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Age no barrier to playing music

Reporter: Derek Li

Sitting against the backdrop of Central’s skyscrapers, in his dark business suit, crisp shirt and tie, 51-year-old Steve Bernstein looks every inch the banker that he is.

By day he moves funds but in the evenings, the tie comes off, he picks up his mandolin and has audiences moving to his music.

Currently, Bernstein performs acoustic sessions with the Joven Goce band three to four times a month. Prior to this, he had his own band playing improvisational rock with other finance professionals.

The media have come up with the term “dad bands” to describe groupings of amateur middle-aged and senior rockers living out the musical dreams of their youth.

Bernstein grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and has been a big music fan since he was young. He recalls one of his older brothers bringing music albums home and how much he enjoyed listening to them.

But merely listening to music was never satisfying enough for Bernstein. “My personality is really more do it than watch it,” he says.

He picked up a mandolin at the age of 16 and has been

playing it ever since. His musical influences include Bob Dylan and Grateful Dead. He started playing gigs more than a decade ago and at one point he quit finance to run a record label in New York.

Moving back into finance and to Hong Kong in 2000 did nothing to dampen his passion for music. Instead, he noted the music scene was a lot less vibrant here than in New York, and was motivated to form a band.

Bernstein says he found Hong Kong a small community with only a handful of live music venues where bands perform. “When you walk in, you will see either fans or musicians,” Bernstein says.

That just made it easier for him to find and approach fellow musicians and in just a short time, his first Hong Kong band was born.

Bernstein does not regard age as a barrier in music. “When you were a kid, you learn the notes and music. Now I can play with more feelings,” he says. “The good thing about music is that there is no limit. You can be young or old. In basketball, you can’t compete when you get old. But music is a great equaliser. It doesn’t matter if you are 50.”

That does not mean people do not have certain expectations about musicians. Bernstein recalls one time he had finished playing in a club, he ran into a group of young women from the audience in the elevator. “[They] didn’t see me and they said the band is really good but they are so old,” he says, giggling at the memory.

Bernstein says clients and colleagues are surprised when they see him play. He thinks it is a bonus that people can see him in a more all-round way through his music. “Through music one could get to know the players’ characters, tastes and attitudes.”

There is another advantage to being an older musician. As a father of three, Bernstein has to juggle work, family and music and he is clear about his priorities. “If I see my kids, I don’t play,” he says. But his daughters are old enough to come to his concerts, so, the two parts of life can often be combined.

Unlike their younger counterparts, who might have to give up playing music to work, many older musicians have relatively stable finances and families and grown-up children.

But that does not mean it is always plain sailing. David Kwan Chi-keng, the 63-year-old owner of a high-end audio equipment shop, fought against heart disease for half of his life and had to undergo regular kidney dialysis in recent years.

None of this was a barrier to Kwan. He continued to play guitar in a band, just as he had done at school. Kwan gathered together friends who were in their late 40s or early 50s and held practice sessions every Sunday night.

In 2006, Kwan received a heart transplant and formed a gospel music band called “Heart Openers”.

It was a turning point in Kwan’s musical life. He started playing for people in churches. However, the church he attended was a conservative one which disliked Kwan’s music. One time when they played during an anniversary event, staff warned them they would turn off their amps unless they kept the volume down.

Kwan (middle) regards his team as a family for music. They perform music as a


Kwan did not give up. He and his band toured churches in the Mainland and religious schools in Hong Kong. As time went by, his band gained popularity and the media reported Kwan’s story and members of the clergy started to accept his music. His persistence paid off. Kwan even skipped work to play with his band which performed in 18 venues last year.

As Kwan struggled to gain recognition, his family was always behind him. His son gave up his job as a pilot to help Kwan manage the company. His mother kept asking when he would perform for her.

Being an older rocker with comfortable finances means Kwan can afford his own equipment. It is a far cry from when he had to beg his father for an acoustic guitar when he was young, and his mother threw his guitar away and urged him to focus on his studies.

For Kwan, devotion to music is central to his being. “If I were to forget all the [music] I play, life would have no meaning.”

Dad rockers may gain self-fulfillment through their music, but that is not all. Age is not necessarily a barrier to gaining fame and fans. Lam Fat, a 56-year-old retired taxi-driver known as “Lam Sir”, first started performing solo on the streets of Tai Po. Today, Lam has a fan club with hundreds of members. He makes a living from the fees fans pay for events such as karaoke gatherings.

Lam’s musical career took off a year ago, after he met two guitarists playing in Tung Chung. When they discovered a shared interest in nostalgic English-language songs, they formed a band named “The 3L Band”. All three band members are in their 50s and their surnames start with the letter L.

These days, Lam’s silky vocals and his bandmates’ guitar chords can be heard on the pedestrian street in Mong Kok. At first glance, it is hard to connect the crooning of English oldies like Unchained Melody and Massachussets with the slim, unassuming Chinese “uncle” wearing a trilby.

Lam still has a lot of fans at the age of 56. He said it was the happiest time in his

But soon, some members of the audience sway along to the tunes. The trio attracts large crowds, some of whom stand to listen throughout the three-hour set.

Word soon spread about the three uncles performing in Mong Kok and they were even interviewed by Phoenix TV. The programme brought the band more fans, many of whom are teenagers.

Lam enjoys interacting with people through the band. “Sometimes I will crack some jokes,” says Lam. “I like chatting.” Among those who sing and dance along to the tunes are foreigners. “Music has no boundaries,” Lam adds.

Lam sometimes jams with young people, but he finds they had different styles of music. “They play new songs; and we play folk and pop,” says Lam. “But we can adapt.”

For Lam, being in a band is not just about the performances, or the interactions with the audience, although he enjoys those. It is also about the music itself. “People who play music are happier.”

Being older just means he has more to bring to his music and music has more to give him. “We have been through all the bitterness there is in life,” says Lam. “Music adds colours to my life.”