For Carlyle & Co’s Olivia Dawn Mok, all roads lead to jazz. And all roads this month lead to Café Carlyle & Friends, a three-day musical showcase, starting October 5, ardently celebrating the long-awaited return of live local music.
“Well, jazz is the root of all music,” says Olivia Dawn Mok, with a weighted cadence of finality that underscores just how very serious she is about the genre. “Jazz is music that was created for the people. It comes from the streets. Hip hop, for example, comes from jazz. The reason we have hip hop at all is because some beatmakers found these jazz samples and they would take four-bar loops out of it. Then they would create beats over that sample. That’s old-school hip hop. A Tribe Called Quest did that. Even Kanye did that.”
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say music and the pursuit of all things musical is something of an ever-enduring North Star for Mok, who spent the evening before our meeting committing, first, to a drop-in “hi-bye” appearance at Prestige’s 40 Under 40 party, but “stayed until the end because the music got so good”. Neither does her ability to cite encyclopaedic, historical discourse on the subject at a disarmingly casual pace.
So, it should come as no surprise, then, that Mok spends her days, evenings and so many stretches of time in-between careening through names (she performs as Xiaolin), musical genres (she’s a classical violin- playing, records-spinning, jazz- obsessed polymath) and a myriad of euphonious responsibilities. These days, her admittedly fancy title as director of music and artist curation at Carlyle & Co takes up many of these hours.
“I realised I really didn’t want to be in classical music,” she says, in spite of her conservatory degree from Julliard, “because classical music is amazing for learning theory and for really having an understanding of where music comes from. But I wanted to create something from scratch. And classical music didn’t really allow for that.”
Where do you go if you wanted to be in music but not, specifically, classical music? Well, if you’re anything like Mok, it might be Berklee College of Music’s Valencia campus, where so much changed for the musician.
“There, I realised I was really into dance music and I was really into jazz fusion, which is not a typical type of jazz,” she says, evidently passionate about her formative years in Spain. “I was into Brazilian music, Latin music, flamenco, salsa, all kinds of different genres.”
This masterful transcendence of genres has since taken Mok from behind the decks at Sheung Wan’s Mihn Club to producing EPs of her very own, to gigging with her fellow jazz cats at Peel Fresco, Gecko and Backstage, which she recounts as some of the best nights she’s ever had. All roads, for Mok, lead back to jazz, making her role directing the programme at Carlyle & Co so very fitting.
Jazz, with its insistence on freedom, on improvisation, on, as Mok alludes to earlier, “the people”, has always defined the delicate charm of an attested Café Carlyle experience. After all, The Carlyle, A Rosewood Hotel, is nothing without its people. The legend of the New York institution is mired in titillating tales of bacchanalian evenings retold in hush-hush whispers – the hotel is famed for its discretion, after all – about the kind of eyes-closed antics presidents, dignitaries, royalty and rock ’n’ roll celebrities get up to in rooms darkened and smouldering. About how Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis always takes her Cobb salad with a gin and tonic? How George Clooney made the hotel his home, with his wife Amal, for three months in the Empire Suite. How Princess Diana of Wales, Steve Jobs and Michael Jackson once stood shoulder-to-shoulder in what’s later coined “the most famous elevator ride in history”. And at the heart of the action: Café Carlyle, arguably the nucleus of the hotel it’s named after.
“When I first got to New York in the mid-’70s, I came here to hear Bobby Short,” actor Judith Light once said of the white- tableclothed saloon and its late veteran performer, who held the adoring attention of loyal patrons for close to four decades. But that’s precisely the beauty of the café. Beyond the star-gazing, Café Carlyle quite literally sets the stage for the most honest display of pure, unadulterated, timeless talent. For whether you’re seated on plush theatre seats as the rumble of an auditorium comes to a soft hum, or perched high on a bar stool as contracted lounge singers cover today’s Top 40 chart-makers or, come Friday night, moving all four limbs in metred timing to whatever the DJ has thrusting through so-loud-you-can-feel-the- vibration speakers, or, in this very context, sipping dirty Martinis ensconced within a Marcel Vertès mural, music has always been an emotive, communal experience. And at Café Carlyle, you might just be rubbing shoulders with Naomi Campbell while “I Did It My Way” is belted soulfully, with feeling, before you.
With its own murals by Jean-Philippe Delhomme, Café Carlyle’s Hong Kong chapter, having launched in September 2021 amid strict governmental restrictions, has understandably been lacking in the host of legendary programming its namesake promises. But all that’s about to change.
Café Carlyle & Friends, a three-day musical showcase in October curated by Mok, invites the city’s best and brightest jazz talents – including the likes of rising stars R.I.D.D.E.M, Nate Wong and Justin Siu – to play alongside established greats Alan Kwan, Alonso Gonzalez, Ted Lo and Eugene Pao on what Mok describes as Hong Kong’s most intimidating stage. And this is coming from a seasoned classical musician who made her debut at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre at the age of 11.
“It’s very raw. Very vulnerable. It’s an all-eyes-on-you kind of experience that I think a lot of artists find very challenging, but also rewarding,” she says. Elsewhere in the private members’ club, DJ Roy Malig is hosting a Vinyl Market from his personal collection, and acoustic performances by local singer and classical pianist Cehryl, saxophonist Miles Li and jazz pianist Bowen Li prelude each evening’s jazz standards.
Escapism is paramount to an authentic Café Carlyle experience. A casual wander into the carpeted saloon on the 56th floor of The Rosewood is practically a one-way ticket to Manhattan via Hong Kong. But Café Carlyle & Friends? It’s all about spotlighting local, home-grown talent forged from the fire and brimstone that defined the past 30-and-counting months of pandemic- living – and pandemic-creating.
“I think people really miss playing together,” says Mok, “and actually, it’s the tactile connection that we miss, right? Being able to hug each other, and being able to just be yourself without having to worry about getting sick. We miss that connection. And I think in order to make up for that connection, over the pandemic, people have been making a lot of music.” And where better to show-off than among friends both old and new?
Now, allow me to set the scene. There’s but one thing a sweeping swathe of burgundy velvet can stand to be harbinger for. And Carlyle & Co’s Café Carlyle, replete in plush maroon drapes, abides by the same pre-show theatrics. So, take your seats, ladies and gentlemen. The Café Carlyle & Friends show is about to begin.
Learn more about Carlyle & Co. memberships here