New York, United States – It’s a music album born in a period of extraordinary conflict. The artist not only struggled with the challenge of creating music during a pandemic, but also with the death of his younger brother.
Arooj Aftab’s third album, Vulture prince, released on Friday, reflects this pain but is distinguished by the power of its musical expression.
And this power has already been recognized. Pitchfork, a respected online music magazine, appointed his first single, Mohabbat, the Best New Track.
The 36-year-old singer has been making waves since 2018 when US network NPR called her song Lullaby one of 21st Century Women + ‘s greatest songs, and the New York Times included her song Island No 2 in its list of 25 best classical music tracks this year.
The Pakistani-born, Brooklyn-based artist’s musical style is inspired by a wide range of singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Reshma and Abida Parveen – the “queen” of Sufi music. The sounds of Greek, Egyptian and Spanish idioms are also hauntingly interwoven.
The genre can be best defined as somewhere at the intersection of Sufi, Pakistani folk, jazz fusion, and semi-classical.
“I didn’t mean to call it all of that. It was none of those kinds. At first I invented it neo-Sufism because I had to call it something because people can’t place it and you get lost in the sauce, ”Aftab told Al Jazeera.
“It came to me as a genre when creating my first album listening to Abida Parveen and reading a lot of [poet] Rumi. “
While musical categories still dictate terminologies such as “neo-Sufism,” Aftab now has the confidence to call it something else.
“They are no longer neo-Sufis,” she said. “I’m more confident to use a longer sentence to describe it.”
In a musical world where lyrics are often immersed in rhythms and melody, Aftab makes poetry his lead singer – a quintessential feature of his music.
The ghazals (a form of Urdu poetry) she sings, some celebrated for decades, have a neutral cadence in their performances, where the poetry shines regardless of the musical accompaniment.
Think of Norah Jones’ minimalist and moving structure with even less emphasis on the backing instruments.
“She breaks free from the harsh and traditional norm of sub-continental music and yet remains very deep in her interpretation of this music without being guilty of cultural appropriation,” said Arieb Azhar, veteran musician and commentator on Sufi music, at Al Jazeera.
Aftab says she consciously planned to remove her music from all percussion in an erased manner.
Madan Gopal Singh, a Sufi musician and cultural historian in India, asserts that “Aftab’s grain of voice has a languid quality.”
“With her, she broke the hierarchy between instrumentalization and emergence of the voice so that the dignity of both remains, and that’s unique,” Singh told Al Jazeera.
Singh comes from the Indian side of the Punjab province while Aftab was born in Lahore on the Pakistani side.
But the two share a chance connection with a song called Mohabbat (love). This is the song with which, Singh recalls, he charmed his wife by marrying her decades ago.
The song was originally written by Hafeez Hoshiarpuri, a poet born in 1912 in Hoshiarpur in Punjab, India. But Hoshiarpuri died in 1973 across the border in Karachi.
His song has since garnered a cult-type cult following through performances by famous singers including Mehdi Hassan, Iqbal Bano, Jagjit Singh and more recently Papon.
For Singh, Aftab’s version is just as evocative.
“I love her interpretation and the way she thinks about her musical arrangement. I just wish she would look at the translations more carefully, ”he said. “Then the song has the potential to have even more musical impact.”
The repetitive lyrics of Mohabbat – Mohabbat Karne Waale Kum Na Hongey (the number of people who love will never decrease) – can have various interpretations.
“Arooj’s music is abstract enough and as abstract art you are free to interpret it however you want,” Azhar said.
“It is an internalized emotion that she projects. We can not say if it is a love or a personal loss or a political or revolutionary expression? “
Arooj herself thinks that Mohabbat has many faces. She says, “Immortalizing this song was a lifelong dream.”
“It could be a love song, a breakup song, a political statement, a nostalgic memory. It comforted me in so many different emotional moments, ”she said, adding that the interpretation that resonated the most was“ dissatisfaction with the world ”.
The feeling the song creates when you listen to it is that of “wallowing desperation but I’m fine.” I’m just disappointed with everything and everything, ”Aftab said.
“No matter where you look – in Kashmir, in India, in Pakistan, in the United States, in the mass shootings or in Palestine, wherever you look, there is this incredible and inexcusable atrocity going on. So Mohabbat is kind of like an “f *** you” to the world. “
As a young Pakistani woman, Aftab says her journey as an artist has been a struggle. “In order to pursue the dream, I sacrificed,” she says.
“Separate from friends and family. It’s like exiling yourself because the situation isn’t right for you.
In the United States, she had to build a new support system, which included recruiting musicians for her album. Going to Berkeley College of Music in Boston, one of the best music schools in the world, also meant paying off student loans.
She also remembers times when she only had $ 20 left in her bank account, or facing unruly spectators who misbehaved with her band’s musical equipment during a performance near Times Square.
“But it was still worth it.”
Ahmer Naqwi, a Pakistani popular culture writer, says that “doing what Aftab has done is very unique” coming from a company like Pakistan.
“It is a remarkable story for Pakistani music that it continues to find ways to thrive despite hostile financial and social obstacles,” he told Al Jazeera.
Sub-continental and global recognition
Musical and cultural experts believe Aftab’s new album has the promise of achieving worldwide recognition. But they’re also worried about America’s categorization for awards like the Grammys.
Aftab’s music will likely fall into the limited category of American industry world music.
“The Grammys may not recognize her because they are limited in their categorization, but that doesn’t detract from the quality of her music,” Azhar said.
As for the subcontinent, and Pakistan in particular, Aftab’s music “is not suited to virality,” Naqwi said.
“Aftab’s music has great potential but it’s hard for me to separate the reception of this album from the reality of Pakistani music right now. It is not a great reality. “
But Singh thinks that “no other Pakistani musician thinks like her.”
“She has a huge future,” he said.