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This past weekend the eighth annual Clockenflap Festival took place at the West Kowloon Cultural grass and dirt mound by the harbor. Directly under the ICC and Elements Mall, this prime piece of real estate sits directly across from Central’s glittering video game of a skyline, unused for most of the year, but every November it turns into a multi-stage, fun-zoned, Art area’d, VIP tented festival, bringing in lots of indie acts, a few big names of yesteryear (hey, it’s Hong Kong after all) and a few genuinely cutting edge acts of right NOW. It is a legitimate music festival working against tall odds in this town, and it works.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I2vi8MNUFFc

This year, over three days Clockenflap hosted over a hundred bands that ranged from headliners like New Order, the Libertines, Damien Rice, The Earth Wind and Fire ‘Experience’,Nile Rogers and Chic – none of them exactly this year’s Mercury Prize winners, but certainly solid choices – to Indie darlings like Neon Indian, Battles and Love Psychedelio from Japan, to beat masters like Flying Lotus and Kid Koala, and finally NY’s premiere Hip Hop crew A$AP Rocky and posse and rap stalwarts Blackalicious. Let’s face it, a hundred (and seventeen at last count) is a lot of bands, and a lot of stage and sound specs, flight tickets, hotels, managers and posses to deal with. Full props to Justin Sweeting and his team for getting it all sorted, and from what I saw, having it all run pretty smoothly.

A_AP Rocky

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I have lived in Hong Kong for five years and I have gone to Clockenflap every year, and I can tell you it gets bigger and better each time. This year was by far the best in terms of size, scope of artists (I could have heard more Urban artists, but that’s me) and overall production values. In past years it has often felt a bit haphazard at times, but this year I really got the sense that it was nearly seamless. Example; as I entered on Saturday I went the wrong way towards the backstage area. I showed my media pass to the guards at the gate and started trying to blag it out of laziness. In past years they would have been flustered and just let me in – a gweilo with a self-important expression and a pass. This year they calmly informed me the media check-in was only a five minute walk away and actually had someone come out to escort me there. I shook him off. I’m lazy, not stupid.

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Personally I could use a bit less of the kiddies Fun Zone, complete with rides, balloons and an unfunny Welsh Wizard comedian, but then again we all know who ultimately pays for these things, and they are not kids – they have kids. So the families of Hong Kong’s finance and property titans get to come during the day, eat a bunch of deep fried food, and then Mom and Dad get to boogie the night away (until 11 pm) in the VIP tents. And this year there was WAY more of a food presence, with full picnic tables taking up entire ‘zones’. There were so many food stalls I lost count, but I did sample a pretty good BBQ turkey sandwich from 85 South, and also a well done crab and lobster roll and cheesy hand cut fries from City Crab. It almost felt like people had come there just to eat. I think that plays well with the local Chinese population and so it’s ultimately a wise move. In years past Clockenflap often felt like an expat fest, but this year it was overwhelmingly local. With all the creature comfort amenities, you can call Clockenflap a music festival with Hong Kong characteristics.

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the crowd moving from one act

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A very good example of this was on Friday night when UK Shoegazer gods Ride (recently reformed) played on the Harbour Stage. I was down in front in the photographers’ pit and was amazed to see the first ten rows predominantly local and singing along with the words. Two teary eyed girls held a sign that said ‘Andy Bell My Guitar Hero’. You start to understand how HMV still has six outlets in Hong Kong. From a fan’s perspective Hong Kong could really be a music town, and you can see how starved people are for this type of event. But from an industry perspective where are the venues? The promoters? The culture?

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Earlier on Friday was perhaps the highlight of the festival for me – American DJ/Producer Flying Lotus playing in Hong Kong for the first time. This guy has been quietly at the forefront of a few different movements, while refusing to be defined by any labels like Broken Beat, Bass, Dubstep, Drum n Bass, etc. He has remixed huge artists and still remained independent. He creates symphonic, polyrhythmic beats that still remain funky and make you move. The bass is cathartic. I was standing in the pit in front of the bass bins and I felt like I was tripping from the vibrations and the mind bending visuals he was standing behind. Yes, he plays his laptop behind a huge screen, and usually you can only see his silhouette, while visuals as jagged and surreal as his music play across it. Again, I looked behind me and the bobbing and weaving crowd was predominantly Asian.

The festival was full of surprises. I hadn’t realized that the Skatalites were playing this year (with over a hundred acts it’s easy to miss a few) and as I walked through the media tent I suddenly heard the James Bond 007 theme – a classic Ska tune from 1964. I thought maybe it was local heroes the Red Stripes, who played last year, but the rhythm section was too tight – too Jamaican. Sure enough there were the Skatalites (OK there’s only one original Skatalite, but the band still kicks ass with sexagenerians on drums and bass) on the main stage jumping around getting a large crowd skanking, even if they didn’t know they were. I know a bunch of these guys from New York and we hung out backstage. They were very excited to play at sundown as the Central skylight started twinkling across the harbor.

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‘Ya Mon, me love dat!’ said Sparrow Thompson, the drummer. I left them in a cloud of ganja smoke but I couldn’t help thinking how Hong Kong really is magical at times and always exotic for touring artists. The city should really make more of this.

Finally, as I was hustling across the various food and drink zones to try and catch the Libertines set, I was suddenly struck by all of the languages I heard. A drunk Aussie was trying to roll a spliff; a dancing local Hong Kong girl implored her friends to get up off their blanket in Cantonese; A French guy was complaining that the queue was too long to get pizza; Two Germans were excitedly hurrying over to another stage to catch something on time; A gaggle of Filipinas were chirping rapid-fire as they laughed and people watched; Some mainland students were all looking at their phones after posting a group selfie; Some American expats in weekend warrior mode (shorts, flip flops, backward baseball caps) were doing shots at one of the many bars…I could go on. But the truth is that Hong Kong really is an international city, in a way that Shanghai or Singapore just aren’t. All these people, and many more were all mixing happily and freely. People were sharing blankets, wine, other *things* and dancing together. Music was bringing people together the way it should be in a free environment.

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If Clockenflap is important to Hong Kong (and it is), then Hong Kong is important to China for the same reason. Any real international city needs culture and diversity. Last weekend’s festival provided oodles of both. I really hope that the city fathers will one day wake up and understand the importance of real culture in the city’s endless quest to position itself. Clockenflap should be valued and nurtured by the city, it’s one of its best ambassadors.

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