Hong Kong-based South African artist Eli Zaelo is liberating music on all fronts

Hong Kong-based South African artist Eli Zaelo is liberating music on all fronts
Source: Mrin Shri, Eli Zaelo

Originally hailing from South Africa, Eli Zaelo studied music in California before moving to Hong Kong to perform as a dancer in Hong Kong Disneyland’s “Lion King” musical. Since then, she has forged her path here in Hong Kong as a dynamic artist in the music industry.

At just 28 years old, Zaelo is making waves blending her unique style within the genre of Chinese pop music, or C-Pop. Zaelo’s style has typically leaned more toward jazz and R&B, but we’re now seeing an even more experimental direction for her. Zaelo never has been one to shy away from a new artistic opportunity.

Influenced by the stylings of both contemporary and classical music, Zaelo is a master of blending genres, themes and techniques, which is evident in her single released this year “愛情故事,” which translates to “Stories About Love” in Mandarin.

As Hong Kong begins to open back up following COVID-19 lockdowns, Zaelo is prepared to show a new side of herself with some brand new adventurous tunes. Her latest release, “改變 (Change)” is the perfect example of her dynamic vision and mastery of language and tone. Through her music, Zaelo weaves the international and intergenerational influences within her life, creating a style that is entirely her own.

Making music that crosses cultures

As someone who has lived on three continents so far in her life, Zaelo is familiar with many cultures and languages, and she speaks English, Mandarin, Tswana and Zulu. Primarily producing music in English, Zaelo has recently embraced Mandarin in her songs while also integrating some Zulu and Tswana. The process for creating songs in different languages isn’t uniform in her songwriting methods.

“In English, it’s a lot better to get the song done in terms of the amount of time spent on it,” she shares. “I’ve spoken English for the majority of my life. So, in that aspect, I can get my thoughts and my plan across a lot quicker when I’m writing in English, and I need less help. Because I’ve been a songwriter for such a long time … I kinda know how to approach a song a whole lot better now at this point in my life.

“But with regards to Mandarin, what I love is the challenge behind it because I have to rely on more than just my voice. Because I have to first let the song have its hold over me before I could show it to other people. And I need to share it with editors as well.

“So I’d say the process is different because with English I can express the song with more of the intention I had in mind. But, when it comes to Mandarin, I also have to express it … giving more of myself to it because I know that I still have some learning to do. So, I work a little bit harder at it.”

Some things, however, don’t change with language. “I always remain true to myself regardless of the language that I speak or sing in,” Zaelo explains, “There is no difference in the language that I sing with regards to what I sing about because I want to be authentic and true to myself.

“I don’t know if people are familiar with the style of Mando-pop,” she says. “It’s very much into ballads and love songs. That will probably be a lot more dominant in my thought process when I write in Mandarin. But, overall, if I wouldn’t sing it in English, then I wouldn’t sing it in Mandarin.”

The experiment of music-making

With influences from all over and refusing to be constrained by genre, Zaelo isn’t afraid to break what seem to be rigid boundaries within the music and performance industries.

“When I studied at LA College of Music, every semester we would study different genres of music. So I’m pretty much comfortable and have been somewhat trained in different styles – from rock to R&B to country to gospel to pop. I’m into jazz, as well. So, I’m comfortable in terms of switching the style of music that I sing in, depending on the venue.”

Zaelo seems interested in trying almost anything. “In terms of genres, I’m open. But, for now, I want to remain specific to dance music, more pop, and R&B. That’s just what I’m comfortable with right now. We’ll never know what the future holds or who I’ll collaborate with, but for now, I’m just going to focus on those two genres.”

However, certain subjects are off the table. “There are certain things that I won’t sing about because it just doesn’t align with who I am as a person. I don’t like to sing about overly prerogative or sexual things. That’s just not me.

“Although I do dance, and I like to feel cool, I’m just not comfortable talking about things that are a bit too out there. That’s not my style. I also don’t like messages that bring people down or demean people. I’ve never enjoyed music like that, and I don’t plan on making music like that.”

“I’m not saying that I only talk about good things in life, because that’s unrealistic,” Zaelo elaborates. “But, I do like to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel. That’s just how I process my songwriting … that’s how I process life. I do talk about the hardships, but I also like to end it off with hope.”

Getting back to live performance

Source: Eli Zaelo

Considering how experimental and consolidated some of her songs are, it may be difficult to choose a setlist for a live performance. When not influenced by the venue she’s performing within, she has a tried and true vision of how her songs will be played.

“My own performances, my own concerts, I usually like to start with something upbeat,” Zaelo explains. “Then, right in the middle of the set, I’ll go a little slower. And then end it off with one or two songs at the end that are more upbeat.

“So I try to first capture the attention of the audience with my upbeat songs, and then right in the middle, that’s when I can just be more vocally expressive. Once everyone’s over the excitement a little bit, that’s when we can get into the lyrics. That’s when we can get into the emotions of everything. And then, I end it off on a high note because I want everybody to go back home in a positive, energetic, happy mood.”

In terms of how performing has felt coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, Zaelo compares herself to a baby horse “finding [her] feet.” At the time, she hadn’t performed in about a year.

“I think the first two nights, I was seeing my stamina, my tenacity; could I do it? But, then again, last year I spent the whole time in the studio, recording. So, in terms of signing itself, I was still doing that.

“But, in terms of performances, like reading the audience, welcoming them back into that environment, I’d say it was a little wiggly the first two performances. After that, it felt like home once again. That stage will always be a place that feels most comfortable for me.”

To support local artists during tough times such as these, Zaelo recommends fans begin with “downloading the music, streaming the music.” Additionally, she suggests following the trend of online performances by buying tickets and tuning in.

“All you can do is perform and encourage and keep the artists inspired because we all know that we need entertainment to have some sort of sanity in the state of the world that it’s in.”
Zaelo’s music is available through Spotify, YouTube and Apple Music. Her new single just dropped, so keep an eye out on her Instagram and Facebook for more from this talented, multicultural artist.

Have a tip or story? Get in touch with our reporters at tips@themilsource.com