On Mysticism and Collaboration, with Arooj Aftab
Brooklyn-based artist Arooj Aftab creates soulful, mellow tunes that meld her penchant for Sufi poetry and the rhythmic, improvisational core of jazz. In advance of her performance at Lincoln Center Out of Doors on August 7, 2019, I sat down with Aftab to discuss her musical trajectory.
Rabia Ashfaque: The first song I heard of yours was a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" back in Pakistan in the early 2000s. When did you start thinking of music as a career?
Arooj Aftab: I think it was around that time. I had finished A-Levels. I had been teaching myself the guitar, singing. And then when it came to getting serious and applying to colleges, I was thinking about Berklee. The fact that it ["Hallelujah"] went viral gave me the confidence of knowing that this is actually not just in my head. I am good. I can pursue music. And I should.
RA: Growing up in Lahore, what were your musical influences?
AA: I had really musically inclined parents and friends. They loved music, so I had a lot of different influences, from Mohammad Rafi to Abida Perveen and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. A lot of [Eastern] classical music. They loved going to the All Pakistan Music Conference. They had assimilated music into their lives, so, those were my influences. And then, as a teen, I was also listening to what everybody else was listening to, the pop and the rock kind of stuff.
RA: How did this evolve into the kind of music that you make now?
AA: I think it's taken a long time. Like any sort of creative journey, it's constantly building. Taking those influences, going to Berklee, studying jazz, composition, training my ear, learning theory, conducting Western classical music. [Berklee] had a large body of international students and [exposure to] music from all over the world. Living in a place like Lahore back in the 2000s, where there isn't a lot of tourism, and people don't come and do shows—it was sort of insular in many ways. I wasn't really, fully exposed to anything except for metal, classic rock, pop, a little bit of jazz, and Pakistani classical music. Over time, it's just been slow and steady, finding your voice, finding what you like, putting it together, experimenting, collaborating.
RA: You've done a lot of diverse collaborative projects, engaging with different forms and varying concerns. Why is that so important to you?
AA: I've always approached music in that way. I think it really gives life to the music that I write, and the music that I like to perform. And it attracts these opportunities where, yeah, I don't fit into a well-established genre, but at the same time, I love that because then I can perform in a museum space, or at this more institutionalized music venue like the Lincoln Center, or I could be commissioned to do a piece for a walking tour, or write an opera. There are these beauties to kind of leaving it open like that.
"Sometimes, someone calls this 'Islamic music,' or writes about me as this woman who came from Pakistan against the odds. I've been living here for 15 years. I'm my own person and you don't need to enflame my background. Focus on the music."
RA: A lot has been said about neo-Sufism in relation with your music. How do you describe your music?
AA: I think by now it's kind of in a post-jazz, post-minimalist realm. I started calling this music neo-Sufi about two or three years ago. Some of these [poetic] texts have this sense of calmness, this obsession with love, the departure, the waiting—to me that's very Sufi. Now, I've started using a lot of analog synthesizers, going into this more analog-synth universe of a sort of drone music, and really studying post-minimalist composers and looking at their work. So now this neo-Sufi thing is changing, too, and it's becoming more like ambient dreamscape.
RA: What is the significance of the lyrics to you?
AA: To me, they're very important. But how the music holds the words is equally important. Where I live, amongst the audiences that I perform to, some people will understand the words. Some people's parents used to speak Urdu. Some people are Iranian, so they understand less, but it's still within the realm of Urdu, Farsi, etc. And then there's just a whole bunch of people who don't speak the language at all. If you care about the fact that the music should reach people and move people the way you want it to, then the instrumentation is really important. But to me, the words are important because they drive the inspiration. They drive how I want the music to be played; its harmonic structure is really, at its core, extremely tied to the melody. The words inform the melody.
RA: Your music weaves in and out of different eras and geographies. Are the socio-political issues of our time a concern in your music?
AA: For the most part, the process behind writing stays romantic. But the themes are nostalgia, feminism. Begum Akhtar and Abida Perveen are two of my biggest influences. There's a lot of female empowerment stuff that comes in just naturally, and a sort of reverence for these women, and the way that they delivered this poetry is inspiring. It's strong, it's so powerful. But I also have this thing about not being boxed in. It's been a struggle from the beginning to just be like [my music] is not world music, not Indian music. Sometimes, someone calls this "Islamic music," or writes about me as this woman who came from Pakistan against the odds. I've been living here for 15 years. I'm my own person and you don't need to enflame my background. Focus on the music. Deconstruct the music a little bit, because it's complex and thoughtful, not just some techno beat [to which] I'm just "aaaaaaa-ing" (laughs). In my ensembles, there's no tabla player or harmonium player. I've replaced that with other unique and interesting percussion, even though a lot of times, the rhythmic ideas come from more traditional styles. But we don't use the same instruments, because we are asking for people to understand our work beyond just the tropes. My ensemble and I have actively worked to step away from your general representation of what a South Asian singer or band performing in New York looks like, or what space they occupy.
RA: What are you working on now?
AA: I'm working on my third album, Vulture Prince, which is edgier than Bird Under Water. It feels dark, ancient, definitely a little more driving. I'll be playing some of the new material at Lincoln Center.
Rabia Ashfaque is the Operations Manager, Guided Tours, at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. She also writes on arts and politics for several publications, including BOMB Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, and Degree Critical.