Arooj Aftab is reimagining the music of centuries past, and making history as she goes
“I prefer to meet at night,” Arooj Aftab says, chuckling and pretending to squint at the glaring sunlight of the Brooklyn coffee shop where we meet on an early May morning. The 37-year-old singer and composer, who has adopted a musician’s nocturnal lifestyle, finds comfort in being veiled in shadows – especially while playing the songs from her 2021 breakthrough album, Vulture Prince.
Named after a sexy, androgynous character of Aftab’s making, the album reimagines Urdu ghazal poetry that expresses longing through images of celestial bodies, showers of wine, and drunken gazes. After months of studying and internalising the words, she set them to a delicately woven fabric crafted from her musical heritages. In her songs, you can hear the influence of the Qawwali and Hindustani music she grew up listening to in Lahore, Pakistan; the reggae and minimalist styles she adopted when studying at Berklee College of Music (where she fell in with a crowd of international students from Argentina, Australia, Turkey and Lebanon); and the diverse sound of the New York jazz scene she plays in (including with the composer-pianist Vijay Iyer and multiplicious instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily in the trio Love in Exile).
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The resulting meditative arrangements of plucked guitar, harp, violin and upright bass tangle with each other like vines before coming into bloom to convey the lingering melancholy of loss and the eventual reemergence from grief. Vulture Prince is dedicated to the memory of Aftab’s younger brother, Maher, and includes the poetry of journalist Annie Ali Khan, who both died in 2018. “Your beloved is gone, but his memory remains/ Running in your veins at least,” Aftab sings on Saans Lo, reviving a 2014 poem written by Khan to a soundtrack of synth drones and haunting flutes that sound like they’re echoing from beyond. When she performs these weighty songs, Aftab chooses to be concealed, backlit with dark purples, blues and reds, so that only the silhouettes of her and her band are showing. “I feel like I need to be a little bit shadowed in order to convey that emotion to the crowd,” she introspects, carefully collecting her words.
It might draw from the mysticism of centuries past, but Vulture Prince has brought Aftab into the present-day spotlight. This year, she became the first Pakistani artist ever to win a Grammy when she took the Best Global Music Performance category for the eight-minute Mohabbat (she was also nominated for the coveted Best New Artist award), and in April was the first Pakistani artist to play Coachella. “I did not go there to win,” Aftab says of attending the Grammys. “I was really surprised when they said my name, but also I was like, ‘Yeah, fucking say my name, let’s go!’” she adds, grinning and wagging two fingers for emphasis.
She alternates between extreme pride and giggly incredulity, but develops a serious tone when considering the implications of her win. “For the first time, the Grammys really stepped up, represented us [Asian and marginalised artists], and did it in an honest way,” she says. “It wasn’t tokenism, they just let voting take place as opposed to just deciding in the end who they wanted. They had BTS and Japanese Breakfast come, and there was so much female and Asian representation that was rightfully deserved. I felt more invited and entitled to be [there] than people like me ever have.”
Coat: Willy Chavarria, Shirt: Helen Anthony, Pants: VAFFLA
Aftab’s self-assessment of being “very present, dynamic and in-your-face” rings true, as she peppers answers with assertive opinions and a generous amount of swear words, her kohl-lined eyes drilling into me at times. When she walks into the cafe wearing a dark leopard-print shirt, matching leopard-print boots, chunky rings and sunglasses, the kind lady behind the counter eagerly greets her. “This is my secret place,” Aftab says in a low voice. “The woman who makes the food, it’s like your mom is cooking for you.” She likes to duck in here to avoid running into people in her neighbourhood, which is not a symptom of her recent success, but from being part of New York’s music scene for over a decade. Before quitting her video and audio editing job at Genius at the end of last year, she also composed scores for video games and films, and even won a Latin Grammy for doing background vocals on 2020 Residente song, Antes Que el Mundo Se Acabe. Discussing the visibility that Vulture Prince brought her, she shrugs. “It’s definitely the most that it’s ever been, but it’s not like it just came out of nowhere. My whole career, I have been experiencing it in waves, so it’s not completely unfamiliar.”
