Three members of Phuz are drinking café sua da in the Hong Kong City Mall food court when a twentysomething Chinese-American couple tentatively approaches. Although bass player Edwin Casapao and keyboardist Jamie Ruggiero are at the table, the couple addresses Dea, Phuz's slender, statuesque vocalist.
"We saw you perform at the Sade concert," says the male by way of introduction. "You guys were great," he adds, not taking his eyes off Dea. There's a long pause. "I really connect with your music," he finally says.
Like Sade, Dea dazzles people. She is a combination of the exotic, the assertive, the intelligent and the reserved. It's easy to focus on Dea, with her model's body and delicate, jazzy vocal chops. But Phuz is a group, not Dea's backup band, and what's more, it exemplifies a new postmodern rock aesthetic. Most obviously, the band is nonwhite. Four of the five band members are Filipino.
Musically, Phuz performs a cool-school jazz/European-style ambient funk music that wouldn't sound out of place in a Paris bistro or a Berlin cafe. When you hear Phuz, the images of the Far East that you might expect simply do not come to mind. Nevertheless, Asian-American bands -- no matter what they play -- are viewed as oddities. Houston clubs are often reluctant to book minorities other than Latins and African-Americans. So Phuz sets out to create venues and niches for itself. The group spent the month of August touring the South and Midwest, opening for Sade.
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"You look at us, and we're Asians," says bassist Casapao. "And we play European-type music in Houston. The fact that an Asian band plays this type of music breaks all the stereotypes."
Casapao's early inspiration was the Eraserheads, a popular Filipino alt-rock band described as the "Filipino Beatles" that performs in both Tagalog and English. Given the fact that the Philippines is a crazy-quilt archipelago of many cultures, it makes sense that the islands support myriad musics. The fact that the Philippines has a burgeoning live music scene is news to many, though.
"A friend of mine is a Filipino DJ," says Casapao. "He claims that you can walk from club to club in the entertainment districts, and it's all live music. It's a culture that strongly supports live music."
"Being Asian," he continues, "I'm drawn to the CD racks whenever I see an Asian face. I want to hear what they are doing. Certainly, being Asian makes me aware of being part of something bigger."
It's not surprising that young Asian-Americans are drawn to Phuz. When the band played the Hard Rock Cafe at this year's Houston Press Music Awards showcase, a significant portion of the audience was Asian. But the bottom line is that Phuz's appeal is potentially as broad as the Nigerian-born Sade's.
In one form or another Phuz has been around since 1991. The group's current lineup of Dea, Casapao and his brother Edward (drums, percussion and samples), Ken Sarmiento (guitars) and "honorary Filipino" (and brother of Press contributor Bob) Jamie Ruggiero (keyboards) has been together for 18 months.
They started out as a longhaired rock group. With each passing year, the band's hair got shorter, and the music got lighter. Six years ago the members decided to add a female vocalist, and Dea jumped on board, initially as a backup singer for the group's male lead singer. But as her role grew, it became apparent Phuz was traveling down two different roads simultaneously.
When Ruggiero joined, he gave Phuz more of an ambient sound. Dea stepped up and injected a highly theatrical quality to the band's shows. She also became the primary lyricist, giving Phuz a new legacy of songs.
Tensions increased as it became obvious the band needed to make a change. Edwin Casapao recalls how his head actually throbbed like a migraine. He decided to leave the band to build his own studio; the bass player announced he was taking a road trip, using the getaway excuse to formulate a plan to break the news of his departure. But every time he'd spin out a new scenario for leaving, he'd think of an argument to stay. Finally, in the desert on I-10, Casapao realized he didn't need to go anywhere.
"Life is as great as you want it to be," he says. "If you're there and don't want to be there, then shift and modify. In general, I don't buy into the fact that you have to be confined.
"We wanted to make a change in our musical perspective, spread out more. We'd already made changes in our membership in order to project ourselves into a different kind of audience. Now it was simply time to make the shift."
The big change, of course, was to put Dea out front. She was trained by a former opera singer. From her, Dea learned not just how to sing but also how to put forth the whole theatrical spectacle -- the drama, the comedy, the tragedy -- of the opera tradition.
These qualities easily translate to Phuz's music. Take the band's signature song, "Ocean," for example. The tune started out with a simple guitar riff that Casapao translated to the bass. When Dea began putting lyrics to the bass riff, she imagined ocean waves and offered up the phrase "peace of mind is in the waters of your soul." Casapao applied textures to the melody's bottom end. Then Ruggiero added a synthesizer wash that bolstered the ocean imagery of the lyric.
"The original intent of the song is encased in a powerful melody," says Dea. "When you strip down a good song, its timelessness and fabulous quality is in the melody. That's what enables a song to become engraved in your memory."
Unlike most guitar-driven bands, Phuz's neo-romantic melodies truly shine. On tunes like "Cry," there's a triumphant message in the lyrics. "It's not that everything is sunny," claims Dea. "But if you trip and fall, get up, get going. No sense of spending your life on the floor. It's like picking a window to look through. Pick a window that gives you hope."
The view out that window is certainly sunny these days. Phuz was nominated in the Best New Act and Best Funk/R&B categories of the Press Music Awards. And getting booked as an opening act for name performers like Sade establishes the band's national credentials.
The group has returned home for a few days to see family and to celebrate the release of its new CD, Water. Then it's back up north to finish the Sade tour. "Elevating our level to this point has taken a lot of work and support from many people," says Dea. "I'm not doing it alone. Other people are picking up the stuff that I miss because I'm moving so fast."
"The important thing is we're enjoying ourselves," she sums up. "I think our fans can hear that in our music."
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