If you saw 24 year-old Yunalis Zarai walking down the street in her native Malaysia with her tightly wrapped headscarf, you may think only of the cultural chasm that exists between her and your fellow Americans. If you then heard that she was a singer/songwriter and saw a clip of her singing in Malay (a Bossa Nova-tinged tune called “Dan Sebenarnya“), you may be a little more impressed – even if you don’t understand a word she’s saying. But trust us… she’s huge there. She won a major Malaysian music award in 2009 and even pitches… er… feminine products.
By the time you hear her perform in English, in a track so lyrically confident that she ends it in a punk-rock 90 second timeframe, you begin to realize that this girl is not who you thought she was. Yuna sings most of her songs in English, many of them influenced by Western musicians such as Feist and Tori Amos. After performing at the mecca (cough) of indie music last year (SXSW in Austin, Texas), she soon got the attention of musicians stateside who appear protective and nurturing, as can be seen from a video of her song “Rocket” made in Hollywood and a cover of Kanye West’s “Paranoid” that is giddy and (if you keep looking back at her hijab) otherworldly.Besides owning a clothing store in Malaysia (where her hijab stylings have rivaled her musical offerings), Yuna signed to American indie label FADER, which released her debut EP “Decorate” in the US on iTunes this week. A full length album is expected later in 2011. She’s recently played a few dates in the US, including the IMAN Community Cafe in Chicago (run by the Inner City Muslim Action Network), New York City’s Mercury Lounge and elsewhere. Her non-Muslim fans call her a “credit to modern Islam.” And though Yuna admits to getting some stick from more conservative folk in Malaysia when she started, plenty more Muslim fans in Malaysia and America agree.
UPDATE: Yuna is performing at this year’s SXSW festival, with two shows on Friday, March 18th.
Zahed Amanullah is Executive Editor of altmuslim.com