Nehal Abuelata’s Sweet HayaH has found its groove with an improbable but upbeat blend of styles
Nehal Abuelata never set out to be a professional musician. In fact, she hadn’t even considered a career in music. But an experience singing for a Capoeira class at San Jose State University sparked a love of performing that led to solo gigs and the creation of Sweet HayaH, the rock band she sings and plays keyboards for. The band gives her the freedom to express herself musically and share an international perspective.
Born in Egypt, Abuelata lived in Paris for 14 years, and has spent the 14 years since in the South Bay. She finds that living in different places around the world has been incredibly valuable.
“I feel really, really fortunate and blessed,” she says, explaining that the experience made her more accepting of differences. “It makes your brain a little more malleable, and open to change, and helps you adapt. Especially when you’re confronted with diversity issues or cultural gaps.”
The word “hayah” means “life” in Arabic and Hebrew, and the band’s use of it is a nod to its own cross-cultural makeup and diversity of styles. The addition of “sweet” to the name reflects the positive nature of the music. Stylizing the name with two capital h’s has layered meanings: it spotlights the fact that the word is a palindrome, it reflects the musical harmony of symmetry, and it represents the beginning and the end.
“I like it aesthetically,” Abuelata says, “and I like the different meanings it can take on in peoples’ minds. It also helps people remember the name because it’s so visual.”
A rock band that also incorporates soul, groove, world music, and even a pinch of metal, Sweet HayaH has been together since 2011, when Abuelata and the three other founding members—Devin Moreno on guitar and vocals, Josh Gardner on drums and vocals, and Aaron Marquez on bass and vocals—who Abuelata affectionately refers to as “the guys,” met and jammed together. The connection was immediate and true.
“When we first got together, we’d be together in the studio until three or four in the morning,” Abuelata says, “even when we were just rehearsing. We were discovering each other, writing stuff—it was so exciting. We enjoyed each other’s company so much.”
This connectedness and light-heartedness has remained a vital part of the band’s ethos. Marquez and Moreno have known each other since grade school, and have always played music together. They have what Abuelata describes as a human bond and musical bond. The band’s growth and emergence onto the Bay Area music scene was informed by this closeness.
“You can be the best musician ever,” Abuelata says, “but if you’re just an unpleasant human, we don’t want to be in a band with you.”
When Abuelata first started writing and performing, her songs were what she describes as “sad and slow and repetitive.” She calls some of them “downright depressing.” Writing with and for the band, however, forced her to think more about arrangements, group dynamics and the audience response.
“We became a little less self-centered,” she says. “It was not so much, ‘This is how I feel and the world needs to know about it,’ and more about how we want to make people feel.”
Initially, Abuelata was on the keyboard all the time. But writing with the band made her to think more about arrangements, and be less attached to the piano. The band members also started experimenting with the diverse range of their own musical interests, which include reggae, metal, classic rock, and R&B.
“The more the guys added their parts and their influences,” Abuelata says, “the more I felt we were veering toward something a little bit more upbeat, happy, and definitely more danceable.”
The members’ varied musical taste plays a big role in the band’s evolving and hard-to-categorize sound, and the different sounds and interests they each bring to the project have rubbed off on the other members.
“The older cats always tell me, ‘Be careful the music you listen to because it’s going to infect your music,’” Abuelata says, adding, “I think that’s very, very true.”
Sweet HayaH will perform at 9 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 26, at the Crow’s Nest, 2218 E Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz. $6. 476-4560.