By Hans Ebert


While the Rosewood is busy poaching some of the better staff at the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, especially from the once hugely popular meeting place Champagne Bar, sadly, only worth visiting these days to get nostalgic over some wine and somewhere to visit because one lives next door, the venue at least has a new singer in town. There are nights when this is a crowded Champagne Bar.

Having a new singer unknown to Hong Kong is quite a unique achievement.

With the same old booking agents tied up with almost all these five star hotel lounges for something like three decades and the conga line of Food and Beverage managers bereft of any knowledge of music approving the talent based largely on repertoire, looks and the budget, what one often gets is a game of musical chairs where the usual suspects leave only to pop up again with the same song lists, carrying a few extra pounds and years. It happens. Nothing stays young forever. And the repertoire sounds older.

The new chanteuse at the Champagne Bar, who’s replaced the extremely likeable Maricel, is Sabreen Staples, below, and introduced as being from New York. She’s originally from Virginia, but could have performed the hotel club circuit in New York.

Is she any good? Well, though the venue was fairly crowded, whether someone is good or bad is something tough to say with hotel lounge singers. They’re not there to be original. It’s to give the customers what they want. It’s a KPI and it’s a very tough gig.

What you often hear could be a very talented singer having to tone it down- tone down veering from what is a routine with pat chat and kinda forced enthusiasm, which, one supposes, brings in business. Shtick sells.

It was Sabreen Staples’ first night at the Champagne Bar when we were there and she did the best she could with what she had to work with- and that was catering to the mature audience with very deep pockets. Hey, Big Spender, indeed.

It’s not unlike what is faced by ALMOST any other singer in a hotel lounge in any five star hotel in Hong Kong. And they’re always females. Why? Lethargy? Because it’s how it’s always been? No thought put into making things different? Afraid of change? Probably all of the above.

Do these audiences, largely in-house guests and businessmen talking business over the music and the regular Lonely Guy, know good from average when it comes to music? Very few.

To them, it’s about hearing hits…in the background. Something unobtrusive. Only The Lonely Guy might listen before leaving after two drinks because of lack of action.

It’s like watching American Idol, and its audiences voting for those who only sing what’s familiar to them. But at places like the Champagne Bar, it’s far far far more expensive for this privilege.

Is it a privilege? Depends on one’s mood, company, finances and just wanting to hear some ‘live’ music in a setting that’s not a pickup joint or someplace offering pot luck and meandering jam sessions.

During the time we were there, Sabreen Staples worked damn hard to please the punters. In her repertoire, there was a curve ball. It was a version of the Motown classic “My Girl”. Whoa! Motown! What an amazing back catalogue of songs!

Though the backing for this and the old Four Seasons hit, “Can’t Get My Eyes For You” needs more rehearsal time, the A&R direction was refreshing- old, but timeless music and which made for a much needed departure from Xeroxing the first few hits from the very first Norah Jones album.

Hell, I worked that record in this region, marketed Miss Jones and even had her perform at the Grand Hyatt almost fifteen years ago. She’s moved on and has no plans to ride on the coattails of her past successes. She keeps evolving as an artist.

However, every single singer who performs at the Champagne Bar is still singing “Don’t Know Why” or “Come Away With Me”. Nostalgia? No. Zero idea of music.

Why not at least ONE night a week of Motown classics with the addition of maybe one more player like a guitarist? Think this will drive away audiences? Hits from the Supremes, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, the Four Tops, Jackson Five, the Miracles…? Very much doubt it.

Check out what the HKJC- a racing club- has done with the ‘live’ music performed at its venue Adrenaline every Happy Wednesday.

There’s everything from Hozier and their own take on current hits to returning to the Stax/Volt and Motown catalogue. It works. And without resorting to shtick. The venue is packed two weeks in advance.

Sure, the Champagne Bar is not for musical anoraks. But it also doesn’t have to be just another hotel lounge offering the same music fare that’s been trotted out for over two decades.

This is 2019 and being on Repeat is not a winning formula. It can often be cringeworthy despite the whoops and the happy seals clapping every time someone hits a high note no matter how sharp or flat these are.

It doesn’t elevate the music experience which adds to the overall atmosphere. It’s just lazily carrying on and thinking all audiences will continue to accept what they did decades ago. Wrong robotic thinking.

As for Sabreen Staples, give her a couple more days to get used to it all. To rehearse. Balance the sound. The drums were way too loud the night we were there- which had nothing to do with the very good and experienced backing trio. It seemed as if someone had asked them to play harder. And it came out LOUD.

Have a drink, listen to the second set and if you like what you hear, stay. She’ll appreciate the support. We’ll be back.

More importantly, if these hotel lounges are going to ask audiences to pay exorbitant prices for ‘live” entertainment, they should bring in music directors who know their music, the audiences and how to market these acts to this customer demographic.

On her first night at the Champagne Bar, there wasn’t even a poster promoting Sabreen Staples outside the venue.

That’s not fair. It’s not right. It’s an amateurish oversight. It’s one reason why even Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia are way ahead of Hong Kong when it comes to having a legitimate music scene.

Hong Kong offers a good rich gig for some willing to play the shtick game. But Hong Kong is extremely poor when it comes to quality control and those who go out of their way to help move things move forward and make a difference. What’s in it for them? That certain je ne sais quoi.

Helping music survive- real music and not play acting at being musicians on Instagram and by doodling with GarageBand and pre-programmed sounds masquerading as songs with no emotion.

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