Jiaja and Momain Blues played New Year’s Eve at Bella Restaurant in the Jesselton Hotel. They needed to set the atmosphere for Chef Leo’s ESPAÑA New Year’s Eve menu, and deliver a medley of nostalgia songs fitting for the night.
Nazri Ji, Naza Aja, Sonny Bahari and Ahmad Aziz sound-checked in the long dining room. As diners arrived, Jiaja played a first set of gentle reflection as they called up songs by the Beatles and the Stones, among others.
Momain Blues stayed with the Spanish theme for a few sets: Santana’s Samba Pa Ti, Evil Ways, Guajira, Black Magic Woman… Tito Puente’s Oye Como Va. They played Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez as a slow transition into Bill Wither’s Ain’t No Sunshine. Loved it!
Sonny B is the quintessential performer, talking to the audience, switching comfortably from vocals to bluesy harmonica later in the evening.
When I talked about this venue, I had said, “There’s very little space, Ahmad has to play with small drums or just percussion.” He did and he was amazing. With one snare drum and one cymbal, he even solo’d as usual! I laughed out loud when Sonny introduced the band: “…and lastly, we have Ahmad on drum.”
Ji’s solos are ephemeral: fleeting thoughts that enter his mind and escape through his fingers. Then it’s gone: the beauty of improvisation.
At some point in the evening, the ever-philosophical Aja said:
“In the recording studio, we try to capture the feeling of live performance. But here, this IS the live performance.”
Around 11pm, some diners left to go home, filled with good food, Sangria and wine. A couple of big tables were now empty… No worries. The floor manager said the New Year’s menu had sold out. New customers moved into the dining area to listen to the music, while a table of Japanese diners continued partying happily.
Right! I told Momain Blues to make the night theirs. Ji said “Okay!” and brought out a box. It was a Korg Kaossilator phrase synthesizer.
Ji punched up some loops, and I heard snippets of Momain Blues tracks, then he made musical phrases by sliding his fingers across, and up and down the touch screen. He played the sound of a trumpet…then a piano…then beats filled the dining room.
Can you capture the bizarre spontaneity of Jiaja in a loop? Aja looked at the synthesizer and shrugged his shoulders.
“After all our years of playing in our Jiaja way, now we have this…thing”.
Geniuses have their funny ways. Who knows what they may create in the future.
Ji put away the box, donned his guitar and let rip, Hendrix-style. They played several Momain Blues songs, including my favourite: ‘NDA SENGAJA. They had played it at KKJF earlier this year. Think Steely Dan: so cool you never need to raise your voice.
Sonny said separately that the title translates to “Not on purpose” or “I didn’t mean it.” He composed and arranged it on a 2-hour flight from KL, and Naza Aja completed the title and the chorus after their first run-through together.
Momain Blues don’t sing ‘Nda Sengaja” with a big smile; it’s an understated song with minor harmonies that are just right. You need to close your eyes and hear its perfect casualness.
TIME 11.58pm. Sonny told me to signal him when to start the countdown.
Panic! Did anyone have seconds on their watch? Phone? Tab?
Then someone said “Now” so I nodded and he started. Ten! …Nine! …Eight!
… HAPPY NEW YEAR! Bottles of sparkling wine were popped and poured as MB went into Auld Lang Syne electric-style in English and Malay. Then they delivered a blast from the past, and the customers got up and danced to a medley of Tequila! Twist and Shout, La Bamba, I Can’t Get No Satisfaction…
Bella staff enjoyed themselves, by this time they were all wearing party hats and exchanging New Year greetings.
Our Sabahan blues band took the musical tone down to their name sake, as they eased into Mustang Sally…then Ji closed the door to 2011 with the kind of music they must eat for breakfast: Hendrix’s Hey Joe.
The gig was finished, 2012 had begun. Aja shook my hand.
“If I had the energy, I think I would never stop playing,” he said.
I love Sabah.
Happy New Year,