“I wanted to make music that I wanted, that I hadn’t really found, that I wanted to hear,” singer Arooj Aftab told DW. However, making the kind of music she wanted to hear required musical tools and a vocabulary that she lacked as a youngster in Lahore, where music wasn’t much of a career option for most.
To make matters worse, she felt she didn’t fit in. . Not being able to imagine freely or be yourself is not healthy, and it’s like death for an artist,” Aftab said.
Arooj Aftab challenges the duality of identity: the Pakistani expat in the US sees identity as something complex and nuanced
She did, however, have the power of the internet at her fingertips: At the age of 18 in the early 2000s, she recorded a raucous jazz cover of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah.” His cover has been widely shared via file sharing sites like Napster, MySpace and Limewire.
The song went viral in Lahore and most importantly gave Aftab confidence in his voice and expression. This success encouraged her to take out a student loan and apply to Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she was accepted.
Since then, Aftab has learned the tools of the trade, becoming a composer and music producer in addition to a US-based singer. She can completely transform pre-existing songs into complex new pieces with their own unique character.
Yet her music doesn’t just rehash old numbers, she says. “I get irritated when my music is called a ‘cover’, because that’s not it. When you return something, especially if it’s so old it’s almost public domain, you take its root but build something original, something new and not done before; it’s in the moment,” she stresses.
After studying music in Boston, Aftab found another home in New York
Building a sense of belonging is important to Aftab’s music because of its transnational quality. His music doesn’t quite feel Pakistani or Western. It transcends duality, encouraging the listener to imagine a new place: that of inclusion.
“This generation is really bold and asks for things, they want equality,” she said, adding that young people no longer want to be confined to fixed categories. “For years Asian artists were pushed aside – but now there is an emerging space, opening up the world to more beautiful things, which have always existed but were not known,” says Aftab.
Urdu is “magnificent”
Aftab’s third album, “Vulture Prince”, features his most commercially acclaimed rendition of legendary Pakistani ghazal singer Mehdi Hassan’s song, “Mohabbat” (“love” in Urdu).
Arooj Aftab, here in New York, thinks Urdu is “a beautiful language”
The ghazal is a musical rendition of verses that poetically address the trials and tribulations of love. Arooj’s rendition of the song won him the 2022 Grammy for Best Worldwide Musical Performance. It had also earned him a spot on former US President Barack Obama’s summer 2021 playlist. Now Arooj and “Mohabbat” are as good as mainstream.
The artist is committed to singing in Urdu, because she thinks it is “a very beautiful and a good language to sing. I can do the things I want to do with my voice, vowels. Poetry is nostalgic , playful, light, but also haunting,” says Aftab.
As a composer and producer, Aftab understands the intricacies of music and puts a lot of thought into “the amalgamation of sounds and instruments that weave an intricate web”.
Bringing together disparate and diverse instruments helps open his music to a wider audience. “Anyone listening can hopefully hear something they identify with or love, like jazz or pop. For people who understand Urdu or Hindi, it’s like a secret to them,” says Aftab.
Trying to fit in
In 1997, her compatriot, the famous Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, was nominated for two Grammys, but did not win.
Arooj Aftab at the Grammys in April 2022
To her credit, Aftab is the first Pakistani woman to win a Grammy. Now that she has won music’s highest honour, she has received accolades for her hard work at home as well.
“My family loves music and are pretty liberal, but they didn’t understand what I was trying to do. It’s kind of sad that it took winning a Grammy for some people to finally think that what I’ve been doing since so many years was worth it,” she shares candidly.
However, after returning to Pakistan following the Grammy win, Aftab realized how the city of Lahore offered more space and acceptance for up-and-coming musicians.
Currently, Aftab’s is filming “Vulture Prince” in Europe and the United States, and she is returning to Germany after nearly seven years of performing. She has a concert on August 18 in Cologne alongside other shows in Berlin and Hamburg later in the month.
“German audiences are truly awesome. They really listen so carefully with respect and integrity, because they are one of the societies that are privileged to have the resources, the time and the energy to enjoy music and build a thriving industry” , she says.
Edited by: Manasi Gopalakrishnan and Louisa Schaefer
This article has been updated to clarify the tour location and dates.