Bella Italia brings “Arabian Nights” tastes and sounds to our doorstep

Sabahan musicians from Papar Fuad, Zai and Yon play accordion, gambus and Arabic percussion at Bella Italia restaurant in Kota Kinabalu

Belly dancer, from Baila Crew, Kota Kinabalu

Tables were set for 40 people, beneath ornate chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Tapestries of burnt sienna and gold were draped across the room, bringing to mind sand dunes and blood orange sunsets.

So, where are we? Under the canopy of a magically resplendent marquee in the Arabian Desert?

No, we’re at Bella Italia for its ‘Arabian Nights’ theme dinner, because Chef Leo Velazquez wants to bring the tastes and sounds of the world to you, right here on Gaya Street.

SabahSongs is about music, so here we go!

Who are the musicians this night?

  • FUAD playing accordion
  • ZAI playing gambus
  • YON playing Arabic percussion

Gambus player Zai, from Papar

The musicians are all originally from Papar, they play together in Indonesia and Brunei as well as locally. Along with traditional music, they also play Latin and Javanese styles, contemporary and jazz, at weddings and other functions.

Zai plays violin and drums as well as the gambus, which is known as an oud outside Malaysia. His mother played the kulintangan [gong] and used to sing, in Papar.

“In Malaysia there are different types of gambus,” said Fuad. “In west Malaysia, the gambus has become a popular instrument for traditional music in Johor. Their type of gambus comes from the Middle East, and it is made using very thin [sheets of] wood.

“The type of gambus played in Sabah comes from Brunei. The design and sound of the gambus here are slightly different from the ones in Johor. Here in Sabah they use a thicker cut of wood. Every year we have the ‘Pesta Gambus’ [gambus festival] in Papar, where they play the Bruneian gambus.”

Fuad started to play the accordion at the age of 13. He does a lot of ad-libbing with his right hand, since some of the buttons on his Hohner accordion were damaged when they were travelling to Pahang; baggage handlers had slung it around in cargo. Ouch!

“I bought this one for RM 6,000 ten years ago! I was so, so sad when it was damaged! I think I want to get a new one in KL. It will probably cost RM 7,000 now. This one is a Hohner, from Germany, those brands are better to get than the China product, if possible. Better sound quality.”

I noted that’s about the same price as my Nord keyboard.

“Yes,” said Fuad. “And it’s heavy. The accordion is a heavy instrument and you need your energy to play!”

The trio played, and soon all the tables were filled. People ate and drank as Fuad, Zai and Yon played music coloured with minor harmonies; Fuad’s accordion trills evoked the mystique of the Nomadic Life, while the strings of Zai’s gambus weaved rhythmically through Fuad’s chords, often jabbing on the ‘off’ beat.

Bella Italia also had belly dancers to entertain the lucky patrons that night! These gorgeous ladies belong to dance instructor and choreographer Sheila Koh’s Crew Baila.

The menu for Arabian Nights was:


  • Meze
  • Homemade Feta with Olives
  • Hummus
  • Baba Ghannouj
  • Mini Turkish Pizza
  • Assorted Pickles
  • Falafel
  • Fried Artichoke with Tartare sauce
  • Fresh Yoghurt
  • Monk’s Salad
  • Marinated Capsicum
  • Flat Bread


  • Chicken
  • Whole Fish
  • Vegetable


  • Whole Lamb Biryani
  • Imperial Rice
  • BBQ Spring Chicken with Cardoman & Thyme
  • Calamari & Olive Stew


  • Lebanese Doughnuts
  • Assorted Cookies

For more information about its special event offerings, visit Bella Italia’s Facebook page.

Sabahan musicians from Papar Fuad, Zai and Yon play accordion, gambus and Arabic percussion at Bella Italia restaurant in Kota Kinabalu

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