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Hailing from Sabah, Annabel Eliza aka Beza Cabeza has been setting the Borneo music scene on fire.
True to her stage name, Beza Cabeza is on a quest to be different. Well-received for her soulful voice accompanying thoughtful lyrics, the singer-songwriter has been performing a diverse range of music from rock, pop, jazz, to ethnic.
She is set to release her latest single titled, Lost and Found, on February 14 which prompted us to get in touch with the singer.
Hey Annabel! First up, what’s the story behind your stage name Beza Cabeza?
I used to be known as Annabel T, and I do have one single under that name too (on iTunes). But after much thought, I decided that I preferred a name that made me feel like the person I was onstage. So I took letter out of my first name and middle name which is Annabel Eliza, and the name Beza was born. You can see how this name reflects on the music I make.
Cabeza, which means ‘head’ in Spanish was added in later on. It just sounded right when I was trying to make a jig out of my stage name. Just how it rhymes was very appealing to me. Beza also means ‘different’ in Malay. My stage name now literally means “A different head”, which is fitting as I was always the rebel in my family!
Can you share with us what led you to fall in love with music? How did you first get started and what was the experience like?
I have always loved music. My dad was a band boy with a powerful voice. My grandma sang songs to me all the time. During my worse days, music would be the medicine to my soul. Mariah Carey would tell me in her song that I’m a hero and I believed her, Michael Jackson sings about making a change and I worshipped those words and sung till the tears dried. The right words, paired with the right music were always the greatest salvation for me, it was my only hope when everyone was telling me I was hopeless, music was really my only therapy and outlet.
At which point in your life did you realise that you wanted to be a musician?
To be honest, I didn’t think I was ever going to be a musician at first as I hated my piano lessons with a vengeance. I’m, however, now thankful that I learned to play. I loved singing but I was always a bit shy about showcasing it.
Yes, I was also one of those kids who joined singing competitions but never won anything so it was one of those things I didn’t consider doing seriously.
After SPM I wasn’t sure what to do. I graduated from the science stream (surprising really, to this day I don’t know why I made that choice), and everyone was talking about being doctors and engineers and chemists, and I felt suffocated. I considered journalism (because I loved to write), and being a pilot (because it sounded cool). But both options did not excite me.
It was just one night when I was watching my old VHS of Michael Jackson’s music video and he was singing ‘Wanna be starting something’, when it struck me. I had this in me, why am I suppressing it? So the journey began. Since I was never trained in vocals, I entered college with my piano certificates, but I knew piano wasn’t where my heart is (still thankful I learned it). I went to ICOM for a year where I learned a lot about jazz music. I moved back to Sabah after a year due to financial constraints and decided to study in UMS, where I was kinda ‘forced’ to learn the cello, which I really ended up falling in love with. This was where I was exposed to classical, Malay pop and ethnic music. I graduated with a Bachelor Degree majoring in Cello. Still not really a singer.
In 2008 I joined RTM Sabah as a cellist for the Kombo RTM. And it was the year 2009 when they were picked to perform for the KK Jazz Festival. They needed a singer, and it was the Kombo Leader at that time, Moses de Silva, who was also my best friend, who made me take up the challenge to sing on that big stage. That was when I really started to consider doing this for real. Being on that stage, I felt so scared and so excited, but I knew it was when I felt really alive. This was a calling.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced over the years as a musician and singer-songwriter? Were there people who doubted what you were doing?
I’ve always had a mix of feedbacks about my music and my singing. It’s life and it’s how people are, opinions are there whether you want it or not. There will always be people who doubt and discourage you, but there will also be people who will encourage the hell out of you. It depends on whose words you choose to listen to, or how you choose to listen to their words. Because not all bad feedbacks are destructive, and not all good feedbacks are sincere. You take what helps you create and create better. Someone once told me, ” If your calling is to create, you create even if the whole damn world is against you. You do it because your heart tells you to, not what the world tells you.”. I ended up marrying that man.
I’m still facing the challenges as a singer-songwriter now. As I am new in the scene, the first thing is to get people to know me. The second thing is to get people to listen. Writing lyrics and putting music to words has always come easy to me. In short, the biggest challenge now is to get my music out there and get more people to listen to my creations, so thank you Eksentrika for giving me and all the other struggling artistes to be in featured in the spotlight.
Thank YOU for creating amazing music. Speaking of which, you’ve released several singles. Rantau and Black are uniquely different from one another. Can you share with us the inspiration behind the lyrics for these two tracks?
As mentioned earlier, my name Beza actually reflects on the music I make, but it also reflects on the different sides of my personality. I have a sweet side, an angry side, a thoughtful side, a messy side and so on. I’m simple in that people can read me like a book, but I’m also complex and you have to read in between the lines. When I write music it really is based on what I am experiencing or anything that is on my mind. I almost always start with the lyrics, and then, I would construct the song to fit the mood of the lyrics. That is why both songs have a different flavour to it. Or maybe, I’m like one of those artistes who refuses to define themselves to one style!
