After over five years and three hundred posts, there are still times when I write something for the first time. This week is one of those times. Weekly Music Commentary this week features Yunalis Mat Zara’ai, professionally known as Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna. I have written about music with Asian influence, but this is the first time I will feature an artist from Malaysia. Yuna is not new to the music industry; her professional activities have covered just about eight years. However, music fans of the west are now taking notice of the twenty-nine year old in a big way. On display when she performs is also the international influence of music today. Not native Malaysian music, but the influence of western music upon the east.
Yuna was born and raised in Kedah, she began writing songs at age 14. She soon taught herself to play guitar, and by 2006, in need of a creative outlet while attending law school, performed for an audience for the first time. Yuna offered her music on her MySpace page, which went on to net over one million plays. This online success tipped off the Indie-Pop label/management company to her music, and in early 2011 she signed with the Fader label.
Interestingly, Yuna always seemed to sing, and eventually write pop music. She has cited Coldplay, Bob Dylan, and Feist as influences, having been introduced to them by her father. Of course, I do not know much about growing up in Malaysia, but I wanted to know more after deciding to feature Yuna. Kedah, the state where Yuna is from, is overwhelmingly dominated by people of Muslim faith. Malaysia also has a rich cultural history that includes music. Traditional Malay music and performing arts seem to have originated in the Kelantan-Pattani region with influences from India, China, Thailand, and Indonesia. The music is based around percussion instruments, the most important is the gendang (drum). Music is traditionally used for storytelling, celebrating life-cycle events, and at annual events such as the harvest. Music was once used as a form of long-distance communication. Traditional orchestra are divided between two forms, the gamelan which plays melodies using gongs and string instruments, and the nobat which uses wind instruments to create more solemn music.
The fact that Western Musicians influence Yuna is quite interesting because of the efforts of the Malaysian government to control what music is available in the country. The BBC News reported in August 2001, “A Malaysian state has announced that it will ban a type of heavy-metal music which Islāmic authorities say has a bad influence on young people. The government last week ordered state-run radio and television to play less heavy metal music, and began requiring foreign groups to send videotapes for approval before playing concerts in Malaysia.” Also reported by the BBC in 2001, “The Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, has delivered a scathing denunciation of rap music, saying that it encourages violent crime. Mr Mahathir said the exposure to foreign cultures was responsible for violent crime.” Nevertheless, the musical forms have made inroads into Malaysian civilization.
The Malaysian government officials are concerned about the influence of rap and heavy metal music, but I wonder how they feel about Yuna’s music. The people of Malaysia, especially the young people, more than likely gravitate toward rap and heavy metal music. Young people around the world are big fans and buyers of the two genres. What about Yuna’s music? Yuna made her recorded début in Malaysia in 2008 with a self-titled EP, which went on to snag five Anugerah Industri Muzik nominations (the Malaysian equivalent of the Grammy). She took home four trophies, including Best New Artist and Best Song (for the breakout hit “Deeper Conversation”). Throughout her young music career, Yuna has been nominated and won many other awards that celebrate Malaysian music: Anugerah Planet Muzik (The Music Planet Awards), Anugerah Juara Lagu (The Champion Song Awards), Anugerah Bintang Popular Berita Harian (Berita Harian’s Most Popular Star Awards), and the SHOUT! Awards. The awards prove the success of Yuna in her home country Malaysia, and the growth of popular music in Malaysia.
Yuna started to gain notice outside of Malaysia rather quickly. On 24 January 2012, her single “Live Your Life” debuted on iTunes. The track was produced by Grammy Award-winning producer Pharrell Williams. MTV Iggy described the track as, “polished until it gleams but instead of burying Yuna, it lifts her up. The track has hints that a diva is waiting to shine.” On 16 February 2012, the official music video for “Live Your Life” was released. On 24 April 2012, Yuna’s US début self-titled album was released. Debuting at No.23 on the Pop chart and No.86 on the Top 100 Albums on iTunes, Yuna was also No.23 on Billboard’s Heatseekers Chart. Accolades from fans and critics alike, such as Billboard, NPR, Elle, NY Times, Vibe Claire and National Geographic, who raves that her sound is “as fresh, honest and deeply personal as anything by Bon Iver or tUnEyArDs,” have rolled in.
Yuna signed with Verve Music Group. Multiple Grammy-winning producer David Foster, who heads the creative operations of Verve, tweeted: “I’m really excited about the next hot artist to join Verve Music. Stay tuned and keep an eye out for Yuna in 2013” Those words hold true today, three years later. Chapters, the third international studio album by Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna, was released on May 20, 2016, through Verve Records. The album features guest appearances from Usher and Jhené Aiko. After listening to the entire album I made it a part of my personal music library. I quickly understood why there is such a buzz generated in the music industry about Yuna. She is truly an international star with an album that possibly will win awards around the world.
Good music has appeal. It will find a way to fans despite obstacles. Yuna’s music appeals to listeners around the globe and most likely will continue to influence another artist, somewhere in the world.