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Band of Men! That’s All Folk!

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DB-born Black Velvet Collective has ridden the world music wave into the studio for its first album of Irish-inspired originals. Core band members Mark Rawson, Jim Alba-Duignan and Mark Basford sit down for a virtual chat with Elizabeth Kerr

PHOTOS BY Baljit Gidwani – www.evoqueportraits.com & courtesy of Mark Rawson

It’s a Friday afternoon in March, so as usual in Hong Kong these days bassist Mark Rawson and his Black Velvet Collective (BVC) bandmates – drummer and singer Jim Alba-Duignan and guitarist Mark Basford – dial in via computer, after the requisite technical futzing about, to chat about their first studio album. Guitarist Dan Marguilles is sitting this one out.

The quartet makes up what Mark R considers part of an original music renaissance in Hong Kong that started long before the pandemic. Gone (almost) are the days of expat-driven dive bands covering Sweet Child o’Mine and Summer of ’69 in Wanchai. Here are the days of creativity, and a shrinking divide between expat and local artists. “I play five tracks from artists from Hong Kong doing original songs every Friday with Phil Whelan [on RTHK]. We’re on the twelfth week and we’ve never repeated an artist.”

That bodes well for the success of BVC’s February release, Sunset Peak, a collection of traditional Celtic-inflected ballads and mid-tempo jigs, complete with fiddles, mandolins and tin whistles. Sunset Peak is available on 44 streamers including Apple Music, Amazon Music, YouTube Music (and yeah, Spotify), with a limited vinyl pressing coming soon. Whether that’s a shout-out to the guys’ musical roots is hard to say but calling BVC a departure is an understatement. A quick survey reveals a diverse array of near and dear LPs: Genesis’ Seconds Out, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Squeeze’s 45’s and_ Under and Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All, courtesy of the slightly younger Dan. No Irish folk.

THE FAB FOUR

Hong Kong’s own folky Beatles came together in stages beginning roughly 18 years back. Decades of shared history is obvious; there’s a lot of shorthand and joking back and forth. Jim, the ‘John’ [Lennon, that is] moved to Hong Kong 26 years ago with a construction industry contract and, like many, one contract somehow became permanent residency. He’s lived in Discovery Bay for most of his time in the SAR, with the exception of a year in Mid-Levels which, he says, nearly killed him: “I was single; I struggled to get past Lan Kwai Fong most nights.” He flat shared in DB on arrival and got married later. “I did it the other way around. I met my partner, Christine, in DB, in the plaza.”

The ‘Paul,’ Mark R, landed a year later with his financial services job, and he too lived in DB for 10+ years. His family were onboard residents for a time, and he’s now based in Aberdeen with his wife Wika.

Mark B’s low-key attitude and occasional, well-placed quip make him the ‘Ringo.’ He showed up in DB 20 or so years ago with his wife, Kate, and three children, and lives here still. He started out working for a European corporate on its China strategy but ended up ditching that for teaching. “I got tired of the corporate life, and the thing I liked most about that job was teaching people how to do theirs better,” he notes. “And it’s in the blood: Both my parents are teachers, my wife’s a teacher. It was an inevitability.”

Dan, a lawyer by trade who’s expecting twins with his wife Louise, lives in Kennedy Town. He’s ‘George.’ He’s not even here.

THE COLLECTIVE

Mark R and Jim got to know each other though the city’s live music scene at the same time Mark B and another mate were playing covers as a duo and looking for a bassist. “Mark was in from the start, but we thought Jim was a keyboard player, and we didn’t need one, so we weren’t interested in him,” recalls Mark B with a chuckle. “But then we found out he was a drummer, and that was just what we needed. That was The Vibes.”

The Vibes is just one of many bands the four actively work with, the others being brassy soul outfit The 852 and Celt-punk band Naggin Eejits (with Dan). “Then Jim and I started playing around with Irish folk tunes,” Mark B says. Jim, born in England to Irish parents, recalls an Irish ditty breaking out over wine in the living room. “It was a very different sound to what was going on in Hong Kong at the time. We decided to try it live. We got a great response.”

BVC was born from a desire to include different instrumentation and styles and bring in guest performers – like fiddle player Alexandra Softley and The 852 vocalist Sarah Johnson – as well as expand the set list.

The response to the traditional Irish sound was particularly noticeable at last November’s What the Folk Festival, a world music event that Mark R organised. He had experience with music fests as one of the co-founders of Picnic in the Park (now The Big Picnic) alongside – wait for it – Jim and Mark B. Their fears that original tunes would be hard sell with local audiences proved groundless. “This is a great, international city; it’s such a melting pot and a wonderful place to be, particularly in the music scene,” argues Mark R. “Over the last few years some of those roots have really come to the fore.”

SUNSET PEAK

When the live scene shut down with COVID, Mark R found the band suddenly had more time to be creative. “We’d always been gigging so when the pandemic started, we had the time to write original songs. I found that came easily, personally, and I could come up with plenty of ideas, but I needed people to help finish them off. Jim and Mark were the natural choices.”

The decision to cut a record followed an afternoon noodling over an idea that would eventually become the personal Ne Temere. “Mark did great work on the melodies, I sang it, and it came together, just like that,” Jim says. “We knew it was a good song. It sounded like nothing else we were doing, and we thought, ‘What do we do with that?’ We thought we may as well record it.”

All three-credit producer Charlie Edwards with shepherding the studio newbies along. As pals for decades, no one felt uncomfortable writing in the studio, or making suggestions or mistakes. Mostly. “Being so precise is quite stressful. It’s a challenge. In a live gig you can be flexible on the timing. In the studio you tend to be absolutely on beat… if you’re not it’s quite noticeable, and the rest of the band is sitting in the control room waiting for you to stop fluffing it up,” says Mark B. “And when you finally get it, you’re told, ‘You might be able to do that a bit better.’ But I think I’m a better player now and I appreciate that.”

Dan agrees (by email), adding that the learning curve was intense. “Recording required a huge amount of effort. The writing and creating was comparatively easier, especially when working with talented musicians.”

The process was conflict-free enough to start BVC on a path to a sophomore release. Though none of the guys are entertaining notions of being The Beatles. Thinking of the drama documented in 2021’s Get Back, Mark R confirms, “We weren’t quite that messy. Which is probably why they were so successful.” But only for 10 years.

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