When Amirah Ali heard gamelan music playing as she stepped into Jui-Ching Wang’s classroom as a graduate student at Northern Illinois University in 2007, she was drawn to the sound of percussion mixed with bamboo flutes and traditional string instruments.
“She was immediately connected to the music,” said Wang, assistant professor of music education and director of the gamelan ensemble at the university.
Ali, a native of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, came to NIU to study music and learn more about the Indonesian-based gamelan technique, which she said she has always loved.
“It’s kind of trance-like,” said Ali. “It really opened my mind to see how I could bring this into a more contemporary form.”
Since graduating from NIU in 2009, Ali has achieved success as a songwriter and performer in Malaysia. She will return to her alma mater in celebration of the 50th anniversary of NIU’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies with a concert Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Boutell Memorial Concert Hall on campus.
Ali’s music blends Western pop with the traditional gamelan sound of Indonesia.
Ali said she differs from most pop artists in that her music takes on issues other than the typical party or club scene, which made it difficult for her to break into the industry.
“I faced a lot of rejection because the songs I was writing were not really fitting in the radio format,” she said.
Her debut single, “Katakanlah,” focuses on a conflict that occurred between Muslims and Christians in Malaysia over the terms “God” and “Allah.” She said this event brought her to express her frustrations over the issue through her music.
“At that point in time, I just couldn’t keep it to myself anymore about how I felt,” she said. “And I wanted to do something about it.”
Ali uploaded “Katakanlah” to YouTube, and was prepared for the backlash she might receive after tackling such a controversial situation in a song.
However, the response was mostly positive.
“I was surprised, actually, that I got a lot of support from the Malaysian people,” she said.
“Katakanlah” is one of many songs Ali has written that encourage diversity and acceptance, which she said she strives to convey in her music.
“I have always been passionate about issues with human rights and about equality, about unity,” Ali said.
She said she wants her gamelan and pop-blended music to remind people of the traditional instruments that are part of the Malaysian culture, while also reaching out to the older generations who may think pop music is just noise.
“In a way it’s kind of like bridging the generations and having us appreciate each other and accept each other as we are, and in terms of culture as well,” she said.
Although she has achieved success as a unique artist, Ali said it was easy to get discouraged at times.
“People from the beginning told me, ‘It’s not going to work,’” she said.
Wang wasn’t one of those people.
“I knew she had the potential,” she said. “I’m very happy she was able to develop herself.”
Although Wang was Ali’s instructor, she said Ali actually taught her a thing or two about determination.
“I think that’s a very strong characteristic of her, wanting to succeed,” she said. “She’d try to reach the goal that she’d set for herself. That actually touched me very much.”
Wang said she hopes Ali’s successful story inspires current students to work hard and follow their dreams, just like Ali did.
She said Ali’s ability to integrate different world cultures also is important for people to realize.
Although she writes about many complicated world issues and conflicts, Ali said the message behind her music is actually very simple.
“We don’t have to give up our cultural background,” she said. “I think we need to respect each other’s culture and see that it is beautiful on its own. It doesn’t need to change.”
Amirah Ali's music is available at Cdbaby, iTunes and Amazon.