The Marco Polo German Bierfest, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2016, is always a highlight on the party calendar and something we look forward to as the weather turns cooler. Martin Wies, the co-founder of Germany’s ultra-fun Die Notenhobler (The Notenhobler), which has been the festival’s official band since 1994, chats with us about the rise of Oktoberfest in Hong Kong.
How did Die Notenhobler form?
The band was started in 1984 by Uwe and me. We were friends since early childhood and had decided to learn brass instruments in our local town orchestra, but we played quite poorly and the conductor yelled at us nearly every time we had a rehearsal. So we had a decision: to stop playing music or start practicing. We chose the second, and met once or twice a week to practice. Very quickly, the group grew up – and we felt that just the orchestra songs were too boring. So we were looking for something else to play and found out that we had fun with Oktoberfest music. This was the start of the band, when we all were about 13 years old.
At first, we just played little birthday parties and spent every coin we earned on music equipment. The first real party we did was in 1985 in a tent, at the age of 14 years old. For the next four years, we needed our parents’ permission to stay out for a party past 10pm, because normally children our age needed to leave at 10 – but the music can’t stop that early. With time, some of the musicians changed, and instead of only brass instruments we expanded into the band we have now.
Briefly, can you introduce us to the members of “the world’s most popular boy band”?
Uwe Ninow and I are the co-founders and have been in the band since the beginning. He plays trumpet and alpine horn, and sings and acts in the funny parts of the show. He’s a carpenter in his normal life. I play bass guitar and euphonium, and MC on the stage. I run a renovation company in Germany.
Thomas Specht has been in the band since 1993; he plays guitars and is the lead singer. In his daily life, he’s a merchant and wholesaler of music equipment. Aleks Maslakov has been in the band since last year; he plays accordion and piano, and teaches those two instruments in Germany. Christian Zweng has been a temporary band member for Hong Kong since 2007, playing clarinet and saxophone; he replaced his former teacher, who is still teaching and can’t leave that for too long. Ralf Bachus is a part-time drummer and technician in the band – he plays on request since the band has been using a drum machine for a few years now. He also makes buses and coaches in Germany. And there’s Zoe Morisse, who is a singer in the band on request.
You’ve been performing around the world for 25 years now. What are some of your most memorable moments?
There are quite a few – these are some of the highlights for us:
In 1992, we were the band for the after-show party for David Bowie and Midnight Oil following the last concert of their world tour, which was held in an Oktoberfest style.
For the opening of a big music school in a historic castle, they had us on a specially made six-seat platform at a height of nearly 100 metres and, with a crane, brought us into the inner courtyard while we were playing a song using wireless equipment.
The opening party of Cathay City in Hong Kong, with about 10,000 people and groups representing all the Cathay destinations – like a jazz band from New Orleans and a reggae band from Jamaica – on two stages was a highlight.
And of course, the first trip to Hong Kong 23 years ago was very impressive for us as well!
For someone who hasn’t been to Germany for Oktoberfest, how would you describe it?
The Oktoberfest in Munich is a long-standing event, which started in 1810 as a horse race to honour the marriage of King Ludwig of Bavaria and Princess Therese of Sachsen. Step by step, it grew and the breweries built tents to celebrate in. From our point of view, it lost some of the traditions at the end of the last century, but it came back and today people wear traditional clothes such as lederhosen and dirndl again.
Nowadays, Oktoberfest is the biggest party of this kind in the world and a number-one export. People can enjoy music and party in several big tents – some spanning two floors and having a capacity of more than 12,000 people – as well as some smaller tents. For a few years, there has also been a historic Wies’n, where the Oktoberfest is held traditionally like it was in the 19th century.
What do you remember from your first trip to Hong Kong for the Marco Polo German Bierfest?
It was a very impressive trip for all of us. Everything was new, and so big and light-filled. On the plane, we had already drunk a bit too much. The hotel picked us up in a stretch limousine and served some drinks as well. After arriving at the hotel, we had an interview with a newspaper where they asked us about the history of Oktoberfest. None of us had any idea and we were a bit drunk, so we made up a story and told the reporter – it was printed for a few years in the newspaper and was very funny to read this story several times!
Have you seen the crowds change over the years in Hong Kong?
At the beginning, we had about 100 people – mostly foreigners – every night, sitting on little chairs and round tables in front of the hotel entrance, which also served as the stage. With time, the party grew and the mixture of the people changed to include more locals. At the moment, it’s about 50/50. What’s very interesting is that at the beginning there were only people in black suits, but now you can see more and more Bavarian dress such as lederhosen and dirndl. The party itself has a very distinct touch and mood, which is somewhere between the traditional Bavarian style and an international style – and probably unique in the world.
Audiences here really love your Cantonese-language cover songs. Were they hard to learn?
It’s quite easy to sing – you just have to follow the melody and don’t need to care as much about the different sounds of the words. Playing that kind of music was a bit difficult because we weren’t used to that, though – but we had a good teacher in the former resident manager of the hotel, Charles So.
Your enthusiasm for the stage is infectious – how do you keep that level of energy up throughout such a packed global schedule?
All we have to say is one word: fun! Love what you do and you won’t lose the energy to do it.
You’ve got a busy festival schedule and you drink a lot (a lot!) of beer during performances. In the off-season, what are your beer drinking habits like?
I think it seems to be much more than it is now, actually. We drank much more when we were young. Out of the season, we don’t drink too much – sometimes a wheat beer with friends.
What are some of your favourite beers?
For wheat beers, I like Erdinger Weißbier and Paulaner – it’s even nice to mix with Coke, which is called Colaweizen or, in our dialect, Häfele. For normal lager, it’s Augustiner Helles, Augustiner Edelstoff and Paulaner.
If you could play anywhere, for anyone, what would be your dream gig?
We’re happy with what we have and will take what life offers us.
Any surprises in store for this year’s festival?
Let’s see… if I told you, it would not be a surprise!