As the clock ticks down to the release of her sophomore record (Nocturnal; due Oct 29th on Verve), the next milestone in what has been an absolutely phenomenal year for Ms Yunalis Mat Zara’ai, the pint-sized Subang Jaya native must be feeling that life simply can’t get much better than this. And who can blame her? Just a few years ago the Universiti Teknologi MARA graduate was still playing to tiny audiences for free at humble acoustic venues in the margins of her home city. Yet, earlier this month she did no less than perform for four sold-out nights at Kuala Lumpur’s Istana Budaya, the Malaysian equivalent of London’s Royal Albert Hall. Were you to plot this on a time-based graph, the resulting curve would probably appear asymptotic.
Yuna’s decision to uproot herself to the United States, effectively the introductory chapter to her spellbinding rags-to-riches tale, has been a journey of wonders thus far. Having released her excellent debut album stateside under the Fader label (whose representatives flew all the way to Malaysia to convince her to sign for them), the Malaysian lass appeared on the radar of world-renown producer David Foster and was subsequently signed to his Verve Music Group – the same label that plays host to the likes of Andrea Bocelli, Diana Krall, Melody Gardot, and Carla Bruni. Her star shone brighter still when she was contracted to perform both a cover of The Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun” for Oliver Stone’s 2012 film Savages and “Shine Your Way”, the main theme song for 2013’s The Croods. The Sixth Street EP, which appeared earlier this year, built further on that success. Apart from expanding upon Yuna’s self-described “Mary-Poppins-meets-Coldplay” style, the compendium also featured collaborations with Mike Einziger of Incubus and Californian rapper Kyle.
History lessons aside, Yuna’s debut Istana Budaya solo concert promised to be a magical night of sights and sounds – as I quickly found out when I tried to purchase tickets for my girlfriend and myself a few weeks before the show, only to discover that less than a dozen seats were remaining across each of the three dates. Organized in collaboration with Istana Budaya, Yuna’s performance also coincided with the National Symphony Orchestra’s (NSO) 20th year anniversary, whose backing performance was to be led by none other than renowned local conductor Mustafa Fuzer Nawi. Elsewhere, Yuna’s own backing band – The Palauans – would also be providing auditory accompaniment.
And so it was that on the grandest of stages deep in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, thousands watched as Yunalis Mat Zara’ai finally came full circle:
Our fair lady.
Photo courtesy of ohbulan.com
The night started with a montage of photos and video stills from across Yuna’s career, providing audiences with a bit of a retrospective and quantifying, in fairly exact terms, how far the Malaysian starlet had come in such a brief period of time. In a not-so-subtle hint of things to come, the National Symphony Orchestra provided accompaniment to Yuna’s montage by performing an instrumental version of “I Wanna Go”, off her recent Sixth Street EP. Now, although far be it for me to desire opening my review of Yuna’s debut Istana Budaya performance on a negative note, this was one of quite a number of problems that I had with the show that night – stick with this piece to the end and you’ll (hopefully) see why. Elsewhere, also worth mentioning is the fact that the organizers had, bafflingly, selected a goddamned radio DJ as the MC for the evening; said DJ subsequently saw it fit to treat the evening with all the airy and loud conversationalist tones that one might expect at a grocer’s fair. In terms of trying to describe the incongruity, imagine a performance of Gustav Holst’s The Planets being opened by a Van Halen electric guitar riff delivered from a clown in a rainbow suit and you’ll have an idea of how jarring the contrast was.
The moment Yuna appeared though – and in a stunning red dress, to boot – things took a turn for the better: the songstress had elected to begin the night with the one-two punch of “Decorate” and “Favourite Thing”, both of which were easily the two most hummable moments on her debut self-titled record. The two songs also provided an early insight into the dynamics between the NSO and The Palauans – the orchestra would frequently accentuate key moments in the two songs (e.g gaps between choruses, the bridge) with an array of swelling strings and by supplying a stronger bassline, but managed to stay in orbit around The Palauans without being overwhelming or musically intrusive. I also remember thinking to myself that it was pretty brave of Yuna to front a Malay number (“Gadis Semasa”; literally “Girl of the Times”) as early as the fourth number of the night’s set (particularly as the audience featured an international mix of attendees); imagine my surprise when she followed it up with a beautiful cover of P. Ramlee’s “Gelora Jiwa”, an old Malay language classic which was written and composed back in the 1950s. And she wasn’t even close to being done – two more Malay originals in the form of “Dan Sebenarnya” dan “Terukir Di Bintang” followed, after which Yuna threw us all a wave and trotted off daintily backstage.
Somewhat unexpectedly, the night also featured an intermission performance, provided for by a group of gentlemen under the moniker No Noise Percussion – which quickly revealed itself as a complete misnomer. The lads arranged an ornate set of household appliances onstage – dustbins, cutlery, cans, etc – and then proceeded to play them in inimitable fashion. I thought the strongest part of their performance was when they exhibited the highest degrees of self-awareness: that bit where they performed a dustbin-toting spot of boyband-style choreography was particularly great. Accordingly, the worst part of their set was when they tried for the cheap laugh and went all Charlie Chaplin on us as they pretended to hide from each other behind their respective trash cans. I found myself painfully reminded of our erstwhile DJ-turned-MC; this would have been the perfect kind of sideshow for his grocer’s carnival.
