Karachi : Arooj Aftab is not an archetype of an artist connected to Pakistan. She is also not an artist who can be pigeonholed into a singular idea. The Brooklyn-based artist has always had a cult following in Pakistan, though. A great number of fans keep track of her minimalist, jazz, Sufi neo, sparse branch of music that has evolved over time.
In 2022, Arooj Aftab was invited to bring her magic to Coke Studio in its fourteenth season, collaborating with Asfar Hussain for one of the most haunting and individualistic song, ‘Mehram’ in the show’s long and celebrated history.
If you’re on Coke Studio, all of Pakistan is listening and watching and debating who flew and who didn’t in any given season. Arooj Aftab flew – with Asfar Hussain – as the longing the song emitted felt visceral.
In no chronological order, between Coke Studio 14, making it to former American President, Barack Obama’s playlist, Arooj also won a Grammy Award for Best Global Music Performance for her song ‘Mohabbat’, featured on her 2021 album, Vulture Prince.
Singer, songwriter, composer and producer, Arooj Aftab has been on a whirlwind ride since then. Touring across countries in rigorous fashion, she is as accommodating as she was when we spoke for the first time.
“The tour is going great. It’s exhausting. I’ve been on tour since May 2022,” she observes. It means nearly 7 months on the road, and something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the artist either. “The audiences love it. We are working hard and its equal parts rewarding and equal parts exhausting,” she laughs, before adding: “That’s what a tour is.”
For an upcoming performance in Berlin, Arooj Aftab will feature the remarkable Wooly and the Uke (Jannat Sohail) as an opening act. It’s a very apposite choice if you listen to both the artists. But what was going through Arooj’s mind when she made that call is a far more intriguing question.
“At many of these shows, we are asked to pick an opening act and I always want it to be a really great upcoming artist who we can support and someone within the parameters of cool new music that’s innovative, preferably with women or people of colour, in the band.”
These are, as Arooj admits, her go-to ideas that she looks for in an opening act.
“I just feel like whenever there is a Pakistani person - like in the London (Barbican) show, I had Nabiha Iqbal open for me - I’m always keeping my eyes peeled for the family because we have to go up together.”
Not threatened by success of others, she’s excited about the show with Jannat (Wooly and the Uke) and its palpable in the excitement in her voice.
As Jannat (Wooly and the Uke) currently lives in Berlin and the upcoming show is in Berlin, Arooj immediately thought of her as a great fit to open the show.
“I think she is super-talented, really innovative and she lives there. So, it was kind of a no-brainer [if you ask me] and I’m really excited and we’re going to have a great time. Pakistan women unite,” she says, before adding: “Sorry, I’m being annoying; I haven’t slept.”
But what Arooj calls “annoying” is actually “endearing” because at a time when artists in Pakistan can’t seem to get their act together (read: Rabia Anum saga) or lose opportunities to make a global mark (read: Joyland saga), Arooj is an example that it is possible to come together.
When asked about ‘Udhero Na’ and collaborating with Anoushka Shankar, Arooj is thrilled talking about the collaboration.
“I’m so glad you asked about ‘Udhero Na’ featuring Anoushka Shankar. I was really hoping that more Pakistani and Indian press would pick this up and dive deep and really listen to the song and see how Anoushka and I have inter-woven our histories, ancestry, backgrounds, friendship and our musicianship into the song.
“It’s a really beautiful collaboration, and a meeting point of our own stories and journeys in this song. This song is very special to me because I wrote it when I was so young. I was a teenager and heartbroken. It’s one of the few songs that I wrote at that time that has kind of survived the test of time and doesn’t feel like a childish creation; it feels like a proper song that still feels legit.
I’m extremely proud of finally releasing it and check out how I’ve released it with Anoushka on it. There is so much noise and conflict around our countries, the politics and the mentalities, the histories and the dominance, the caste and the class that its exhausting and so stifling.
“Here you have a song where two powerful women musicians, myself and Anoushka, are just very gracefully putting all of that aside and making a beautiful piece of music. It’s a very loud statement and pretty deafening, to be honest.”
Lend an ear to the song and the aversion taught to young generations is not the idea behind the song - thankfully. But the history of partition, the trauma felt by generations on both sides of the border, a spirit of what we share and what we teach, a paradox that we continue to live in, is so beautifully rendered by Arooj as a singer-songwriter and by Anoushka Shankar sensitively as Sitar wizard that it might bring tears to your eyes from the first line. It draws you in slowly with sparse combination of the sitar and the voice, and soon it probes words left unsaid. With ‘Udhero Na’, as a listener you travel and go down the rabbit hole of longing and suffering, love and hope, questions unanswered with such heart that when it approaches an end, inevitably, it stays with you permanently.
Boundaries are broken and a love lost is making an effort to be found again. The song is a discourse in shared history wrapped under the duvet of a song that you carry stark, cold, unkind space you enter and becomes the safety net that fans (especially Indian and Pakistani ones) can present as an answer to the hate that is our circumstance. It is a moment where we can acknowledge that it is not division that we crave or need for the pain has lasted for far too long.
As for Arooj Aftab and Anoushka Shankar’s glorious effort with ‘Udhero Na’, it has been submitted to the Grammy Awards, confirms Arooj. “People like happy music,” she says, realizing ‘Udhero Na’ is not exactly a bouncy song. However, she agrees that it is nonetheless a beautiful song and understated since she prefers to write in minimalist idiom. “It is in the running, which is very scary,” adds Arooj on a parting note.
This is where Arooj Aftab is underestimating its beauty, hurt, love, longing, sparse ingenuity and quality musicianship. It is quite possibly the best collaboration between artists from the bordering countries of India and Pakistan to emerge in the contemporary era.
(Watch this space as Grammy nominations were set to release on November 15, 2022).
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