By Marta Colombo
One sunny afternoon of 2014, Heidi Li was writing a love song in her apartment in Perugia, a picturesque gem in the hills of Umbria, Central Italy.
The song, a soft jazz ballad about love and loss, was too sad for Li’s roommate Emanuela – Emy – Steri, who decided to make it lighter by translating some words into the Umbrian dialect.
Little did Li know that the sad love song, known as “Tuqui” or “You, here”, was her ticket to a new musical journey. After the video of the song garnered more than 27,000 views on YouTube, Li took the song with her and travelled around the country. From Umbria to Trentino and Puglia, she performed folk songs with local artists in various regional Italian dialects.
“I want to bring this project as a live show to Hong Kong, China and Asia,” said Li. “I want to show through music how diverse Italy is.”
Li was born and raised in Sha Tin, Hong Kong. When she was a teenager, however, at the age of 17, she was granted a scholarship to complete her last two years of high school in Canada.
“While attending United World College in Canada, I lived this unique reality with kids from different countries and with different backgrounds,” she said.
Li left her family and hometown because it had been her dream since she was a child to expand her horizons and live abroad. She went on to live in the UK, France, and Italy. While living in different countries, her passion for music endured as a constant reminder of her origins and the traditions that inspired her love for art.
At the age of four, Li was invited to perform Cantonese opera for the villagers of Cheung Chau, one of Hong Kong’s outer islands. Her father Li Hon Kwong, a music enthusiast and former primary school headmaster, had been her teacher and biggest supporter.
“She’s always sung a lot by herself, she’s always been passionate about music and culture,” he said while his wife Deborah Li proudly showed me a video of Li performing Cantonese opera on TV during a competition that she won at the age of 11.
“She’s now realising her dreams, achieving her goals in an artistic way,” Li’s dad continued.
At Warwick University and Sciences Po in Lyon, Li studied international studies and politics. While living in the small English town in the West Midlands and in the French city on the shores of the Rhône and Saône Rivers, music remained a hobby on the side. It was only when Li relocated to Perugia seven years ago that she took the decision to build a career in music.
Li moved to Italy because she fell in love with an Italian guy. While the relationship was short-lived, her attachment to the small town and its people are still vivid.
At the beginning she was doing translations and office work, but after 5 pm, she quickly started to dedicate her time and energies to her music.
“Music has always been inside me but everything changed when I moved to Italy,” she said. “Umbra Jazz Festival had a great impact, as well as the friends that I made through music.”
Walking down Perugia’s small alleys, where jazz artists from all over the world perform every summer, inspired Li to form a band and enrol in the Conservatory of Music in Siena. a nearby town.
It was the unlikely start of a career that embeds all of Li’s passions: music, travel, and languages.
With the band – which carries her name – she produced a jazz debut album with original tracks in English, Italian, and Cantonese. Throughout the album, Li sings her multicultural and polyglot adventures, in a quirky – yet soulful – style.
“I titled the album ‘Third Culture Kid’, because the term is about kids that grew up and lived in a culture that’s different from their parents’,” she said.
Emy Steri, Li’s friend and roommate, played an important role in her decision to launch the project “Heidi canta in tutti i dialetti” or “Heidi sings in every dialect”.
“The idea came automatically after the success of the YouTube video and the appreciation of our friends, ” said Steri. “It’s difficult to replicate something unique, but I thought she could use the original idea and the contacts at Siena’s Conservatory of Music to do something interesting.”
And that is precisely what Li did. After contacting local music artists and studying the dialect for a while, she would join them to sing – and film – a folk song that represents their land and its unique traditions.
“It’s a project that unites Italian culture and language. It’s such a diverse country: each region has a dialect that is a proper language, and a culinary tradition,” she said.
The project’s attractiveness became more apparent in October last year, when Li and pianist Manuel Magrini were invited by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to perform at the States General of the Italian Language in the World.
Singing in the scenic atmosphere of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, in front of Italy’s highest political authorities, made Li realise that her project, inspired by local realities, had in fact a global potential.
“I spoke with the Institute of Italian culture when I came to Hong Kong, because I see it as a point of entrance to bring the project to China as a whole and to Asia,” Li said.
When she went back to Hong Kong to see her family and friends last March, Li brought the folk songs that she had been performing around the peninsula with her.
For the first time, she performed them in her hometown, singing live at Orange Peel and Peel Fresco, two music lounges in the heart of Central.
When Li Hon Kwong saw his daughter performing jazzy songs in a square in Italy last year, it didn’t feel too different from when he used to see her singing Cantonese opera two decades before. Against all odds, Li’s father, who defines his family as traditionally Chinese, sees in her project a connection with both the art that he instilled in her as a child and their cultural values.
“Jazz is similar to Cantonese opera […] the singer takes over the pace, creating an amazing atmosphere that is almost spiritual,” he said. “And in Italy, the family structure, the respect for local traditions and food, is very similar to China.”
The idea of bringing “Heidi sings in all dialects” to China is actually based on a similar observation. “We are not that different after all,” says Li of Italians and Chinese. “It’s interesting because in China there is the same linguistic and regional diversity that Italy has.”