As Mid-Autumn Festival approaches, we caught up with UK Bristolian half-Chinese Singer/Songwriter/Producer Makala Cheung who makes Chinese infused Electronic Pop. We find out about how her culture has influenced her music and about her Mini Moon Festival – inspired by our Mooncake eating celebration.
Tell me about about yourself and your music?
My dad is from Hong Kong, and came over to study when he met my mum. They could barely speak a comprehensive word to each other but apparently managed to communicate enough to make clear they liked each other! My mum grew up in Knowle West in south Bristol and that’s where they met, and I still live there now. My dad has always been so focused on learning English and studied and worked a lot when I was young so I never learned much Cantonese. We always made a big deal of eating Chinese food together (with my parents, grandparents, and uncles family) on Saturdays growing up and going to Chinese New Year events in Bristol. I also enjoyed watching Kung Fu films with my dad on the weekends.
I was always very proud of my name and my heritage and always wanted to know and experience more. I’ve always loved finding out about all different cultures including my own. I love now that I am married to a half Jamaican, with a mixed heritage daughter and I feel like we are very lucky to get such rich lives with much variety in our lives, and 3 times the celebrations! I’m a big lover of celebrating – I make a big deal of birthdays and even have parties for pancake-day.
What aspects of Chinese culture do you enjoy?
As a regular thing, I love getting together with family over food, and for special occasions I have always loved the Lion Dance and the heavy drums that accompany them. I also love watching Kung Fu movies, or at least I did a lot when I was younger and wish I did more now. I am learning Shaolin Kung Fu at the moment and have nearly finished learning the form with the chain whip – after numerous occasions of hitting myself with it, and catching it in my hair! – I’m starting to think Chun Li (the Street Fighter character) had the right idea with the wrapped buns!
How does your Chinese culture inspire your music?
As I started getting involved in music my dad once suggested I include Chinese lyrics. At first I didn’t want to force anything just because it would make me stand out, but after being booked for more Chinese related events (because of my name and despite my music), I started to get more curious and excited about incorporating Chinese sounds. A few years ago I was in the studio with a friend watching kung fu clips and commenting on the music and instruments used. I found some Asian sounds in the studio and started experimenting blending them in subtly with my production. It was meant to be just one song – a concept for Chinese New Year in 2014 called Canton Hop, which then became an EP Butterfly and then followed my first album River sticking to what had been successful and enjoyable, and now is naturally become my sound.
The hardest thing was trying to make a live set sound the same as I couldn’t find anyone that played and owned the instruments like an Erhu or Gu Zheng – let alone who also liked or wanted to play live with Electronic music. After a few years of working with a few guitarist previously and using CD backing tracks, I met a new drummer who had a sample pad – AJ Rousell. AJ is now my live drummer, also triggering samples that we chop up from my productions, so we can include the Chinese sounds live. I play a synth and sing and we have bass player Greg Badman with some great synth and fx peddle. (Sometimes my friend and rapper Sazzey also joins us.)
Have you been to Hong Kong?
I went once when I was 12 and it felt like going home. I’ll never forget the different scents and the taste of the street food and the bustle of the city and the beauty of the view from my dads friend’s boat. I really want to go back. I hope to go next year, it’s just saving up for it. Something always gets in the way, something else we have to pay for. But the urge is stronger than ever now and I just have to find a way to afford it…maybe someone will book me for a gig (haha).
What have been your highlights of your music career so far?
Part of me wants to say things like being played on BBC Introducing, or playing headline slots at local festivals, and to some extent they are in a traditional sense. But what has been the most unexpected and rewarding outcome has been the people I have met, worked with, made friends with, and all the interesting and surprising events I have experienced, that I would never have had if I hadn’t been a musician. My most amazing feeling though is to sit alone and play piano and sing and come up with a new song, or produce it all it the studio adding layers and instruments – if that doesn’t feel magical (for me), I know it’s not right (for me) and I move on to the next song.
What have you got coming up in the future?
As my last two big releases were around Chinese New Year I wanted to do something different this year, and have more time to work on this new album. I’m a big lover of nature, so following the name themes from before (Butterfly, River) and considering the Moon element of Mid-Autumn Festival, I decided to call my album Moon and release it for then. I’m really proud of this album and feel like I’ve taken the next step up in my musical maturity. The feedback for the single release ‘A Little Deeper’ from the album have been wonderful, and the feedback from the few professionals that have heard it in advance have been very positive.
For the launch, I wasn’t that enthused by the thought of an album launch just about promoting me, but I knew it was important to have one. So instead I decided to put on an event that promoted Chinese and broadly Oriental culture to Bristol. I now have 7 hours of acts inspired by and from the Orient at my Mini Moon Festival at Bristol renowned venue The Fleece on Sunday September 27th from 2pm until 9pm. There is live music, dance, DJs, Kung Fu, Lion Dance, and activities and food, and it’s supported by West of England China Bureau. I’ll be selling my album there and performing with my Electronic Band, and also just having lots of fun enjoying the rest of the event.
I’ve also got a video coming out soon on my You Tube channel by my very talented friend Marcus Way. The song reflects on inner beauty and my sadness at how people focus and base their worth on their ‘Imperfections’ (the name of the song). It plays with double exposure – showing nature inside me, and I also reveal what could be considered my physical imperfections to champion the lyrics of the chorus:
“I want you to see all of my imperfections, take a good look at me,
Want you to see all of my imperfections, you are not alone you see.”
I have a few more bookings coming in for the Autumn and winter for gigs, so it’s now off the recording the songs that I’ve written for next year’s album, promoting the launch event, and storyboarding the next video. Plus of course going to lots of gigs to get inspiration, show support, meet interesting people and have fun!
Moon by Makala Cheung is out as digital release on iTunes, Amazon and more from Sept 27th 2015 and as CD at the Mini Moon Festival launch event.
You can find out more about Makala Cheung at www.makalacheung.com
For more about the event and ticket links go to http://www.chinabureau.co.uk/events/mini-moon-festival