The boys of No Noise Percussion.
Photo courtesy of Rotikaya.com
Presently the lights dimmed and Yuna reentered to the opening bars of “Live Your Life” and an entirely new, but no less striking, outfit of pink, gold, and white. Although I had my doubts about how it would hold up, the shuffling pop trappings of “Live Your Life” translated surprisingly well into an orchestral arrangement, with its groovy nature acting as a rhythmic hook which both The Palauans and the string section could easily return to. “Remember My Name” then followed, with the Subang Jaya native dedicating it to all the bullies who had given her a hard time at school.
Live if you really want to.
Photo courtesy of Rotikaya.com
The best moment of the night, though, was when Yuna called the show to a halt so that she could introduce her special guest for the night. Given that this was her second performance at the Istana Budaya (after the hastily-added date on the 5th on September), half the audience already knew what was coming, but it was still extremely pleasant to be able to applaud Incubus guitarist Mike Einziger onto the stage.
In the presence of greatness.
Photo courtesy of The Star.
Einziger, of course, had been here before – having performed with the rest of his band on two prior occasions in 2004 and, more recently, in 2011. Yuna noted as much, making it a point to tell the bemused American guitarist that she had in fact attended that 2004 gig and spent most of it spellbound just in front of him. It was evident that Einziger was enjoying being able to perform in Kuala Lumpur once more, and upon being handed the microphone by Yuna, thanked the audience and remarked that it was a privilege to be back, albeit in a rather different role. The audience responded with another loud ovation, and thus began what was easily the most spellbinding moment of the evening: Einziger took up his guitar and proceeded to play the opening notes to “Deeper Conversation”, one of Yuna’s earliest and most beloved songs. I cannot quantify the appreciation that flowed from the audience to meet Einziger’s playing of the song’s backing tune. I think we all recognized how momentous the occasion was very quickly – it’s not every day that you get to see one of alternative rock’s biggest stars playing to a song composed by one of your homegrown talents. It was really more than just a performance; it was a ratification of everything Yuna had done.
And now I’m learning you.
Photo courtesy of Malaysian Digest.
And it only got better from there. Having completed “Deeper Conversation”, the pair indicated that they were about to perform a cover of Incubus’ “I Miss You”, at which point the audience nearly caved out of sheet excitement. Grinning shyly, Yuna admitted to having learnt how to play the song as a precocious teenager, with it being one of the very first tunes she learned how to perform on her guitar. There are very many online videos of the pair performing this song together – including one particularly transcendental version captured within the annals of Incubus’ own recording studio – but none have captivated me so much as the rendition supplied that night. Einziger would stay onstage for another two tracks – most notably wow-ing the audience via his interpretation of “I Wanna Go”‘s looping riff – before taking his leave to sustained applause and cheers from the audience.
From there on out it was all Yuna: solid deliveries of “Stay” and “Coffee” followed the Einziger quartet, the latter being particularly noteworthy as it is rarely performed live. The biggest curiosity though, was the surprising mash-up of “Let Love Come Through” and Blackstreet’s now-seminal “No Diggity” towards the end of the setlist. It was quite something to see Yuna sway along, winking conspiratorially at us and mouthing the words, “I like the way you work it” as her backing singers chorused “no diggity” just behind her. And I thought I’d seen everything the petite lass had up her sleeve.
That said, the concert itself ended on a slightly strange, and IMHO, deflating note. Neither “Penakut” or “Lelaki” were particularly inspired choices for a closing song, I felt, mainly as they occupied the unfortunate middle ground between being cheery or outright sentimental. Complicating matters further was the fact that the orchestra chose to play a reprise of “I Wanna Go” as Yuna’s exit music – and counting its appearance at the beginning and during the section with Mike Einziger, this meant that it had been played a total of three times that night. Each subsequent reappearance really took the wind out of the song’s sails, and it was extremely difficult to escape the sense of redundancy by the end of it all. Elsewhere, Yuna gave a splendid, pitch perfect performance, but I still sort of have a bone to pick with Istana Budaya, mainly as it frankly seemed that no one had taken the trouble of actually seating a group of people in the hall and trying out the sound settings out for size. Calling it overpowering is understating it slightly – Yuna’s voice was frequently outmuscled by the NSO (through no fault of their own) and given the maturity with which she conducted herself, it was a shame that her opportunity to be at the absolute center of proceedings was stolen from her by sub-par sound engineering. I was seated in the middle circle of the hall, about part way up from the speakers, and it was still several touches too loud at times – I shudder to think what those on the floor area must have experienced.
All told though, this was still a concert for the ages – Nocturnal will undoubtedly catapult this young starlet onto even greater and better things when it appears in a month, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Yuna jet-setting across arenas and concert halls around the world as a result. To that end, her four-night stand at the Istana Budaya will, I believe, be forever unique, succeeding as it does at sharing a Ms Yunalis Mat Zara’ai when she was neither really here, nor there.
Yuna Live at Istana Budaya 2013 Setlist
Gelora Jiwa (Tan Sri P. Ramlee cover)
Terukir Di Bintang
– No Noise Percussion Intermission –
Live Your Life
Remember My Name
I Miss You* (Incubus cover)
I Wanna Go*
Let Love Come Through/No Diggity (Blackstreet cover)
– Encore –
* featuring Mike Einziger