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Perform Art Archive: North Shore News - February 18, 2005

Shanghi Diva

The original Shanghai Divas Collection: Redefined by Ian Widgery (EMI Music Hong Kong). Released in Canada as Shanghai Lounge Divas.

John Goodman (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

As the world welcomes in the Year of the Rooster a North Vancouver man's CD is sitting pretty at the top of the Asian music charts.

The success of Ian Widgery's remix project of classic Shanghai pop divas may have caught many industry observers by surprise but he was always confident that the music had crossover potential.

Originally from Cornwall, England, Widgery got his start in the U.K. working as a producer/mixer on more than 60 commercial releases including projects for David Bowie, U2 and Human League. "The focus in London was very pop," he says. "In England there's a huge crossover market there."

Widgery did some mixes for the Irish band Bewitched on Sony Records and the first two singles went straight to number 1 opening up new doors for the young producer. One opportunity meant moving to Asia but he was ready for the challenge.

"I had wanted a different direction musically at the time - I'd done the London thing and I just wanted to open up the sound. I got some interesting e-mails from a company (Schtung) and they said 'We would love to meet you.' I went over and ended up working on most of their music output for record release."

Schtung was started in Hong Kong in 1982 by New Zealand musicians Andrew Hagen and Morton Wilson to work with the booming film industry. Since then they've opened offices in Singapore, Shanghai and Los Angeles as their music production business has continued to expand.

Widgery had been working at Schtung for about a year when he first heard some of what would become the Shanghai diva material.

"Morton Wilson said come on in and have a listen to this music and I was like 'Wow, this stuff is brilliant.' The fact that it is 80 years old is phenomenal really."

What he was listening to were songs originally released more than half a century ago in Shanghai on old format 78 rpm discs. Before the Second World War the Asian city was a very cosmopolitan centre which readily accepted both Eastern and Western cultural elements. The communist takeover in 1949 shut down this freedom closing Shanghai's dance halls, nationalizing the movie industry and banning jazz music. Up until that time it had been a wide open city. Although Shanghai's Pathe recording studio had been one of the most successful in Asia their cultural significance was erased overtime. Most of the ways of this distinctive world were suppressed and long forgotton by new generations.

"EMI unearthed all these tracks that had not seen the light of day in decades," says Widgery. "They found all the records in a vault in India. A lot of the manufacturing in those days was done there - it was all very colonial and British. Pathe was the original label they were released on and that was what EMI in Asia was called before it existed."

Widgery worked with the raw material and completely rewrote new arrangements and ideas around those songs. "I was given about 500 songs. Even though it is music from Shanghai they were chosen with western ears. If it was a Chinese person selecting the tracks they probably would have chosen different songs."

The 11 tracks on Shanghai Lounge Divas incorporate a wide variety of styles. Bai Kwong, the quinttessential bad girl of Shanghai pop culture, opens the CD with Waiting 4 You, and is also featured on two more tracks Autumn Evening and The Pretender. Her peak years were just before the communists took power eventually dividing her time between Shanghai and Hong Kong recording songs that appeared in more than 30 movies.

Each of the women on the disc represents a different aspect of Shanghai pop culture - while some acted and were movie stars others operated successfully behind the scenes. Yao Lee, the sister of composer Yao Min, parlayed her Shanghai success into a long Hong Kong career singing cover versions of American tunes with Mandarin lyrics. Everyone has a unique story and the CD comes with a booklet full of background information and Warhol-style portraits highlighting each performer.

"I started putting the album together before EMI knew about it," says Widgery. "I had a meeting with them and they were in shock that somebody had done something with this music and coincidentally 2004 was 100 years of the Pathe record company being in existence in China. It worked out on a historic level."

EMI Hong Kong put out a five-disc set of the original material before Widgery's album was released in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. Initial copies for the Asian markets only included a triple vinyl version with the inside art work bringing in the covers from the original 78 rpm records.

"To be honest I did it for the love it," says Widgery. "There will probably be a second one - it's not really reached its full potential."

EMI said recently that they consider the Shanghai Divas project a benchmark album for a future sound of Asia. Widgery continues to work with Schtung in Asia and keeps a studio in Cornwall but last year moved to Vancouver's North Shore to set up shop. He and his wife Miranda Widgery-Webber, who is originally from Bowen Island, have opened up Perform Art Studios in North Vancouver. The ambitious project specializes in R.A.D. ballet, dance and the performing arts for all ages with a live performance show (featuring original music and dance choreography) currently being planned for May. For more information on Widgery's music and Perform Art Studios contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..