Arooj Aftab, who lives in New York, has a name to die for. Translated into English, the Pakistani guitarist and singer’s name equates to "rising sun". For an emerging, talented artist on the rise you couldn’t dream of a better moniker.
Aftab’s soulful "neo-sufiana" music has a languid, dreamlike quality. Unhurried as a Sunday morning, her album Bird Under Water is a thing of understated beauty. Across its five tracks she conjures up a sound that is grounded lyrically in qawwali and thumri. Musically, though, it is filled with alt country (Cowboy Junkies) and down tempo (Lemon Jelly) references while including dollops of harmonium and spacey electronic noodlings.
Born and raised in Lahore, Aftab grew up in a music-friendly family. Her first exposure to formal music education came via a scholarship to a Berklee School of Music online course. Impressed with the quality and style of instruction, she applied and was accepted to attend the School in Boston, Massachusetts. Since completing the course Aftab has lived in the United States, where she continues to rapidly gain fans and accolades.
She recently was persuaded to spend a bit of time talking with Scroll.
Scroll: You were born and raised in Lahore. What was the reaction of your immediate social and family circle to your decision to pursue a singing career?
My family has always been supportive of the decisions I take. They are very aware of how, once I set my mind to something, there is nothing that can stop me from pursuing it and turning it into something creative and fruitful.
What did you study at Berklee?
Jazz composition, audio/music production engineering and voice.
What sort of music did you listen to growing up? Were they any specific albums/groups/singers – Pakistani, Indian or western – that particularly pushed you to follow your path?
As a teenager I was listening to the usual popular things like Ace of Base, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, et cetera. But I definitely explored further and discovered Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Zakir Hussain, Hariharan and Hari Prasad Chaurasia. I was also listening to whatever my parents played – which was an array of classical, semi classical, ghazal, thumri and qawwali music.
Aaye Na Balam
Bird Under Water is an intriguing title. It conjures images of things being dangerously out of place. Do you feel as if you were born into the wrong species?
Bird Under Water just sort of struck me one day. As I was producing the album I would save the song mixes in iTunes with different album titles to see how they looked. It has to look right, you know? Or something. So after many months I stumbled on an earlier mix of Baghon Main, and there it said, bird under water.
I had been thinking about flight, the sky, the deep sea, free diving. In the music, and how I arranged it, I tried so hard to merge the styles of thumri and contemporary modern music in a way that they didn’t sound like cheesy world fusion. In fact, they (the songs) become a new thing, something unusual that doesn’t always take place but can actually happen. There are birds that literally fly, flap their wings and everything – under water!
So, it seemed like a simple title that explains all that.
You’ve chosen a road less travelled. As a Pakistani woman clearly, but also as a musician who is determined – and thus far successful – to establish your reputation in the West, rather than in Pakistan. Why have you chosen that route, that is not making it in Pakistan first where one assumes there would be a larger audience?
It just sort of happened. I came to the United States to study music, and I slowly and surely built my world here. I love the access I have to musicians and opportunities, the freedom of space here allows me to be inspired and create work without worrying about anything else. The musician community here is also a warm, open and generous one. We all hold each other, and grow together, and are excited and inspired by each other’s progress and successes.
In one interview you seemed to diss Coke Studio by saying “I don’t do pop.” Quite an iconoclastic view! Especially since Coke Studio has done so much to define the sort of music you seem to perform – “neo-Sufi’.
I think I said that I don’t drink soda! Coca Cola as a company has done some very shady and terrible things to farmers in India and Pakistan in the past. So I don’t support them at all. Having said that, I am very supportive of what they were able to get started in Pakistan, musically. The set up is still very male-dominated and power-driven… so it’s not the kind of environment I am comfortable creating music in.