Bellissimo! A Taste of Food and Music at Bella Restaurant

[This will be in the next issue of Sabah Property Magazine. Only the words are here. No pictures, sorry. Wait, don’t go away! The magazine’s graphics team have all the photos, and the layout is always gorgeous. I will post up the pdf when they send it to me.]

[Okay, HERE is the pdf.]

[KOTA KINABALU]  If you stroll past the tall glass windows of Bella Restaurant, in the Jesselton Hotel on Gaya Street, you are likely to see musicians amid the immaculately set tables adorned with candles and invitingly bulbous wine glasses.

Chef Leo Velazquez creates themed menus, and he and his staff work with mostly local musicians to create the ambiance for a complete ‘food and music dining experience’.

Diners will regularly hear 1950s jazz songs coming from the grand piano in the hotel lobby; the music permeates both the Trattoria-style restaurant and the long, chandeliered and marble-floored Dining Hall.

During Arabian Nights, musicians Zai, Fuad and Yon played gambus, accordion and Arabic percussion respectively, to accompany belly dancers from Sheila Koh’s Crew Baila, who swayed enticingly for the diners.

Originally from Papar, the musicians 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.

“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 RM6,000 ten years ago! It’s a Hohner, from Germany, and it’s heavy. The accordion is a heavy instrument and you need your energy to play!”

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, which stabbed on the ‘off’ beat.

For one night only, Australian opera singer Lady Shaula Salathé performed A Night of Musicals, while a full house dined to Chef Leo’s Theatre menu. Classical crossover soprano Lady Shaula [it’s her real inherited title] has a stunning vocal range of 3+ octaves.

Originally a classical pianist from Melbourne, Lady Shaula is an international harpist, singer & multi-faceted artist. She was Carlotta in ‘Phantom of the Opera’, and has sung with Victorian State Opera & Australian Opera.

The guests finished their Starter and Main courses, and Lady Shaula began Act I. She entered the stage area holding a candle; Bella Floor Manager Mariana directed staff to dim the room lights. We were now a rapt audience, under the spell of The Lady with The Voice, who stood within a haze of blue spotlight.

Lady Shaula took us on a winding journey about the life of a professional opera singer. Her beautiful songs were interspersed with funny anecdotes about failed auditions and the general flukiness of a life in the Performing Arts. As she sang ‘On My Own’ from ‘Les Miserables’ and delivered up an electrifying performance of ‘Think of Me’ from ‘Phantom of the Opera’, enthusiastic applause rang out from the audience throughout the evening.

Act II began after Dessert. Lady Shaula sang ‘Bella’s Aria’ from her upcoming musical ‘Annabella Rousseau’; we [the audience] were given a percussive role in an A cappella version of ‘Habanera’ from Carmen; and she melted our hearts with her virtual duet with Andrea Bocelli, ‘In-Canto’.

With songs from ‘Wicked’ and ‘Chicago’, it all ended with the beautiful ‘Con te Partiro’. Lady Shaula was poised and gracious, the guests loved her, and one diner sponsored a bottle of champagne for her afterwards. This event had hit a sweet spot; good food and good music is hard to beat.

Chef Leo was actually in KL that night, and the main man holding the fort was Chef Ajat, originally from Indonesia, who has been the supporting Bella Chef for the last six years.

Chef Leo is a Cuban-American who has made Sabah his home. It’s hardly surprising then that Latin flavours and sounds are often delivered up at Bella. Special menus to Argentinian Wine Dinner, Cuban Nite, and Tango Nite were served to a backdrop of Latin sounds led by seasoned guitarist and RTM producer Sonny Bahari.

Swanky Bubbles was a night for ‘Black Tie’ and shimmering evening dresses. In the lobby of the very historical Jesselton Hotel, the duo Klasik Elastik – made up of violinist Sophie Van Aerde and pianist Joanna Funk – played while guests chatted gaily and clinked champagne flutes.

Klasik Elastik played Gardel’s ‘Por Una Cabeza’, invoking recollections of another stately hotel scene from the movie Scent of a Woman, where Al Pacino danced a tango to this song. From tango to waltz, the duo played Marchetti’s ‘Fascination’, followed by the elegant ‘Le Cygne’ by Saint-Saëns and ‘Ave Maria’ by Gounod.

But we are in Bella restaurant, so what else to play but a medley of Italian songs? The ladies played ‘Come Back to Sorrento’, ‘Santa Lucia’, ‘O Solo Mio’. Then, with intense appassionato, they began ‘Speak Softly Love’ – theme from The Godfather… among the guests, eyes darted involuntarily, searching for the man holding the violin case :-).

The pace picked up with European gypsy songs ‘Dark Eyes’ and ‘Czardas’, then some Speakeasy-style jazz to end on the swank! Sophie’s version of ‘Lullaby of Birdland’ included her cover of a solo by Stéphane Grappelli, and Klasik Elastik ended the night with ‘Midnight in Moscow’ for that old, Dixieland feel.

The latter part of the year promised free-flowing wine and Sangria, with seasonal music and menus. Jade Sisters – Joan, Amy, Didi and Erika – delivered a musical Christmas to diners, bringing their beautifully simple and melodious style to Bella. The four sisters from Tamparuli sang in natural harmony; sometimes Didi played keyboards, sometimes Amy played guitar, sometimes they sang A Cappella.

They graced us with both traditional carols and modern Christmas songs:

Amazing Grace,
Away In A Manger
Mary’s Boy Child
O Come All Ye Faithful
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
Santa Baby
Winter Wonderland
No Christmas For Me
Feliz Navidad
The First Noel
Silent Night
White Christmas
Jingle Bells

Chef Leo’s New Year menu was ESPAÑA, so Sabah’s own blues band Momain Blues – Nazri Ji, Naza Aja, Sonny Bahari and Ahmad Aziz – honoured the theme with classic covers: Santana’s ‘Samba Pa Ti’, ‘Evil Ways’, ‘Guajira’, ‘Black Magic Woman’, and 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’. It was superb.

Among their original Momain Blues compositions, my favourite was ‘Nda Sengaja’. Think Steely Dan: so cool you never need to raise your voice. Momain’s Sonny Bahari said 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, while 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. You need to close your eyes and hear its perfect casualness.

Then it was the countdown. Ten! …Nine! …Eight!

Happy New Year! Bottles of sparkling wine popped as Momain Blues went into ‘Auld Lang Syne’ electric-style in English and Malay. 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’…

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.

Quick, give that man a Red Bull.

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