Black was a song I wrote based on my experience with people who seem religious, but are actually modern-day Pharisees. It is about people who think that by preaching and praying alone guarantees them a set of keys to heaven. Therefore, the artwork on this song depicts that. A rich self-entitled man with angel wings crudely sewn on his back. The music arrangement was done by Yu Dian from Beijing and produced by a good friend Hairul Hasnan. It is an angry song, fitting to exactly how I felt at the point of writing it.
Rantau, was a song I wrote while I was on a long sabbatical in Spain, where no one really spoke English, I relied a lot on communicating without words. I learned about cultures and people that were so different from mine. I was on the last few hundred ringgits in my bank account and learning to survive. I loved the challenge of being out of my comfort zone, pushing me to be broaden my perspective on life. At the same time, I was missing home a lot too. This was why I wrote this song, to remind me why I wanted to travel to a far-away land , but also remind me not to forget my roots. This is also a song developed with my newfound band collectively known as BEZA.
Out of all the tracks I’ve listened to, Rantau has a lot of ethnic elements behind it. What were some of the cultural elements from Sabah you introduced for this track? And why did you opt to go down this creative route?
Rantau is a song near and dear to me. It makes me thankful that I made the decision to use my savings on travelling, rather than spend it on an expensive car or iPhone. Travelling on a budget, mingling with the locals of wherever you travel to, opens your eyes to how big this world is, and your life and culture is just one tiny piece of a huge puzzle. You learn how to adapt, you discover different sides of yourself, you grow differently after experiencing life in different parts of the world. This song is about those experiences and how everyone should go through it at least once in their lifetime.
The cultural elements of the song has influences from the Sumazau beat from Sabah, but it also infuses elements of gamelan music and Sarawakian vibes with the Sape Solo, and it specifically written in Malay – which I really wanted for the song – to remind myself that even being in a new culture, I cannot forget where I came from. Therefore, when I say “akarnya kan bertumbuh di sayapku”, it is a metaphor of how I will never lose my roots wherever I fly to.
Your songs are mostly range from rock, pop, jazz to ethnic. Why are you drawn to these genres?
To tell you the truth, I’m not drawn to just these genres. I’m drawn to any music or element of a particular music that makes sense to me. I could be drawn to the lyrics, or the melody line, or the groove, the way it is played or sung etc. I listen to orchestral music, world music, electronic too if it hits the spot.
It’s not that I’m especially drawn to these genres. It’s that I’m somewhat more skilled in these genres as I am more exposed to it, and it is a mix of this that creates the music in my head. It also is a combination of the awesome musicians who I work with on my songs, they have a hand in creating the sound for a simple piece of music that I wrote. I am not limiting myself to just these genres, however. When the time comes, with the right mood and right lyrics, something totally different would come out, who knows?
My wife and I gave your tracks a listen and we absolutely love your voice! Over The Rainbow was such a refreshing take on a cult classic song. How long did it take you to train yourself vocally?
I’ve tried taking vocal lessons once or twice, unfortunately I never really knew what I was doing right or wrong, I would just wing it most of the times and hoped to God it would sound good. And I’ve had good teachers, mind you, it was just me not understanding and not having the guts to ask more questions.
It wasn’t until I started teaching kids how to sing, when I kinda had to start rationalizing what is going on when I sing and how to troubleshoot problems. As a teacher you have to do your research so you will actually know what you are talking about. It was by continuous repetition of the process of researching and applying theories, that made me realize how to work my voice to a better capacity. I finally understood what all the vocal drills and exercises were for. It is still an ongoing process but the more I teach now, the more I am discovering how to work my instrument. So you can say, I truly trained myself by starting to teach.
What are some tips you can share with others?
My tip for aspiring singers are, to find a good vocal teacher, and do not be afraid to always ask questions. At the same time, teachers can only tell you what to do. But what you do outside of class will matter the most. Practice, practice, practice, and do your own research on the side if you want to be a better singer. YouTube and Google are such a blessing nowadays for stuff like this. Another important point, be confident in your potential, but to also be humble enough to acknowledge your flaws and learn to improve.
What are your plans for the future? Would you be producing an album or EP anytime soon?
I am working closely with Rafiq Zahri from Soundfuse Records on releasing an album by the end of this year. Black and Rantau will be part of the album titled ‘Side A Side B“, which is themed around two sides of me. Side A will be the angry emo Beza and side B will be the sweet sappy Beza. It is also to remind me about the good old days of listening to a cassette tape.
Finally, this is a question we always ask every musician we interview. What are some challenges you see facing the local music scene and how can this challenge be solved?
The biggest challenge I think is support and exposure. Art has never been an easy field to pursue especially if you don’t fit the mould. A lot of great talents are struggling probably with two jobs on the side to make ends meet and at the same time trying to create something and getting people to pay attention. The hardest thing is to fund your passion and creation, as there aren’t many supporting bodies for starving artistes. Even to get your song copyrighted in Malaysia now requires at least five songs under your belt and to record these five songs takes a lot of money.
As for the solution, there are many ways such as making art subjects as important as science subjects, having governmental support and so on. But relying on others too much never solved anything. It is always better to use what resources you have and maximize it. I’m still getting the hang of this but this is my solution for myself.
Network, be seen, get yourself out there, learn to place yourself in the right places at the right time learn from those who have made it, and this is crucial, DON’T STOP CREATING. Success has to find you working.
All images by Beza Cabeza.