Pronounced [Sweet Hi-yah]
Sweet HayaH’s sound is familiar because they are what happens when you mix indie rock, piano ballads, ska music, hip-hop, latin flavor, and on and on. They are none of these genres and all of these genres, and somehow it just works. The musical backgrounds of this six-person band are just as diverse as the genres that influenced them individually. Nehal Abuelata, the lead vocalist, pianist, and human energy drink, began her musical journey in Capoeira circles, chanting with the crowd while the martial artists battled. Devin Moreno, the lead guitarist, played in metal bands prior to Sweet HayaH and enjoys anything from the 1970s. Aaron Marquez on bass guitar also has a wide variety of musical interests and a history with metal; in fact, he played in a metal band together with Moreno. “I’ll go from hip-hop to Zeppelin to Lamb of God, all in one sitting,” Marquez says. Lead drummer Josh Gardner’s interests are metal and funk; trumpeter Brandon Garcia listens to ska music; and percussionist Kosuke Okamura brings a love for salsa and pop.
These varied musical styles and personalities came together through a combination of coincidence and necessity. Moreno, Marquez, and Gardner were fixtures at the local open mic night, jamming together whenever Marquez wasn’t competing in a bowling league. They encountered Abuelata on a non-openmic night and ended up playing together. “There was this back and forth chemistry that I had with her that I wasn’t able to pull off with anyone else,” Moreno says. The next day Abuelata happened to walk in to Moreno’s workplace, in need of a mirror. “These metal guys like what I’m playing?” Abuelata recalls asking herself when they asked her to join. Okamura joined after the band needed percussion on a couple of songs. At that time, Abuelata and Moreno were digging the percussion used by Curtis Mayfield, so when they met Okamura, they knew he’d be a great addition to Sweet HayaH. Garcia, the trumpet player, had already joined as he just so happened to record at the same studio as the band.
Now a group of six, the members stress the value of an open mind and objective listening. “Trying to listen to yourself objectively,” says Moreno, “is one of the hardest things to do as a musician.” Criticism is welcomed and the members are attentive to each other’s ideas. “We all take risks,” Abuelata says. They embrace each other’s different ways of doing music. When someone tries something new, no matter how subtle, the others take notice. “What have you been listening to? Do it again!” Abuelata recalls shouting at her bandmates on several occasions. A lot of what they do is the result of coincidence and creative accident. A number of instruments used on their latest album, Gentle Lies, were lying around the recording studio when a member of the band decided to try them out. “Most of the things I do are accidents,” Marquez says. But accidents like these can become a source of strength during live performances.
“I get bored if I play the same songs the same way, every single time,” Abuelata says. “She keeps us on our toes,” Marquez replies. While the band is on their toes, Abuelata keeps the crowd moving with a boundless energy that is the embodiment of Sweet HayaH’s wild and upbeat tracks. “We have fun with each other. Fun is contagious,” Abuelata says. “We had just as much fun when there were only three people at our shows. Doesn’t matter, we’re gonna rock it.” That fun factor is what makes Sweet HayaH a “festival band.” Their music and stage presence work well in front of large crowds, and they embrace the festival label because they know that’s where they want to be. “We want to be at a BFD or an Outside Lands or a BottleRock,” Marquez says. “I want to go back to South By Southwest,” Moreno chimes in.
That fun, high-energy attitude ingrained in their music and expressed during live performances is what makes them special. The band’s personality comes from their devil-may-care approach to their artistry. “I might mess up, but if I don’t, it’s gonna sound so good!” Abuelata says. “That’s our mantra,” Moreno laughs.
Written by Francisco Alvarado
Photography by Arabela Espinoza