Sadia Shirazi on Arooj Aftab
AROOJ AFTAB’S WORK TRANSFORMS the nearly millennium-old tradition of Hindustani classical music from which it emerges, a form whose tenets of improvisation, repetition, and rasa, or emotion, have inspired American composers such as John Cage, La Monte Young, and Terry Riley. Aftab responds to their musical borrowing by restituting what these white men excised from their arrangements—the feminine voice—and treating it as yet another instrument in her bright, layered compositions. The pentatonic melodies and mixed genres of the Black avant-garde vocalist and composer Julius Eastman’s shimmering Femenine, 1974, similarly disrupt the geographical-racial exclusions of the Western canon of Minimalism. In Aftab’s case, the predominance of Urdu poetry alongside English lyrics situates her both within and beyond Anglophone literature and language. The composer relocates the musical styles of qawwali, ghazal, and thumri from Pakistan and North India into its diaspora, fusing them with genres such as jazz, samba, and reggae to forge her own sound world.
Aftab’s mellifluous voice was encouraged by the sonic environment of her home, where her parents often held musical evenings, and the Lahore scene, which nurtured singers such as Iqbal Bano and Farida Khanum as well as rock bands like Junoon. While living in Pakistan as a teen, Aftab taught herself to play guitar and continued developing her voice, engaging in deep listening to musicians as various as Zakir Hussain, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Billie Holiday, and Mariah Carey. In Hindustani classical music, singers learn through the ustaad-shagird system, under which a vocalist studies with a teacher in a gharana, a “school” where students learn distinct styles and tonalities through a lineage of apprenticeship. While Aftab draws from the aesthetic and affective principles of such styles, she alters their mood and emotional register with her distinctive, sensuous vocals and experimental rhythms. Her voice is never simply “backed up” by musicians on her albums. It is the composer’s melody that the impressive cast of musicians she assembles respond carefully to, at times something as spare as Aftab’s deliberate elongation of a single note. “Man Kunto Maula,” the qawwali that Aftab interpreted on her first album, Bird Under Water (2014), was composed by the thirteenth-century Sufi polymath Hazrat Amir Khusro, who himself pulled together Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Hindustani influences. While she pays tribute to the stentorian rendition by Abida Parveen, the Pakistani Sufi singer who is an unmistakable influence, Aftab’s airy, dulcet version omits the harmonium and tabla, opening instead with a bansuri followed by her Elysian voice and the plucking of a guitar string. These three luminous elements tangle and untangle as Aftab languorously draws out Khusro’s tarana, a nonverbal vocal form he is credited with inventing—hum tum tanana nana, tanana nana—and brings the song to a close.
Aftab arrived to the United States in 2005 to study jazz composition at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where she flourished. Five years later, she moved to New York and began editing and scoring films in addition to releasing her own music, composing for the Student Academy Award–winning film Bittu (2021) and working as an editor on the Emmy Award–winning documentary Armed with Faith (2017). While Aftab has achieved recognition in the United States and India, performing at MoMA’s summer concert series, at Lincoln Center, with Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily at the Kitchen, as part of Toshi Reagan’s festival WordRock& Sword, and as a vocalist on Residente’s Latin Grammy Award–winning song “Antes Que El Mundo Se Acabe,” as well as contributing vocals to the soundtrack of the Indian film Talvar (2015), her recognition back in Pakistan is uneven. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Aftab was one of the first musicians to use the internet to promote her music. Her two viral hits “Hallelujah” and “Mera Pyaar” largely inaugurated the Pakistani indie scene at a time when the country had no infrastructure for independent music and Western online platforms were inaccessible. Her songs were shared through email, then found their way to online forums, inspiring a younger generation of artists to produce and release their music independently. By the time she left for Berklee, Aftab had amassed a wide subcultural fanbase in Pakistan.
Aftab returned to Lahore in 2018 for the funeral of her younger brother, Maher, an experience evoked by the elegiac tones of her new album, Vulture Prince (New Amsterdam, 2021), which she dedicates to him. Yet instead of dwelling on death, Vulture Prince turns to love and its entanglements with loss. This mood is echoed by the lyrics, almost all of which Aftab drew from poets and writers: “Last Night” uses an English translation of a work by the Sufi poet Hazrat Jalaluddin Rumi, while the heartrending “Saans Lo,” which translates to “breathe,” is by Annie Ali Khan, a friend and writer who passed away while Aftab was working on the album. The ghazal borrowed for the single “Mohabbat” was written by poet Hafeez Hoshiarpuri and popularized by Farida Khanum and Mehdi Hassan. The languid pace of Aftab’s version—in which the traditional harmonium is replaced with the bright blended sounds of Gyan Riley’s acoustic guitar and Maeve Gilchrist’s lilting harp and punctuated by Nadje Noordhuis’s rueful flugelhorn, Jamey Haddad’s syncopated percussion, and Ismaily’s smooth synth—is characteristic of her arrangements. The artist’s hazy voice completes the ensemble, sweeping between registers of love and grief in tandem with the bittersweet lyrics, in which the speaker states that although their beloved will never lack for admirers, they will no longer be among them. Listeners, though, wait eagerly for more work from Aftab—scores and, one hopes, longer forms, through which her textured music can continue to grow.