Interview by Allyanna Anglim, based in Hong Kong
The billboard spotlight shines bright on them. Jeff Anello, vocals, sneaked a look at his audience and cheekily threw in a few Cantonese words in his final sound check. The saxophone and keyboard are tuned; the microphone and speakers are plugged in. The band is ready.
Only this time instead of performing at their usual venues across Asia, which includes Beating Heart and Hidden Agenda in Hong Kong to thousand-strong crowds at music festivals in Mainland China and Taiwan, the band known as Bella Elektra is performing on a weeknight before a crowd of tourists and passers-by outside one of Hong Kong’s busiest passenger ferry terminals.
The multi-cultural group, formed in 2012, is comprised of New Yorker Jeff Anello on vocals, Texan Michal Garcia on the trumpet, Oscar Azahar from Toronto on the saxophone and Lithuanian DJ Gie on Electronics. They have performed at Clockenflap, the Hong Kong Art Fair and the Hai Yang Music Festival.
Self-described as “a musical experience that combines electronic and acoustic sounds melding urban vocals with a Latin horn section and dynamic beats,” Bella Elektra is slowly carving—and conquering—a niche genre in Asia’s musical market.
Art Zeen caught up with Jeff, Michal and Oscar after they busked at Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui district. The charismatic group members passionately discussed their music, their goals as a band and what they think about Hong Kong’s maturing music industry.
Art Zeen: Can you share with us the history of how the band was formed?
Michal: I first met Oscar about 5 years ago. Two years ago, Gie called me for a gig where we did a jam together, and ended up continuing to jam beyond the event. Eventually we became a little more focused and song-oriented instead of just a horn player and a DJ player jamming together. Opportunities to perform at events came up where we needed 2 horn players so we called Oscar. Then Jeff…
Jeff: A friend of mine who had introduced me to Oscar years ago told me that they were performing at the Central Wine Club. I went and Oscar introduced me to Michal and Gie, and towards the end of the night Oscar asked me to take the mic and do some freestyling with them. That night, we came up with “On the Fly” and “When,” which we eventually released as part of our EP album. Then they gave me all their tracks and I wrote around 7 or 8 songs in a week and a half as sort of an audition.
Art Zeen: So what do you think has inspired you to do music?
Oscar: Growing up with musical families plays a big role. My family’s originally from El Salvador and my mom was a Spanish singer and played the guitar. We didn’t have alarms; my mom cranked up salsa music or Mexican polka or mariachi music to wake us up. I also studied music and have always loved it until I lost my passion a bit at one point when it became a job, where you do all sorts of music you don’t like. And that’s how Michal and I first started—we wanted to do original stuff, to put something new and exciting together.
Jeff: My mom used to sing all the time when I was a little kid, and she made music a part of doing things so I’ve always felt comfortable with music. I can write stuff in my journal but I prefer to sing about it and fortunately enough, people liked listening to my voice so I just kept doing it. I was doing music back in university before I moved to Hong Kong. I was also in a band here in Hong Kong for a year and a half before that band broke apart. It’s been a fun process to get to this point and I worked with a lot of musicians along the way.
Art Zeen: How would you describe the Bella Elektra sound or differentiate Bella Elektra from other bands?
Michal: I think there are a good number of bands that do similar things to what we do in the world, like Bonobo and Far East Movement, but in Hong Kong there’s nobody who’s doing what we’re doing.
Jeff: It’s strange because I don’t know how to describe the band. I would say it’s…
Oscar: It’s just fun!
Jeff: Yes. We could describe it as electronic, urban beats with R&B pop vocals and Latin horns, but you’re not going to know until you listen to the songs. We make sure that the artistry comes out the best we can in whatever we do now.
Oscar: It’s really just about the experience. We’ve written music as we’re performing, and we’ve done a lot of improvising and freestyle especially with the early songs.
Art Zeen: Who would you say is your target audience?
Michal: Anyone who likes our music would be a target audience but if we wanted to be more specific, we’d say it’s probably people who are into Indie music and like to party a little bit. We want people to hear our music and enjoy it. Dance around, sing along. We want to make people move. Be part of the music.
Oscar: Our music has definitely also become a lot more structured and has a more specific direction now. Before Jeff came with his words, we were mostly just jamming. But Jeff and his lyrics has helped us connect to the audience better.
Art Zeen: Do you plan to have a record label sign you as one of your goals?
Oscar: We want to take it as far as we can. There are so many new mediums nowadays and that record-label contract is already a bit of an antiquated model. There are other options with the internet nowadays with iTunes, etc.
Michal: We actually gave our first EP away for free and it was distributed through our Facebook page and through SoundCloud.
Art Zeen: What are some of the challenges you face as a group?
Michal: Specifically to Hong Kong, because we speak English it’s difficult to connect to a certain local audience. Sometimes we will hang out with the audience at a show but because we don’t speak Chinese it’s harder to connect with that group of music lovers. In terms of music awareness, there are also a lot of things happening in Hong Kong but not everybody knows about it. Some of the gig guides aren’t as comprehensive, but I do see that changing a lot.
Oscar: I think we’re at a pretty cool time in Hong Kong. A lot of the younger generations are coming back from university abroad and they come back with a more international view of things. There’s a lot more enthusiasm and demand for creative new things, especially in entertainment.
Art Zeen: What topics are your songs about?
Jeff: I take a lot of consideration into the stuff that I write because if I’m feeling something, I have to be able to portray it enough so that somebody else can understand what I’m saying. Some of the stuff is about romance, but it’s romance about life more than anything.
Michal: Yes. There’s a lot of looking into yourself and becoming the best version of yourself.
Oscar: And the cool thing about the band is we encourage each other positively to become better people. It’s very democratic. We don’t always agree on everything but we always work it out.
Jeff: Our hope is that people would listen to the music because it sounds nice and the melody is catchy, then they would listen to the lyrics and think that “Wow, there is some substance here. There’s something that I actually can learn from and there’s somebody speaking to me.” That’s our hope as artists.
When by Bella Elektra