by Natasia Patel, freelance writer
Artist KALA CHNG (Makala Cheung) is a Knowle Wester and proud. She’s been a solo artist for almost a decade and is just coming into her stride, with Fire ranked Number One in the South West Ujima FM Chart Show and Track of the Year in 2017.
Her sound is experimental and she’s been described as ‘A musical example of why Bristol is such a unique and creative place to live’ (Jelli Records, Bristol Balloon Fiesta).
Organiser of two ‘East meets West’ Mini Moon festivals, Happiness Champion, and Empress of ‘Cheung Island’, I caught up with her to talk about Knowle West Fest, her new EP, and why she loves where she’s from.
I’m aware that I’ve caught you in the middle of preparations for Knowle West Fest – How’s that going?
We’ve had a Knowle West Fest for a few years, I haven’t been highly involved in it in the past, although I’ve attended. When I started working here at Filwood community centre I got asked if I would lead the festival, and at first I was like ‘oh up I don’t know’ because it takes such a long time and we only had a few months. But I was halfway through recording an album – and I thought what if I just release an EP with what I’d already done, then I could make it my launch and tie that into the festival.
So that’s happening this weekend then – the launch and the festival?
Yeah, the theme we’ve picked is Proud of Knowle West – so we’ve done it together with all the organisations and residents of the area, and the idea is all the acts and the stalls and everything are all from Knowle West, showing off local talent.
You can buy stuff made by Knowle Westers, you can eat food made by Knowle Westers you can see live music performed by Knowle Westers. Yeah, I couldn’t believe it because everyone was like how are you gonna get a lineup? So I was like cor, how am I gonna get a lineup of really good Knowle Westers? But I just started putting feelers out and a lineup emerged!
Who are you excited to see this weekend?
Probably DJ Buny and 3Culture, It Man, and DJ Spiller. I’m pretty excited about the whole event because there’s so much going on. Sometimes I think it’s too much! We have workshops, food, kids play, older people’s armchair exercises, live music, everything.
And are you playing too?
I’m in the middle of the day at the end of the activities but in the middle before the DJs come on. The day is a mix of solo acts and bands and the DJs and MCs are all in the evening.
I definitely need to come pay a visit
It would be lovely seeing you there! I’m so excited. We’ve just had rehearsals and we also have some Shaolin Kung Fu, a lion and some fan dancing as part of my performance – but I haven’t done the risk assessment yet!
Speaking of your own stuff, your new EP is called Knowle West Girl – what does it mean to you to be a Knowle West Girl?
Ever since Tricky releases Knowle West Boy years ago I thought: I have to do Knowle West Girl, because I am a Knowle West Girl. I feel really proud of my area and I love where I’m from and there is an issue around perceptions of what it is to be a Knowle Wester.
I just wanted to call this piece of work Knowle West Girl so when people see it and hear it they know it was me, and they know that you can achieve things and make things in Knowle West. One of the most amazing things about Knowle is our celebration mentality, we’re very big on parties – like we have pancake parties in my family – at Halloween everyone really decks their house out, at Christmas we’re famous for all our lights.
I feel like this creative show thing is quite big here, so actually it hasn’t been that hard to find lots of talent around Knowle West. We’ve gone from a community festival feel to what feels like a big scale festival, indoor and outdoor, using the halls and the garden. I’m hoping that the point of the EP and the point of the festival will come across – sharing pride about what great talent and people we have here.
What perceptions of Knowle West are you trying to debunk?
A lot of people say nothing happens here, why would you come to Knowle West? The idea of the festival is to come together and celebrate as a community, and to show others what we’re doing. It’s all stuff that’s already happening – this is just a showcase of it all in the same place. We want to say it’s amazing here and welcome the rest of Bristol to come and see.
Changing tack a bit – how would you describe your sound and what are you trying to do with your new EP?
It gets described so differently… but I’d say electronic urban pop with a Chinese twist. And then It’s mainly positivity and happiness themed. Originally the idea was to do an album but I stopped half way for the festival. Two of the songs I wrote in Hong Kong, Island for example.
The main line in the chorus is ‘Take me back to the island’. It was the first time I’d been back in a really long time and obviously, Hong Kong is an island, and I was there and I was loving it and I started singing in my head. I was so glad to be there, and I hadn’t even left and I already wanted to come back. I wrote the chorus there and I wrote the verses when I was back in Bristol. I thought ‘take me back to that island’ also means ‘take me back to the place I love’ and what that means for everyone.
Like for me, I never used to like going on stage and I would always feel really nervous – but I started enjoying it more and I stopped feeling the need to worry about whether it was good enough, and start actually enjoying just being up there. So for me it was like take me back to the stage. And the other main track is ‘Lights Out’ and it’s about the end of friendship – not a positive song as such, but still showing something true of what I felt.
This EP is sharing all the things that I’ve been scared to share. There’s a song on there from a few years ago but I didn’t release it at the time because I wasn’t sure what it meant, but then I thought: Why not! I like the song so I’ll just release it anyway – sharing my feelings about missing my past and my culture, being sad about a friendship ending. This is about me not being afraid to just say how I feel.
So how does having two roots – Knowle West and Hong Kong – affect your sound?
I feel like I have quite a Knowle West sound – urban and pop music is quite Knowle West, and bass-y electronic stuff comes from being a Bristol Girl, and the ‘Chinese Twist’ is obviously from my Chinese roots. I’m big on roots and knowing where you come from, I think it really affects the sound in terms of music. Lyrically it’s been more open and honest and not being scared.
Although I started writing songs from writing poetry, I’ve never really been that poetic. I always pretty much just say it how it is. Some people tell me I should just do happy songs, but you know what I was sad about my friendship so I’m gonna write about that. I don’t want to hide that fact.
A lot of people responding to your music have said that you’re really pioneering a new sound, and that is quite true of a lot of people from Bristol – looking at Trip Hop and Tricky and Massive Attack. Do you think there’s a Bristol sound?
Yeah I think there’s a Bristol sound, that urban electronic sound Is quite true to Bristol, but I think your neighbourhood – the area you come from – also affects what you’d listen to and what that ‘sound’ is to you.
What advice would you give to yourself and other up and coming artists just getting started out in Bristol, and outside of the city centre in places like Knowle West?
Just stop worrying about what everyone else thinks! Just do what you love and follow your gut. I spend so much time doing business stuff in music, but spend more time just creating and making – that’s what makes me feel alive. So just do what makes you feel alive.
Even if that’s not music, maybe you’re an amazing gardener or carpenter – but just do what YOU love and what makes you happy. Take fear of what other people think out of the equation – and don’t wait for other people to do stuff for you! I was waiting for someone to produce my sound, and it was so hard to explain what was in my head, I just learned it myself.
Sometimes you need help from others, sometimes you just need to do stuff yourself.
Inspiring! Thank you Kala!
Featured image: KALA CHNG holding her EP in the Bristol Music exhibition (c) Marcus Way