Arooj Aftab’s hidden talent takes flight in Pakistan

January 2, 2022

While we wait for Arooj Aftab’s Coke Studio 14 debut and hope her Grammy nominations translate into wins, Instep discovers what a musical treasure her album, Vulture Prince, truly is.

Nominated for two Grammy Awards in the ceremony’s upcoming edition, the album Vulture Prince is strong, raw and right up there among some of the best albums we’ve heard. Set to appear on Coke Studio 14, we can hardly wait for Arooj Aftab’s debut on national TV.
Nominated for two Grammy Awards in the ceremony’s upcoming edition, the album Vulture Prince is strong, raw and right up there among some of the best albums we’ve heard. Set to appear on Coke Studio 14, we can hardly wait for Arooj Aftab’s debut on national TV. 

Singer-songwriter and composer Arooj Aftab is currently making people in Pakistan increasingly curious about her music with two Grammy nominations: Best New Artist and Best Global Music Performance for the single, ‘Mohabbat’. She also made news in summer 2021 after landing on former POTUS Barack Obama’s July playlist.

Prior to these accomplishments, Arooj Aftab – who originally grew up in Pakistan before moving abroad in the noughties - is among the first series of artists who used the internet to announce their ability as a musician. Her cover of the late Amir Zaki’s ‘Mera Pyar’ went viral and is right up there with the best covers ever performed by any Pakistani artist.

This period was followed by two things: Arooj Aftab moved abroad, and the music scene became dominated by record labels and local artists. Names like Noori and Zeb & Haniya did go on to become prominent musicians starting via the internet, but their presence in Pakistan cemented as they continued to live in the country, played shows and made music videos and released records that first and foremost catered to the fractured Pakistani market. With Coke Studio, artists such as Zeb & Haniya and Noori (among many more) found a platform to promote their original music. The country was riveted.

During this period, Arooj Aftab attended Berklee College of Music, and found a career abroad, with her status as a musician somewhat of a niche in Pakistan. Truth hurts. However, with prominent artists such as Atif Aslam (U.A.E.), Meesha Shafi (Canada), Sajjad Ali (U.A.E.), Faisal Kapadia (U.A.E.) residing abroad now, where you live is of little consequence.

The multicultural Ali Sethi and Meesha Shafi and the likes of Josh have paved the way for boundaries to be broken. Many Pakistani artists have made the move to live in different countries but the adoration by the public has not lessened as technology is embraced with arms wide open. Not known to many, the year before last, Arooj was nominated for a Latin Grammy for her contribution as a backing vocalist to Residente’s ‘Antes Que El Mundo Se Acabe’.

So, now following Arooj Aftab, at present living in Brooklyn, New York, is simply like following another one of your favourite mainstream Pakistani artists. Interest in Arooj Aftab is also indicative of a deeper issue that we tend to pay more attention to artists if they make noise abroad. The likes of Atif Aslam, Faran Tahir or a Riz Ahmed or Kumail Nanjiani are good examples. In similar vein, curiosity in Arooj after her Grammy nominations has extended to the point that she is making her Coke Studio debut during the upcoming fourteenth season. Did she make beautiful music before her 2021 album, Vulture Prince which features ‘Mohabbat’? Yes. Did we care? Not until now. Not since the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan have we become so aware of an artist who was previously not important enough to be invested in. We are all complicit in this behaviour and that must change as artists become multicultural with their music. It may be the eleventh hour but as the singer-songwriter gets her first national major push from Coke Studio 14, Instep spends some time listening to the album, Vulture Prince, released in 2021.

“Chimney swift that finds me be my keeper/silhouette of the cedar/What is that song you sing for the dead” - ‘Death with Dignity’ by Sufjan Stevens

Consisting of 7 songs, Vulture Prince, Arooj’s latest album is a wonderful way to be introduced to her work. It is one that highlights her skills as a composer, her ability to fuse genres and creating genre-defying music. It describes the unique music space that she acquires as a multicultural artist. The May release of the LP by New Amsterdam Records, observes Pitchfork, draws, “from jazz, Hindustani classical, and folk to create a heartbreaking, exquisite document of the journey from grief to acceptance.”

The grief Pitchfork points to is Arooj Aftab’s brother, who passed away which had a strong impact on her as she was writing this album. Therefore, maybe, the mood of the album is not peppy and carefree fun but of a longing that appears in several of the songs. The mood was supposed to be different from her 2018 release, the ambient Siren Islands. But the death of her brother changed the course of the album with Arooj delving into Urdu poetry and ghazal as well as fusing it with jazz and folk to other musical ideas.

The result is a melancholic album where her ethereal voice is arresting because there is both vulnerability and a strong character in the delivery of each song. There are some collaborations, but this is arresting music because there is no dull moment even as you dive further into the album and the unique production it carries.

“Grief is a cruel kind of education. You learn how ungentle mourning can be, how full of anger. You learn how glib condolences can feel. You learn how much grief is about language, the failure of language and the grasp for language.” – Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

‘Baghon Main’ has sweetness to it as it opens and the music carries on and sets the stage for Arooj. Her vocals are as devastating as the lyrics. A mourning echo follows before a fear – universal in nature – also nudges. It’s quite possibly one of the album’s best tracks. Some of the musical instruments – when given centre stage – pick up on the complexity of what is being presented and plays within those parameters. ‘Diya Hai’ begins with clarity and a sense of haunting arrangements, never overpowering, but becomes transcendental as Arooj Aftab begins to sing. Her voice is soft and intense; she sings on her own terms, melding poetry with a subtlety resulting in atmospheric music that makes you return to the album multiple times. In fact, each of the songs has daring, honest confessions of emotional hurt as well as grace. The music is enchanting, complex, and compelling, indicative of how strong Vulture Prince is as an album and Arooj is as an artist. There is something deeply raw about this album while the production is crisp – a mix that is difficult, if not impossible to find. It is an expression of music that says so much of what we feel but never voice. Or, simply don’t know how to.

In the end, Pakistan may be waking up late to Arooj Aftab’s beautiful, complex, and devastating music, but better late than never. Find Vulture Prince and its preceding albums online. Arooj Aftab is a master of the craft and for that she must be heard multiple times.

Arooj Aftab’s hidden talent takes flight in Pakistan