Picture it: A packed Amway Center. An arena full of screaming concertgoers looking straight at you. A familiar, chiming guitar riff. A cue. And suddenly opening your mouth to sing the chorus of iconic New Wave jam "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." It's all a blur from there. Local singer-songwriter Zoya Zafar is something special on the Orlando music scene, and if you don't want to take Orlando Weekly's word for it, how about an endorsement from no less than '80s new wave firebrand Cyndi Lauper?
It's all true. When Lauper blazed through town in late July on a co-headlining tour with Rod Stewart, she had Zafar – along with Swamp Sistas guiding light Beth McKee – do a guest turn on backing vocals for her anthemic signature song.
"I got an email from her management and I thought it was a scam," laughs Zafar. But it was legit. Lauper was trying out an idea to have local women musicians on select dates join her onstage, to give a boost to that city's scene. Orlando, according to Zafar, was the pilot for this. And next thing you know, Zafar was on stage with Lauper. It was a feel-good moment for certain.
"It was an honor. And so much fun," says Zafar. "We got to meet her and she was so sweet, she told us that she'd heard our music and she liked what we were doing."
"I didn't even fully grasp it was happening until the day of the show. I'm really lucky."
Maybe there was some luck involved, but we're pretty sure it had a lot to do with her singular voice. At just 24, Zoya Zafar sings with a remarkable assurance and confidence, effortlessly weaving hymns of torchy, jazz-inflected heartbreak that belie her young age. Orlando Weekly's music columnist Bao Le-Huu was impressed from early performances: "Her music is minimal but it's not stark, with an atmosphere that's velvet and a voice of total presence. Her soft but warm and sonorous singing exhales the smoke of classic jazz singers."
Zafar says she began singing as a pre-teen, explaining, "I first discovered my voice through my involvement in theater." Aside from trying out numbers from South Pacific and Oklahoma, other early epiphanies were Billie Holiday, Nancy Sinatra, Patsy Cline and Cabaret. By 13, with a head full of the requisite Bright Eyes and Death Cab for Cutie, Zafar got her first acoustic guitar, and began writing her own songs in earnest.
At 16 she was tentatively venturing out to local open mics, and by 20 she was actively playing as part of our local scene, sharing stages over time with Dearest, Lexi Long, TV Dinner and Dan Hanson.
Of late, Zafar has been eschewing solo live endeavors to play as a part of local luminary Beth McKee's extraordinary Swamp Sistas musical collective. And she's having a ball as part of this multigenerational and multi-genre gang. "I really like playing with them," Zafar says. "It's so nice to be surrounded by female musicians. Everyone's really supportive." Beyond just the live camaraderie, she says, the after-effects of being surrounded by so much supportive creativity is energizing: "Right now I feel like I'm in a bit of a rut with writing new music, and this makes me feel productive."
Despite protestations of a rut, Zafar is in the midst of expanding her music vividly, adding a much wider sonic palette to flesh out her gorgeous, if skeletal laments. A handful of recent shows have seen the addition of synthesizers and drums machines to her usual lone guitar, and Zafar is excited by the possibilities. "The songs I'm writing feel more dreamy and these textures make the songs more colorful," says Zafar. "I want more texture and dynamic in my music. It feels natural to want to evolve and try new things out."
Zafar only plays out sporadically, so don't miss her at her second appearance at a Southern Fried Sunday event this weekend. Appropriately enough, she will be a part of this year's Southern Belle Ball along with heavy talent like Oak Hill Drifters, Catfish Dinner, Layla Brisbois, Tears of a Tyrant and, naturally, McKee's Swamp Sistas Songwriters Circle.