New York-based Arooj Aftab is the first ever Pakistani woman to receive a Grammy nomination. She has received two, in fact: One in the Best New Artist category for her album, Vulture Prince, and another in the Best Global Performance category for her song Mohabbat, from the same album. As we anticipate the event on April 2nd, it’s a great time to get hooked to Aftab. If you’ve never heard her music, you should get to it, stat.
Begin with her latest record. Vulture Prince is a melancholy, mellifluous exploration of love, longing and loss, which she created in memory of her brother who passed a few years ago.
Aftab is phenomenal in her treatment of age old South Asian styles, rooted in Sufi and Ghazal traditions yet making them her own. Her voice is tremendous, having an airy quality, as clear as a flute and as deep as the poetry she draws from. Rumi, Ghalib, and the lyrics of Urdu ghazals all make it into her work.
Here’s why she is a must-listen:
- She is an autodidact. Growing up, Aftab didn’t have the kind of access to Western online music platforms young musicians enjoy today, but her family were all lovers of music. So, as a young teen, she taught herself to play guitar and picked up her singing style while listening to the likes of Billie Holiday and Mariah Carey as well as the South Asian greats like Hariprasad Chaurasia and Zakir Hussain.
- She basically launched Pakistan’s indie music scene by sharing her music via the internet in the late nineties and early oughties. According to writer Sadia Shiraz, she was already a subcultural sensation before she left for Berklee. Just imagine, she’d shared songs were shared through email, then found their way to online forums where they inspired the musicians among its listeners in a time when the internet wasn’t what it is today.
- Her music is essentially South Asian: drawing together the rich heritage of Hindustani classical music, Sufi and ghazal traditions threaded with jazz, folk, and minimalist music while singing in Urdu. Aftab grew up in Saudi Arabia and Lahore, in a family that encouraged a love for music. Pakistan is home to some of the finest musicians in the Sufi, Ghazal, Qawwali and Thumri style. That, coupled with higher education in jazz composition at Boston’s Berklee School has led to her unique sound. In the words of Shiraz, Aftab “…relocates these musical styles…into its diaspora, fusing them with genres such as jazz, samba, and reggae to forge her own sound world.”
- This isn’t her first Grammy nom. Last year, she picked up her first Latin Grammy in the best rap/hip hop category for contributing to Residente’s [Antes Que El Mundo Se Acabe] Before the World Ends as a backing vocalist. Her nomination is notable because most of the awards South Asian musicians nominees and winners have fallen in the World Music or New Age category but not in the Best New Artist. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the first ever Pakistani individual to get a Grammy nomination, got it in the Traditional Folk album category.