SHE is a law graduate and co-owns a clothes boutique. But Yunalis Zarai, who is more popularly recognised as just Yuna, is better known as the current darling of Malaysia’s independent music scene.
The 24-year-old began writing her own songs when she was 14 and has not looked back since. After releasing her self-titled EP in 2008, the Subang Jaya lass launched her full-length album Decorate to much excitement in July this year.
Her songs are spun from beautiful lyrics and sophisticated music-writing. No surprise then that her music plus her unique dress sense of headscarf-cum-flamboyant-coloured clothing has made her a hit with her young fans.
The independent singer-songwriter will leave next year to tour Los Angeles and New York and promote her album. In an interview with The Nut Graph on 14 Oct 2010 at her shop IamJetfuel, Yuna tells us there is no incompatibility between tradition and culture on one hand and modern, progressive thinking on the other.
TNG: Where were you born?
Yunalis Zarai: I was born in Alor Setar, Kedah on 14 Nov 1986. My father was a government servant so we moved around a lot. We lived in Kelantan, Penang, Ampang and then we moved to Subang, where I grew up for seven years. We then went to Perlis for a while but we later moved back [to Subang Jaya] and I consider this home.
Do you know your ancestry or family history?
Both my parents are from Perak. My mum is from Batu Gajah and my dad is from Sayong, Kuala Kangsar. My lineage comes from Raja Abdullah on my mother’s side. She is a direct descendant. (Sultan Abdul Samad conferred on Raja Abdullah the power and authority to rule Klang in the 1800s). So basically, we are Bugis.
My great-grandparents were from the royal family and I remember my family telling me stories, such as when my grandmother got married. There was a huge parade and she rode an elephant, which is quite a crazy thought! It is nice to know that [one's] family has that kind of history but right now we are normal people and live just like everyone else.
Are there any stories from your family that has stuck with you?
Well my parents are always telling me to go for my dreams when it comes to music. They tell me that both of them had many dreams but could not achieve them. My dad was a performer and he played the guitar in a band. Music was his passion but he could not really pursue it, so he ended up being a legal advisor.
My mum wanted to be a fashion designer. They both ended up doing something else, working 9 to 5. When I started on this journey, I told myself to be grateful for this opportunity, and to just go for it. I am their outlet. I am actually doing the things they wanted to do. They remind me about this and I tell myself that I am very lucky.
Based on your family history, how has that affected your identity as a Malaysian?
My parents are very “Malay Malay”. They are conservative, but also modern. I asked my parents before if I was mixed or anything like that, perhaps hoping that I had a bit of, say, exotic Spanish in me (laughs). But they said, “No, you are pure Malay” and that they really appreciate that we are culturally rich and berbudi bahasa.
But we are firm believers of being Malaysian; we appreciate [being Malaysian]. We are proud Malays but we are proud to be living with other cultures and races. We are proud Malays but we appreciate others as well, and we are very courteous people.
So being what you call “Malay Malay” is not incompatible with being a Malaysian. Recently, there has been all this talk about being Malay or Malaysian first, how does all of that register with you?
Well, it is tricky because some people have the wrong idea. Am I supposed to feel or think in a certain way because I am Malay? We live with other people and they have the same rights. I believe that other races deserve the same privilege.
I studied in UiTM and I am proud to be a UiTM product. But there was one time [the Selangor Menteri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim] wanted to open [10%] [of the university's] enrolment to other races. There were people against it, saying this is “hak Melayu”. I am a firm believer that education should be free for everyone. We are Malaysians in Malaysia. Why couldn’t we give this [10%]?
UiTM is such a great school with such a great music and law school, and I am proud of it, so why not give other races the opportunity to enjoy its good education? This was the way I was raised in my family; and from my grandparents to my parents to me, we all believe in this.
It is interesting that you are embraced by all Malaysians from different cultures and you represent this mix between the modern and traditional. Do you get a sense of your fans appreciating that?
Yes, because I believe that I am not the only one like this. There are tonnes of other Malay [Malaysians] who wear the tudung, and they are just like me, girls who enjoy music. They go to gigs, they like fashion. You’d be surprised to see all these stylish girls.
And after I started playing music and going to all these shows, there were more of these stylish tudung girls around. They embrace their faith as Muslim girls and also want to do the things they like. It is nice how Malay [Muslim] girls are finding the right balance nowadays just wanting to be successful, educated and stylish.
What makes you happy about Malaysia, and what gets you down?
It sounds clichéd, but I was with my friend at this banana leaf restaurant and I thought, we are this Malay and Chinese [Malaysian] sitting down, eating from a banana leaf. How great is that? I think it is cool because we all relate to one thing, this glue that holds us together even if we are not really sure what it is.
But then there is also the other side that is keeping us apart — that negativity which brings out the horrible [side] in people. There was that time they carried the cow head in a demonstration in Shah Alam. That was very unnecessary. I was disgusted because firstly, that is an animal’s head, and secondly, it represents the mentality of some people. Not all Malay [Malaysians] are like that but they go in one group to say “We, the Malays” or “We, the Muslims feel this way”. It’s not like that at all. We really need to get rid of that mentality.
I started a simple career as a musician but hopefully in the future, I can encourage people to be more loving and caring, and more [interested in] peace.
What do you hope for this country?
I hope Malaysia will always be peaceful. It just takes one stupid person to do one stupid thing which can affect everything. So, hopefully everyone can just keep it together. Keep calm, and focus on being better people. It is so simple.
When you do that, you will only find ways to benefit yourself, society and the country.
The book Found in Malaysia, featuring 50 of our best interviews plus four previously unpublished ones with Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir and Ramli Ibrahim, is now available at all good bookstores for RM45.