You cannot do justice to music in its truest nature within one year in one piece alone. Not anymore. Music in and of Pakistan has continued to grow at an unbelievable speed. But what we can do is stop the clatter of our everyday lives, stop switching from one song to the next (whatever the reason) for a few minutes and remember how the country’s contemporary music entered another dimension – without dismissing others.
It would be appalling, therefore, to not begin with singer, songwriter, and producer, Arooj Aftab, who has raised the bar for Pakistani artists. Raised in Pakistan and based in Brooklyn, New York for more than a decade, she has doubled down on continuing her historic run that began last year when she was nominated at the 64th edition of the Grammy Awards. Nominated in the categories of Best New Artist and Best Global Music Performance (‘Mohabbat’), Arooj picked up her first Grammy in the latter category, in April 2022. Between making a smashing debut on Coke Studio 14 (also in 2022) and touring multiple countries, Arooj has made history for getting nominated in 2021 and winning for Best Global Music Performance in 2022.
The Grammy run is ongoing. In the last quarter of 2022, she is nominated (again) in the category of Best Global Music Performance for ‘Udhero Na’ with Anoushka Shankar at the upcoming 65th edition of the Grammy Awards, scheduled to take place on February 5, 2023.
A deluxe version of her album, Vulture Prince, was also released this year which features ‘Udhero Na’ - along with material that featured on the original record. Her rendition of ‘Mohabbat’ and ‘Udhero Na’ are capable of moving even the best of us who find ways to stay numb or remove emotion when trying to find the good and the bad within a song. Arooj Aftab is not a binary artist in terms of her music so looking at her songs as a neutral party won’t get you anywhere. Her music asks of you to declare a position and when you do, chances are it will be in Arooj’s musical corner. Grateful for the nomination, Arooj found out while she was in Basel, Switzerland gearing up to go on stage. Between getting nominated for ‘Udhero Na’ and landing in her hometown, Lahore, Arooj did pose an important matter to be addressed: teaching music at school as it needs to be nurtured from a young age.
Arooj Aftab has dropped another song with Anoushka Shankar, ‘Aey Na Balam’ and like its predecessor, it is so arresting that we are hard pressed to pick their best collaboration. Yep, Arooj Aftab (joined by Anoushka Shankar) is just that good.
While Arooj Aftab has our vote for the upcoming edition of the Grammys in 2023, other Pakistani artists are also delivering on several fronts.
Among them is the unlikely story of one nineties heartthrob, Bilal Maqsood. Who could’ve or would’ve thought that in the twilight of his career as Strings with longtime cohort Faisal Kapadia, Bilal Maqsood would reset his career? The accomplishments were already in place: producing four seasons of Coke Studio, six studio albums, a significant number of music videos and a brilliant electropop season of Velo Sound Station? In between these years, judging Pepsi Battle of the Bands in its resurrected form was another gig where the mantle was picked up by Strings as judges.
So, we didn’t see it coming. But the reset is real. Bilal Maqsood was going to find ways to become a diverse artist and also retain his pop legacy by making new songs. He’s done both and more. Bilal Maqsood has taken away doubts by working on sing-along jingles, an album that caters to children (Urdu Nursery Rhymes) featuring 16 songs, and easy-going, original pop songs (‘Naya Naya’, ‘Zalima’), a cricket anthem and following it up by playing live shows as a solo artist, appealing to fans from ‘Sar Kiye Ye Pahar’ days to cultivating new ones. He’s done all this in 2022 so huzzah or a round of applause comes to mind.
And, since we are on the subject of resetting careers, another artist without whom this selection would be incomplete is Faris Shafi.
He has been active as a bold rapper who didn’t hide behind making what would sell and what was natural progression for several years. But after dropping songs in arbitrary fashion such as ‘Waasta’ with Ali Sethi, or ‘Nazar’, he pushed the envelope as far as he could in 2022. Willing to share his art with the nation in significant fashion, Faris Shafi made his Coke Studio debut but he didn’t appear for one collaborative song with sister-artist Meesha Shafi (‘Muaziz Saarif’). Faris Shafi went all in with ‘Ye Dunya’ with Sherry Khattak and co (Karakoram) and rapper Talha Anjum.
The Coke Studio debut wasn’t the only thing he did musically. Faris released ‘Hum’ – his most vulnerable song to date – as well as ‘Vitamin D’, ‘Jashan–e-Hiphop’ with Raftaar and ‘Big Moves’ with Young Desi. Add these songs to his past material: ‘Cricket Khidaiye’ with Atif Aslam and Talal Qureshi, ‘Lafz’, ‘Introduction’, ‘Molotov’, ‘Awaam’, ‘Prosaic’ by Abdullah Siddiqui ft. Faris Shafi and there is no doubt that the younger Shafi is bold, honest and not making an effort to pander to any audience. He is also weaving a narrative through his verses that make you realize how a relatable artist he is through his music. The storytelling ability of his rap covers being pulled down by societal dictations, getting affected by our surroundings, and personal losses.
That he is successful, reflected in his concerts, is the result of staying one step ahead of the curve when it comes to hip-hop and rap music in Pakistan. By appearing in the country’s most successful film to date – The Legend of Maula Jatt as Mooda – in 2022 and playing a supporting role in a grand ensemble was a surprise and showed how the fierce rapper can perform in various hues of the arts.
Another artist who stole hearts was Shae Gill, who first appeared in the song, ‘Pasoori’. Whether she was a singer before never bothered anyone because since appearing as co-vocalist on the song, her career looks like it is going to reach the unexpected. Though Shae Gill appeared in a commercial with Bilal Maqsood as well as a song that also included Atif Aslam (‘Manzil’), her most curious effort is the song ‘Sukoon’ where she is the featured artist apart from creators Hassan & Roshaan. Both are rising stars of music and with Shae Gill, the song got people interested. And though, the music video did raise an eyebrow or two, its actually complementary to the song with the narrative open to interpretations. And we certainly love those non-binary aesthetics.