Bihzhu – Mini Interview

1. Where are you from/what’s your background and how did you first get into music? 
I was born and bred in Penang, Malaysia and like almost all other kids my age, was sent to learn piano, but those lessons didn’t make much of a dent in my consciousness, unlike the hours I spent listening to my dad’s cassette tapes – The Brothers Four and Peter, Paul, and Mary were my favorites!
I did the normal singing contests and choir in primary and high school but never really considered music as a career of any sort. I didn’t even really think that I was that great a singer. Then hit college, and my choir buddy was there too, one day I asked her to put some music to a poem I’d had written about unrequited love (cliche alert!) and when we sang it around the hallways, I was taken aback by the strong reactions of the people around us.
My friend Ywenna then asked me if I’d like to start a band with her, I said yes, and that’s pretty much how it started.
We did pretty well in the Malaysian indie singer-songwriter scene back then with our pop-jazz duo Rhapsody, it was a small scene (this is in 2005) and it was an exciting time, in 2006 PIJF (Penang Island Jazz Festival) started their first fringe stage and we were very privileged to play there, that was also the year I graduated from college and started a job as a writer in a men’s fashion magazine. Took a small break from Rhapsody in 2007, joined a reggae dub outfit Layan Sound System, Rhapsody got back together again in 2008 and in 2009, decided to take the plunge to quit my job and be a full time musician. My bandmate Ywenna migrated to Singapore in 2010 and the band was officially over.
2011 I decided to become a solo artiste and write my own songs and here I am today :)

2. Malaysia is a very complex country with many different ethnic groups and cultures. How has this affected your music and the music scene in general? 

In a nutshell, the music scene is very segregated. I think it mirrors a lot of political, social, and historical factors. E.g. when the British left us, our country was divided by ethnic interests (major political parties based on race) and 50 odd years later, we’re still feeling the effects of that. But anyway.
You get your mainstream market that is dominated by artistes in the Malay language, the Chinese scene that worships artistes from HK/Taiwan, and then a smaller Indian scene. The English music scene is an urban one, and that is a small slice of the pie, and on top of that, you get fans who only listen to the Top 40 charts, and what you’re left with is an independent scene that is again fragmented by genre. And in a country that only has a population of 30 million and below, you can understand why many musicians want to look beyond Malaysia to further their career.
A good example is Yuna, and to a certain extent Zee Avi, who have made waves abroad and are now embraced as household names.
BUT. I still think that Malaysian musicians are incredibly talented, and there is increasingly a growing appreciation for homegrown music, and a maturing audience.
As for how it’s affected my music, I think it has very much to do with how I grew up. I’ve always felt Malaysian. And we are as different as you can get. TONS of different ethnicity, languages etc etc
My parents taught me to read in English when I was 3, and I consider that my first (and main) language as it’s the language I dream in. I speak 3 languages and 3 different Chinese dialects, went to a Chinese school (where the syllabus was taught in Mandarin), yet I don’t feel a connection to anything Chinese, be it language, culture or music! But I’ve always felt Malaysian.
And I’ve always believed that music is its own language and I think that is still something that holds true.

3. I notice elements of several genres in your music; is this something you developed over time or have you always been comfortable in many styles? 

I think I’ve always enjoyed many different kinds of music and I like the fluidity that comes with just expressing what you like through the Sound and not care so much about what genre it is. Although that becomes tough when someone asks me what genre I play and I cannot explain! Haha.
I’d like to continue to expand in this direction and pretty much go where the music takes me. :)

4. What do you feel are the main difficulties in being a professional musician in Malaysia? What are any positives? 

Main difficulties would boil down to financial sustainability.
I find myself incredibly fortunate that I have been able to thrive (this is my 11th year as a musician) playing my own original music, and not have to resort to doing Top 40 covers to make a living, although there is absolutely nothing wrong with a musician who does that, it’s just not what I want.
You see major brands and corporations tapping into original Malaysian music more and more these days, and I had a corporate client who hired me for a store launch this year who told me ‘We can’t wait to hear your original songs!’ and that is a big leap from the days when I started out.
The other thing is there is a lack of a touring circuit in Malaysia, and this is something me and many musicians have spoken about and we hope we can kick off something in the future.
Support for the arts from the Malaysian government is also sorely lacking, I don’t wanna go into too many details but it just, well, it sucks!
One positive that the scene is relatively small, and everybody knows everybody and there is generally a good support system and a healthy musician community in Malaysia, and that too is an invaluable resource and source of comfort.
Another positive thing is that despite all the challenges of being a musician in Malaysia, we are a resourceful and go-getting folk, and have taken our own initiatives to grow our careers like organizing our own tours, locally and abroad, and we don’t give up!

5. What’s your next project? 

 Finishing up my second album. Organizing a launch concert. Tour the country and the region. And to make it happen in 2017 and 2018! Fingers and toes crossed.

6. Three favorite albums: 

- Miseducation of Lauryn Hill – Lauryn Hill
- Based on a True Story – Fat Freddy’s Drop
- A Foreign Sound – Caetano Veloso
Music by Bihzhu will be featured on OK Jazz Episode #50, up online Monday Dec 19th. Read more about Bihzhu at her homepage.