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All that Jazz: Syzygy vocalist Debbie Mannas

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Syzygy vocalist Debbie Mannas branches out with her debut solo record – while continuing to make the world a better place. Elizabeth Kerr reports.

Debbie Mannas is sitting in a noisy Cityplaza café, a few blocks from her day job in human resources for a multinational. She’s wearing a suit – it’s vivid yellow. She’s got impeccably coifed shoulder-length hair: Ann Wilson could rock it. Appropriate, because the budding rock star and workplace diversity advocate has just debuted her solo record, Inspired.

“I’ve been burning the candle at both ends,” says Debbie by way of describing her last few months. Still she resists the star label. “I don’t know that I’m a budding rock star,” she shrugs. “Are you going to say jazz star or rock star?” She pauses. “Oh, who cares!” she finishes with a laugh before tucking into lunch.

Paying it forward

A native of Bangalore, Debbie followed her sister to Hong Kong from southern India 26 years ago after studying literature at Bangalore University. “I was at that age where one can afford to be adventurous, so I just packed up and came to join her,” she says. “And like most people who come to Hong Kong, if you get past those first four years you’re not leaving.”

Debbie eventually completed a master’s degree in human resources but never lost her taste for music – something that started in childhood and carried over into Bangalore’s first allgirl rock band (Lace) at university. “We were pretty good,” Debbie declares proudly. “But even then, I never picked standards. I always went for the obscure stuff – usually with deep male vocals. Even now, if I have to do covers, I’d go for someone like Beth Hart.” More on that later.

Though she did at one time flirt with a career in the arts, Debbie ultimately chose human resources for the long run, and she doesn’t regret it. “I had aspirations… but my dad discouraged it. And good on him that he did. I think it’s a really hard life and only a very small percentage ‘make it.’ I’ve been in bands for years and years, and in Hong Kong most musicians just don’t have time to be creative, they’re so busy trying to earn a living. That’s totally my perspective, anyway, and I understand the stress levels. It’s something I’ve seen being in human resources,” she states.

Outside the office, Debbie puts in time with Community Business’ Diversity & Inclusion in Asia Network (DIAN), and mentors the next generation of women leaders with The Women’s Foundation. She tells a gutting story about a discarded infant girl and thesubsequent desultory police investigation, and how it was an event that cemented the crusader in her, which often manifests in her music and job.

“I actually find a lot of fulfilment in what I do. I’m building the future, building leaders and talent, and influencing people. Music and human resources are both part of me, so I don’t see myself giving up my career any time soon.”

The state of the world horrifies Debbie, but she’s an optimist. “In my experience there are far more good people in the world than not. You have to believe it, but I think it’s true.”

Lantau lyricist and poet

Debbie feeds her music bug with an assist from Sandra Leung Waters and their band Syzygy. Hong Kong live music stalwarts, known for so-called jazzed-up pop, Syzygy performs the covers that Hong Kong audiences like, just don’t expect to hear groaners like Roadhouse Blues or Summer of ’69. Think more No Doubt and Rihanna – with a jazzy edge. Debbie admires artists who make cover versions truly their own, and it’s that attitude that has carved out Syzygy’s not inconsiderable fan base.

It helps that co-workers are behind her, as are her staunchest supporters: 11-year-old son Joshua and husband Abe, a childhood sweetheart with his own business. He happily picks up the slack in their Tung Chung home of 10 years when she’s gigging.

For Debbie, the move to Lantau was one of the family’s wisest decisions. “These last 10 years are the only time we’ve felt part of a community, after 16 years in Hong Kong,” she states, detailing a welcoming community where people greet each other in lifts. Its music scene helps.

“Oh the music! Lantau is likely the only place in Hong Kong with such a concentration of world-class musicians. Add to that the spectacular views and the sunsets… And our son’s in Discovery College, a quick bus ride away – he loves it. All in all, we are really happy here.”

Debbie is a writer in addition to a singer and guitarist. A student of poetry at university, she’s a contributor on the world’s largest poetry website AllPoetry, alongside over 400,000 amateur and expert poets, and regularly converts her verse into lyrics. As a solo artist, she’s played country, folk and rock, but she pivoted towards jazz because her writing style is “kind of thoughtful, and lends itself to jazz, and those groovy beats.”

In the same way, Debbie avoids the obvious with Syzygy, she has no real taste for the self-indulgent canoodling that can overwhelm jazz. “I need to connect with my listeners – and my readers. My poetry is quite literal. A lot of poetry is metaphorical but I want people to understand where I’m coming from.”

Agnes Q and Inspired

To help with that, Debbie connected with Agnes Q and The Soul Sessions band for her first album. “Agnes Q is just a dream,” Debbie gushes of the well-known, full-time musician. The pair have buzzed around the same circles for nearly a decade, but Debbie never thought a professional would have time for her. When she hit critical mass with a pile of complete songs and wanted a collaborator who could maintain their integrity and structure, Debbie finally plucked up the courage to ask.

“I knew she was busy, so I asked if she knew anyone who might help with all this stuff I’d written. She was, like, ‘I will!’” That was in mid-2017. Inspired was finished in January and launched in May.

It could be argued that Inspired distils Debbie’s musical exploits up to now, with its cocktail of jazz-pop, crunchy guitars and mellow hybrids. The title track stands out for showing off her diva-ready vocals, and she likes the philosophical closer When Time Stands Still. “It’s about people meeting again. It could be about loss, but it’s about hope. You make time in the moment, which speaks to the future. But as soon as you say ‘in the moment’ it’s already passed,” she says. Not to be predictable, Would You comes very close to being a reggae jam. The only real indicator Inspired is jazz influenced is in the sax and typical stutterskip rhythms.

Aside from an interview on All the Way with Ray and its awkward introduction that focused on Debbie’s beauty – time’s up, Ray! – word is getting around. She followed up Ray with another RTHK interview, this time with Phil Whelan, and a battery of live shows around Central that should continue into the autumn. Though she’s unsure if her music is a fit with the festival vibe, she’d consider a slot at something like Clockenflap or The Big Picnic in November. Regardless of what happens in the next few months, Debbie has already had a stellar year. “I consider myself really lucky,” she finishes. “A lot of artists don’t have the space to do this.”

Photo by Andrew Spires

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