Written by: Marta Colombo
One sunny afternoon in 2014, Heidi Li was writing a love song in her apartment in Perugia, a picturesque gem in the hilly region 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, the song, “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 performed it around the country. From Umbria to Trentino and Puglia, she has performed folk songs with local artists in various regional Italian dialects as a project called, “Heidi canta in tutti i dialetti,” or, “Heidi sings in every dialect.”
“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 four, Li was invited to perform Cantonese opera for the villagers of Cheung Chau, one of Hong Kong’s outer islands. At the age of 17, Li was awarded a scholarship to complete her last two years of high school in Canada.
She says she left her family and hometown because it was her dream to expand her horizons and live abroad. After Canada, she went on to the U.K., France and Italy.
“I lived this unique reality with kids from different countries and with different backgrounds,” she said.
At universities in Warwick and 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 the Saône Rivers, music remained a hobby on the side.
The artist’s passion for music endured as a constant reminder of her origins and the traditions that inspired her love for art. But it was only when Li relocated to Perugia seven years ago that she decided to forge a career in music.
Li moved to Italy after falling in love with an Italian man. The relationship was short-lived, but her attachment to the small town and its people are still vivid.
When she first moved to Perugia, Li had an office job as a translator. After 5 p.m., she dedicated her time and energy 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 each summer, Li was inspired to form a band and enroll in Siena Jazz University in a nearby town.
This was the start to a career that encompasses Li’s passion for 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 “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 Jazz University to do something interesting.”
And that is precisely what Li did. After contacting local artists and studying the dialect for a while, she joined 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.
Last October, Li and pianist Manuel Magrini were invited by the Italian Foreign Ministry to perform at an official event promoting the Italian language abroad. Singing in the scenic atmosphere of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence in front of Italy’s highest political authorities, Li realized her project had 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.
Li’s father, Li Hon Kwong, a music enthusiast and primary school headmaster, is 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 television during a competition that she won at the age of 11.
“She’s now realizing her dreams, achieving her goals in an artistic way,” Li’s dad continued.
Li’s father, who defines his family as traditional 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 intention to bring “Heidi sings in all dialect” 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.”
Editor: Olivia Yang