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“Spice Road” – the story, Part II

March 22, 2010 by · No comments

Yoni Vidal

to be continued

Photo: Patricia Bouquillon


I remember the first time that I went there. It was Thursday of May 1994. Just after landing, my colleagues and I took a cab from Changui airport to Jalan Lada Puteh (“our” street for the following four months) and crossed that big avenue. I was so surprised! Singapore no longer appeared as it did in the old movies: with little streets and Chinese citizens dressed in traditional clothing, carrying carriages or riding everywhere on their bicycles…

It was a modern city, definitely more than the one that I left 15 hours ago, Brussels, the heart of Europe! Singapore was in front of me with her big avenues, buildings, shopping centers, gardens, and hotels. What drew my attention most was the music. We could listen to American and traditional music everywhere…I’ve been on Orchard road many times. In fact, Fabrice’s world music bar was located in the basement of the “Dynasty hotel” which was in the middle of the avenue. The Singaporeans, the tourists, Orchard Road, the lights, the music – all of it inspired “Orchard Lights”.

Querer, Spice Road by Yoni Vidal – live, Rex Theater Wuppertal, 14.11.2007


One day Toni told me that we should add a traditional Asian song to “Spice Road”. “Boat song” is an Indonesian-Chinese song very well known in the region.

In the original version, the song is a love story between a man and a woman. The man is on a boat on his way to the woman while he sings for her. In my version, we just change the situation a bit in that way where she instead goes to him. I conceived the arrangement in two parts.

The first: with a clear Chinese atmosphere and repetition: with a more accentuated Spanish harmony. In my version I was looking for an exotic sound that would please and relax the listener. The “Er hu” is a traditional Chinese violin; the sweet voice of them sounds wonderful in this context.

We really tried to take care of all the details. One evening, Toni and I went to the ocean shore, in Marina bay just to record the sound of the waves for the intro of our “Boat song”. A few days after, we recorded the “Er hu”. Now the problem was where to found one “Er Hu”-player? I didn’t know anyone…Janice, Toni’s assistant, decided to call the Chinese orchestra of Singapore.

A young Singaporean, 18 years old, long hair, extremely skinny, wearing blue jeans and a white T shirt walked into the studio. I doubted him. I gave him the score and a can of coke. He asked me for a music stand for the scores and then he wrote numbers under the notes. I didn’t want to say anything to Toni but I think that he was also sceptic about him. The studio is divided in two by a big soundproof glass, like most studios.

The difference is that here, it wasn’t simply a window but almost a complete transparent wall made by 4 huge pieces glass. When he started to play the melody, my eyes and my ears couldn’t believe what was happening. God, what an exquisite sound, coming from that instrument; it was like the music was coming from nowhere, would appear to you, and leave you breathless…

The “Er Hu” has been recorded on “Boat Song” and “Galician sunset” by Goh Cher Yen. For the vocal we called Diana, whose voice is as sweet as her beauty. She did just two takes and we chose the favourite. The result? Listen. You’ll be amazed…

ibertad de maria spice road wuppertal

Robert Nalim, a Singaporean with Indian roots and a great drummer and percussionist, understood how important it was to mix instruments that aren’t very often played together.

He was completely involved in this project and came with nice ideas about the Indian “Pot”, the Indonesian “Anklongs”, the Chinese drums, and the “Gong”. It was like he was sculpting the sound…

Let me just say that I’m proud of the “Boat Song”. It proves that the mixture of cultures—of sounds—can give beautiful results when you play it from the heart …


We decided to use the song “Querer” from the show “Cirque du Soleil”. The music was like a mixture between Habanera, tango and Portuguese Fado. After receiving the right to use it, I rearranged it for “Spice Road”.

My idea was to keep the habanera rhythm – the style exported from the Spanish colonies – and mix it with Asian instruments. The Indian “pot” was for me an obvious choice. Mario (Bass) and Alina (Piano) from Mexico gave a bit of their “latin feel”.

For the voice we chose Ivy Cabdulan. Beside the fact that Ivy has a diamond in her voice, she is also from Philippines, an ex-Spanish colony. Maria was also from there and played her violin in the strings section. A song sung by a Philippines singer isn’t only symbolic but was also an opportunity for the concept of the album which was basically to mix Spanish and Asian influences together. For the accordion, I asked one of the best players that I knew: Fabian Facci from Italy.


In “Rumbita india” I was looking for a party feeling, just carrying on having fun and enjoying the rumba with the musicians. One day, Navim, my other percussionist, came with his tabla master Sayam Sunder from Delhi (India). He was in Singapore doing master classes and Navim was his pupil. I was talking with Navim about what the best pattern would be for the song. The master gave us his precious advice.

After few minutes, Navim offered to his teacher to play on the record. He accepted it! The teacher really enjoyed the tune and shared a bit of his art with us. Of course, I recorded it! Mario played the bass, Alina the keyboard part, Robert the “pot” and I, of course, played the guitars.


One month later Toni and I had a meeting with the F&B manager from the “Westin Stanford Singapore”, the highest hotel in the world. My manager, Toni, was discussing my future two week gig of Latin jazz at “Sunset Bar”, the famous jazz club of the hotel. While we were talking, my attention was drawn by an incredible sound. Behind us, on the stage, a bold man—maybe 35 years old—was playing on a grand piano the strangest scales I had probably ever heard. His right hand was going up in one key while the left hand was going down half a tone up from the other key…

After finishing the meeting, I went to talk to this weird musician. His name was Patrick Pennefather, composer and obviously a great musician. He explained to me that he was travelling with his wife Sheela – the singer of “Saltimbamco”, a show of “Cirque du Soleil” at that time in Singapore. They were from Toronto and he told me that all the artists from the circus were in this hotel.

They allowed him to rehearse at the grand piano of the club during the daytime. Patrick was also a clown, but now his activity was to compose for modern dance shows or for airlines companies. I saw him several times the following days. As we were talking, he explained to me that he went to improvisation classes in Canada, classes that I did also with Garret Liest at the Liège (Belgium) conservatorium.

I proposed that he record at the “Sunset bar” one improvisation. One day, I brought to the club the material, micros, recorder, and cables and did the setting… Patrick used the grand piano and I used something different: the electric guitar with an “E-bow”.

“E-bow” is an electro-magnet that creates a magnetic field that—placed at a precise angle from the strings—produces a smooth and warm sound like a flute. We recorded 23 min of “limitless” improvised music.

I closed my eyes and imagined being on a Balinese beach, my hands free to play any sound they like. Patrick’s notes where falling like raindrops over my heat, refreshing my creation. After a selection of the best moment of that session “Bali Mystique” was born…

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