don’t tend to download music illegally, he reckons.
“On the commercial side, I saw my royalties dive maybe 70 percent, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem on the Christian side. They seem to buy the CD.”
Laudon hopes that theory holds true. He’s about to release a new album featuring a number of well-known Christian local singers. He says his music is about giving hope and telling stories rather than just saying, “I was down and Jesus saved me”.
“Some Christian music is really syrupy, quite superficial,” he says. “I’m not really down with that.”
It’s an attitude common to him and The Vine Band, and though it might not be winning them new fans in the mainstream, at least they can rest assured that they are spreading the Word. What more could He ask for?
John Laudon’s album Streams in the Desert and The Vine Band’s From Ashes to Beauty are available at various Christian Bookstores in Hong Kong. From Ashes to Beauty is also available on iTunes.
* In the original version of this story, it was incorrectly stated that The Vine Band made profits of $300,000 from their first album, Who May Ascend? In fact, the band merely covered the production and distribution costs. The inaccuracy has been corrected.