Formally studying music at Berklee College, MA, Arooj is a talented artist with ambitious plans to bring formal music education to Pakistan – in addition to producing her own albums along the way. The inspiring twist to Arooj’s story isn’t just that she’s a Pakistani woman who has decided to make music a career, but that she has lofty plans of educating more Pakistanis, in a formal way, about music. And after meeting all these young musicians, many of whom have already put Pakistan on the map in a positive way, we only have the highest hopes for our nation forming a cultural bridge with the rest of the world. There are very few people who would say it isn’t necessary to have such a bridge, and it is exactly those people we need to get out of the mix by building a counter-force to their high nuisance, low-value opinion!
We wish Arooj the very best in her career and hope that she can be an inspiration for many others!
How would you introduce yourself to our readers?
I was born in Saudi Arabia and spent a few years of my childhood there. My family then moved to Lahore and I completed my O Levels from the Convent of Jesus and Mary. From there, I completed my A Levels from Lahore Grammar School (DHA). Before starting college I took a year off and applied for a scholarship program at Berklee’s online extension school (www.berkleemusic.com). This is where I won the Steve Vai Scholarship and thus spent the year studying with Berklee Music online. I am now 20 years old, and living in Boston. I am pursuing an undergraduate degree in Professional Music based on Core Music Theory, Music Education and Music Production/Engineering.
You are the first female musician from Pakistan to pursue formal education in music – how did this all come about and what did it take to be where you are today?
I was a student of finance up until I applied for college. I had known about Berklee College of Music since I was 14 years old through searching the internet for music schools because I was curious about music education and professional degrees in music. When applying to college, I felt detached from my future career choice. I’d been pursuing accounting so far, but it felt off beam to be investing so much time and money into something that brought me no happiness. Clichéd as it might sound now, I decided to be true to my heart, and mustered the confidence to talk to my parents about Berklee College as a possibility. It took months of persuasion and reasoning on my part before I could have them understand just how important music was to me and what exactly my goals were.
I got the Steve Vai Grant scholarship for Berklee Music Online, their online external school. I am currently doing my undergraduate degree on the BEST (Berklee Entering Student Test) Scholarship, and am required to finance the rest.
Arooj performing with her friends at Berklee
How would you describe the study of music to a person who doesn’t know what it means to study music?
People seem to think that formal music education restricts creativity, and is unnecessary. But, like any other education, music education builds structure and discipline in musicianship. Core Music Theory is universal and applies to all kinds of music. During my first semester I was enrolled in a course called “Perfection Skills for the Background Vocalist.” My first reaction was thinking that I had scored low on my vocal skills auditions and so they gave me a background vocals class. But I realized later that in order to be an excellent vocalist, you need to be able to understand and respect every aspect of a vocalist’s role. Similarly, in arranging class, we compose and notate cello pieces, drum patterns and bass lines. The interpretation and understanding of different instruments and how they come together musically is priceless knowledge for a musician. Ear training builds the ability to hear notes, progressions and scales in music. It makes composing easier and faster. These elements and more come together to create an inclusive, well- rounded musician. Berklee is giving me the education, experience, overall musicianship and confidence that I will need to pursue my plans for music education in Pakistan.
What are your personal academic goals; what are you aiming to get out of this undergrad in music?
To me, music has never been about recording albums and making videos. It holds the incredible power to motivate people and influence their thoughts. My primary goal is to bring formal music education to Pakistan. Along the way, I have plans to help bring about positive social change for women in Pakistan. We have let go too many years now without respect for women as professionals and especially professional musicians. Our basic human and social values seem to be crumbling as ‘codes’ of conduct continue to dictate what is proper and what is wrong. We have some learning and some unlearning to do, and I believe that music and musical motivation is an excellent medium to begin this change.
How did the guitar become your chosen instrument? What is special about it from your perspective?
There are a lot of instruments that I love besides the guitar. I have begun playing drums and piano. Here at music school we consider voice to be an instrument too. The guitar is one of the most used instruments in music. I guess I was more inclined to pick it up because I heard it in all the music I used to listen to at that time. The music that made me get up and actually go buy my first guitar was a piece from the soundtrack of City of Angels.
How many songs have you composed and what can you tell us about them?
Songs come and go really. I am extremely particular about lyrics and am not satisfied with any of my texts yet. It is an endless process of writing and rewriting. One of my songs is called Celebration of Life which focuses on optimism and the appreciation of things around us. With all the cynicism and negativity in this ‘world gone mad’, I feel positive energy needs to be touched upon and created where absent. Then there is ‘Walking-’ a song I wrote in grade 9. It won me the berklee scholarship. I re-recorded it at Meekal’s studio with Gumby on drums and bass and it was fun to see how it turned out eventually. It’s a mellow acoustic/alternative song. All of these can be listened to at www.aroojaftab.com
The album will probably take a few years. I’m learning so much at Berklee and I want to incorporate all of it into my music, so I feel waiting is crucial for me right now.
Have you done any shows and what kind of response did you get from the audience?
I did a show or two in school, and also performed live for City FM89’s birthday transmission. Performances make me nervous and I don’t want to do any until I know that I’m perfectly ready. In Pakistan, performance defines a musician. At music school I’ve learnt that some people are cut out for it and some just aren’t. Regardless of their playability. These are the small differences that I detect in how we view music under such tight scrutiny in Pakistan and how that too needs to change.
How do people in Pakistan regard your decision to study music as opposed to the typical fields like science or management?
I think that since Pakistan is a developing country it does make sense that education is currently centered around fields like engineering, medical science and management. Being a woman studying music has been difficult for me because people are not willing to do away with their stereotypes of ‘proper’ and ‘improper.’ The true value of Music has been misrepresented and never been properly defined in Pakistan. I feel that once my goals are realized, Insha Allah, we will be able to graduate into a more accepting and understanding environment for music in Pakistan.
How would you characterize the facilities available to young musicians like yourself for recording and promoting your music in Pakistan?
The good thing is that the music industry is small, and the country is pretty small too; so any appreciable talent is noticed and taken beneath the spotlight immediately. Recording studios are not efficient at all, though. The people running them are not professional recording technicians or even close to experts.
What are your future plans and where do you see yourself in say five years’ time as a musician? Do you see these plans transpiring in the US or back in Pakistan?
In five years inshAllah my degree should be completed. My album too should be concluded. Ideas regarding the music school should be transferring on to solid blueprints and I should be losing a lot of sleep trying to accomplish the vision of formal music education in my country!