There are some things Aftab is still reeling over, though, like her hilariously intimate encounter with President Joe Biden at the White House’s Eid celebration, just two days prior to our meeting. While reading a Rumi verse about refusing to drink water, she couldn’t suppress her compulsion to joke around, and paused to tell those present, “I could actually use a sip of water.” Biden immediately handed her a glass, and the crowd cooed. “It was literally a comedy,” she laughs, likening aspects of the experience to the political satire Veep. “When we were there, we were like, Veep is real. Veep is a documentary.”
"I think of a thing, and then I ask, ‘What is the history? Is there a depth behind it?’
The night before our interview, she was hosting a ceremony of her own during her headlining Outline Festival set at Queens’ Knockdown Center, where she played in the smoky darkness with her band of guitarist Gyan Riley, harpist Maeve Gilchrist, and violinist Darian Donovan Thomas encircling her. Much like the compositions on Vulture Prince, Aftab both allowed and directed each featured musician to express their own idiosyncratic style, with each instrument forming its own rogue character in the unfolding narrative of her sung words. Though you couldn’t see her face, there was an intensity and poise in her comportment as she turned towards each of her bandmates as they started solos, veering down their own path before gently circling back to Aftab. “It’s not always prepared or written, so I’m just watching the concert within a concert,” she smiles, referring to her collaborators as “shredding monsters”. In between songs, she took sips of red wine and threw pink roses into the crowd.
The stage was shrouded in darkness throughout, even during the appearance of surprise performers, including Vijay Iyer and the actor and Swet Shop Boys rapper Riz Ahmed, who recited a poem about empire, diaspora, and not knowing if you’re from “everywhere or nowhere”. “There are these special guests on stage, but we’re not showy, we’re showing you through the music, really,” Aftab says. “We’re bringing you into a collective atmosphere. You’re in the dark, we’re in the dark. It’s a choice.”
The name Arooj Aftab roughly translates to ‘rising sun’, a striking image that she identifies with – “I’ve always been an ambitious person,” she admits – and she’s fond of the way her surname is used in poetry to describe the specific moment when the sun casts a straight beam of light over a body of water. Born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and later moving to her parent’s hometown of Lahore, Pakistan, at age 11, Aftab grew up with both her parents and two brothers. “Peoples’ parents send them, like teddy bears and GIFs on WhatsApp, and my mom and dad are constantly sending me YouTube links to beautiful songs, which I’m guilty of not opening,” she says. Lately, she’s been reflecting on the desert’s influence on her early subconscious (“it’s rough, but also soft, and it has its ups and downs”) since performing at Coachella, which evoked childhood memories of family barbecues out in the dunes. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I’m from the desert,’” she says, her words getting faster. “And the [person I was with] was like, ‘Will you make up your mind at some point where the fuck you’re actually from?”
“There’s an understanding that music has been borrowed, inherited, recycled, reused, and lifted for so long, and however far back you go, it starts getting really blurred”
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At 18, Aftab went early-internet viral when her stirring cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah started circulating via email and file sharing platforms, giving her the confidence to apply to Berklee, where she studied audio engineering and jazz theory. She remains largely a self-taught singer, except for a two-week period in 2008 when she studied with the classical singer Sara Zaman while visiting Lahore on break from college. Zaman set up 5am sessions for Aftab in her beautiful house, where the atrium is specially designed for sound to reverberate into the ceiling. The lessons were less about technical development and more about connecting and gaining inspiration, Aftab says. “That music that she spent so much time developing, she keeps it close to her, and she keeps it current and present.”
