After winning a Grammy, Arooj Aftab brings his ‘sexy and sad’ songs to Minneapolis
It’s an old song – one Arooj Aftab heard so much growing up that she must have gone two years without hearing it.
Because his “Mohabbat” there is no cover.
“I was like, man, this poetry is so deep,” the Brooklyn-based, Pakistani-raised musician said. “I want to make a melodic version that is absolutely different from the previous ones.”
Her voice is rich, her syllables long as she sings the famous ghazal, a poetic form of loss and longing. Aftab leans into the playfulness of the text before a synth groans and his own voice drops.
It’s sexy, current – an entirely new thing.
On Sunday, the song won a Grammy Award for Best Performance in World Music, making Aftab the first Pakistani to win a Grammy. This weekend, she will play it in Minneapolis, at a sold-out Liquid Music show at the Parkway Theater.
In a Zoom chat before leaving for Las Vegas, Aftab opened up about the loss that shaped her haunting and healing 2021 album, “Vulture Prince,” a record that — as she said in her acceptance speech Sunday — is “about everything that broke me and putting me back together.”
Singing primarily in Urdu, Aftab, 37, is an amalgamation of influences and heritages, a jazz conservatory graduate and composer with an ear for both ancient poetry and today’s vibes.
She chose “Mohabbat” not only because of its nostalgia, but also because of its humor. The speaker promises someone that he will have plenty of lovers, therefore plenty of admirers — “but I won’t be one of them.”
“It’s so funny,” Aftab said with a laugh. “It’s a [expletive]you break up song. And the humor doesn’t really show up in the other versions.”
old and new
The name of the album came first.
Aftab had thought of vultures. Maybe because she had re-watched “Jungle Book,” the 1967 Disney animated film. Or maybe because she had thought about their role in ancient mythologies.
Either way, one thread led to the next leading to Zoroastrian burial rituals, in which the dead, left in the Tower of Silence, would be eaten by vultures, fueling life.
“It’s so hardcore and both amazing and incredibly beautiful,” Aftab said, clenching his fist. “I was just like, man, this bird is badass.”
She began to imagine a charming royal, a slick operator, a dark and androgynous prince. “When I put ‘vulture’ and ‘prince’ together, it fell into place.”
The title of her third album informed the music, which she described, simply, as “sexy, sad”.
Like Aftab, this music sounds old and new, academic and pop.
She sat with the most formal poems, some from the 12th and 17th centuries, for a decade or more before setting them to music. She internalized the language until it became familiar to her, until it came out of the language.
Aftab also sings in English, on a reggae rhythm, on “Night”, a track from “Vulture Prince” which plays with a Rumi poem.
“I slowly bridged the gap to not feel like a different person” when singing in English, Aftab said. It’s kind of like how musicians can become a different version of themselves when they play, she said. “It’s also something that, as an artist, I had to work on to unify a bit, to make it more truthful.”
She often arrives on stage in dark hues, her eyes outlined in black, her honeycomb hair – a “sad crow vibe”, she calls it.
A year of loss
In 2018, her brother and a close friend passed away and the music went dark.
Much of “Vulture Prince” was already taking shape, but Aftab made two substitutions. The first was a not quite ready song she had shown her little brother before he died. (“I wanted to crystallize or immortalize that last musical interaction.”) The second was “Saans Lo,” based on a poem that friend Annie Ali Khan had written. (“I was reading our email exchanges and found out she sent me a poem saying, ‘Hey, you should write music for this someday.'”)
She had planned to add more percussion to “Vulture Prince”, to produce it a little more.
But “I was just like, ‘I can’t do this.’ I didn’t have the emotional toughness or the mental clarity to flesh this stuff out the way I wanted to. In the end, it’s pretty awesome because with recording sometimes you overproduce things.
The music that remained “sounded more subtle and soft and a bit tender”.
While “Vulture Prince” is seductive and airy, the next album Aftab is building feels strong and grounded, she said, “I thought a lot about the woods and the forest.”
As a composer who doesn’t play an instrument, she relies on such images – and a bit of telepathy – to achieve the sounds she has imagined.
His “own thing”
Born in Saudi Arabia to Pakistani parents, Aftab moved to Pakistan’s second largest city, Lahore, at age 11. She listened to a mix of music, from the great qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Jeff Buckley, writing her own songs. .
Like a teenager, his cover of Buckley’s Leonard Cohen cover, “Hallelujah”, went viral in Pakistan.
She moved to the United States to attend Berklee College of Music and upon graduation became part of New York’s jazz and new music scenes.
Ten years ago, Aftab played a “small but impactful” role at a Liquid Music show in St. Paul, performing the latest song from Jace Clayton’s Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner.
“There was a beautiful dreamlike quality to the way she performed the piece, and I’ve followed her work ever since,” Liquid Music artistic director Kate Nordstrum said.
“Arooj is a visionary. … Her music expresses a desire that is both specific to her and universally understood.”
When Aftab released their first record in 2015, fusing Qawwali music with atmospheric jazz, “no one had heard anything like it,” Aftab said, “and purists and traditionalists were like, ‘What what it is?'”
She’s become adept at spotting them: “They might be older, they might be brown, they’re male most of the time. And they come to explain some [crap] about your own thing and that it’s not OK.”
But “Vulture Prince” won over even the most traditional traditionalists.
Aftab does not raise anything. Although critics sometimes describe her music as Sufi, a tradition popularized by poets like Rumi, she avoids this label. Although his music is often minimal and cyclical, it is neither traditional nor devotional, at least not in the strict sense.
In respect of what preceded it, it shapes something new.
“Tonight we celebrated music as a collective,” she posted after the Grammys on Instagram, “unabashedly doing what we want to do, in all its genderless, limitless crossover glory.”
When: 7:00 p.m. Sun.
Where: Parkway Theater, 4814 Chicago Av. S., MPs.
Tickets: sold out.