Aftab’s early development was also marked by an encounter with Abida Parveen, an esteemed singer known as the Queen of Sufi Music. The 25-year-old Aftab had just moved to New York, literally knocked on the door of her hero’s hotel room, and sang with her. “We exchanged very few words,” she elaborates on that pivotal moment. “It almost feels like she placed me really quickly, like, ‘This person does not have any South Asian classical vocal training. This person does not have access. This person doesn’t go back home. They’re just here in New York and they have this crazy glint in their eye. I’ve just heard them sing and there’s so much potential here. She should just listen to records.’ Which is kind of what I was already doing. I was listening to Abida Parveen and running Abbey Lincoln records into the ground.” There is a shimmering clarity in the vocal style she’s developed since, which flares with subtle shades of sorrow and disquiet instead of pushing into straightforward melodrama.
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“Minimalism” is what Aftab uses to describe these interactions, where communication happens non-verbally and through the exchange of energies. She leads with this principle on Vulture Prince, whose songs only consist of a few lines that Aftab often repeats, allowing the instruments to provide the subtext behind these poems of infatuation and heartbreak. On Vulture Prince’s Last Night, an adaptation of a Rumi poem, Aftab repeats the lyrics, “Last night, my beloved was like the moon/ So beautiful,” over smouldering, plucked bass and shuffling drums, her melodies flowing like ribbons of smoke. Then, on Suroor, her vocal runs grow more fluttery and hushed, as she sings, “It’s the sway of the way you look at me/ It has made me a drunk, you being the drink,” over an urgent dance of harps and violins that build into a trance.
When deciding what to adapt, Aftab is drawn to verses that have a balance of “extreme heart and sadness”, she explains, but which also show “the person just being chill about it, but also confident enough to describe it and allow the emotions to flow, but also not eating your ear off with a long story about their lives”. Though she penned the lyrics to her latest track, Udhero Na, featuring the emotive, psychedelic sitar playing of Anoushka Shankar, she prefers to delegate to other writers, taking the time needed to ask questions like, “Why did this person write this?” she explains.“I’m very OK with not being the one who does everything.”
Forgoing wordiness in her work, Aftab instead imparts deep meaning by incorporating images and symbols from the natural world, understanding that everything from the stars to monsoons have centuries of cultural tradition. While thinking one day of the three singing vultures in Disney’s The Jungle Book, she grew curious about the significance of the predatory bird that became the muse for Vulture Prince. “Those guys were hilarious, what’s up with that?” she playfully asks. “They’re so indecisive, and they were part of the rescue mission. I’m vaguely aware that vultures have been in Native American [folk myths], and they’ve been exalted across lots of different [mythologies]. So I was like, let me find the link here, see how I can pull together the common threads.” She employed a similar line of thinking for her 2014 debut album, Bird Under Water, an uncategorisable mix of folksy acoustic guitar riffs, shimmering sitar and eerie accordion, whose title came from feeling like you belong in two places. “I was like, ‘Are there birds underwater?’ [I found] there are fish that fly. And then there are birds that swim a little.” She adds, resolutely: “I think of a thing, and then I ask, ‘What is the history? Is there a depth behind it?’
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Finding the connective tissue between styles is another way she forged her musical approach, which pulls from the roots of the different places she’s lived and the musicians she’s played with and learned from. “I definitely had to build something for myself,” she says. “There was no blueprint for this thing I wanted to do. I also felt very much that I couldn’t just inherit whatever I wanted, so I had to figure out the process of making sure it’s earned. There’s an understanding that music has been borrowed, inherited, recycled, reused and lifted for so long, and however far back you go, it starts getting really blurred and making a lot of mental chaos. [But it’s really about] the communities you’ve learned from, connected with, given back to, and gained trust in.”
With that, Aftab prepares to return to the community that she’s adopted here in Brooklyn, making sure to say goodbye to the shop owner, as she puts her sunglasses back on and slips into the light of day.
Vulture Prince (Deluxe Edition) is out 24 June via Verve Records