There was definitely a sense of suspension of linear time during the intimate Nowruz musical celebration at Zora’s Art Space by Arooj Aftab. What greater tribute can one offer Sufi music?
Accompanied by the incredibly talented Sunny Singh on the trumpet and Bhrigu Sahni on the guitar and performers Keita Ogawa and Magda Giannikou, Arooj’s unique and experimental rendition of the Sufiana Kalaam was refreshing. From the haunting lyrics of her self- composed melancholic opening piece ‘Udhero Na’ to the magic of the classic ghazal ‘Baaghon Mein Pade Jhoole, Tum Bhoolenge Humko’ her style defies traditional genres. Even the final performance of the evening, ‘Man Kunto Maula’, an ode to mentor Abida Parveen, there was no attempt to imitate the greats. Her young soothing and layered voice is sure to be molded further over time promising to be a force to reckon with. Read on for an interview with Arooj .
EGO: Arooj tell EGO about when you fell in love with Sufi music?
I was Music President Lahore Grammar School, and one of the things I did (in office!) was to organize the first (and last) Millad at the school. Im not sure I fully knew what I was doing… but we threw down plain sheets on the grass, stopped classes for about 2 hours in the middle of the day… invited teachers and students of all ages to prepare and share their favorite pieces… lit incense and scattered red rose petals. By the end of it everyone was sitting together under a calm spell. I remember thinking it was like a Muslim funeral, plus 300 women dressed in white singing beautiful acapella songs of love and praise to the sky.
I was still very young and untrained in how to approach my singing voice, but had been rehearsing a poem for the event. Somewhere in the middle of the recitation, as I repeated the title phrase ‘na tera khuda koi aur hai, na mera khuda koi aur hai,’ my throat opened, and my voice started to fly… and then I was flying. It was only for a few seconds… when I returned to earth, I saw some were smiling, some had their eyes closed, some were crying. By the end of the evening everyone was so peaceful, hugging and smiling, eyes shining. This was one of the first moments I felt moved by Light. And so the journey began.
EGO: How have the last few years in the West influenced your music?
Music is a gift and a powerful ability, but to really make it your own, you have to obtain the knowledge and skill to channel it, shape it, share it as a fluid language, and innovate further. Moving West to study music and practice professionally definitely gave me the tools to identify my music in more ways than just by ear. I also gained a wider understanding of different musical genres… how to adapt and integrate them has come from being here and being exposed to musicians from all over. To be current you have to be out there, and the scene in New York is really very alive, diverse and inspiring.
EGO: When did you form your band? What inspired you to make music together?
I have had many different bands over the years. Berklee was amazing because there was a crazy community of musicians always willing and ready to jam! I met a Greek Jazz/Classical guitar player Stelios Michas in my first year at Berklee. We started to arrange and write my material together and continued for about 4 years. Together, we collaborated with many incredible internationally acclaimed musicians such as Keita Ogawa, Engin Gunaydin, Bernat Guardia Arenas, etc. Stelios graduated before me and moved to NY, after which I started working with a dear friend at Berklee, an exceptionally talented acoustic guitar player from India, Bhrigu Sahni. I really wanted to start pursuing a darker, more open and experimental classical sound, and his style matched mine very well. We now perform as a quartet with percussion player/ sound scape artist Jorn Bielfeldt and upright bassist Mario Carillo. I also perform as a voice/acoustic guitar duo with Stelios at NYC venues, and we are all constantly joined by guest performers and friends at different shows.
EGO: Are you flirting with any new songs? Do you have any upcoming shows you’d like to share with EGO readers?
Yes!! I’m not supposed to say anything about the absolutely new songs, but do dust off your Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali albums, I’m preparing some new renditions of his work that will hopefully be received with love. Bhrigu and I recently performed at Zora’s Art Space in Gowanus, Brooklyn with an amazing line up of musicians including Sonny Singh Brooklynwala from Red Baraat, Magda Giannikou from NYC World Jazz Trio Banda Magda, and Keita Ogawa. For news about upcoming shows you can check my facebook fan page and also the websitewww.aroojaftabmusic.com
EGO: If you were invited to compose a song with your dream singer who would it be and why?
The singers who are my Saints – like Reshma, Begum Akhtar, Abida Parveen, Bade Ghulam Ali – I could never imagine singing beside them even in a minor capacity. It does however excite me very much to imagine performing with incredible peers like Esperanza Spalding, Shani (a rasta guitar player from Islamabad), Marisa Monte, Bjork! Sanam Marvi, to name a few.
EGO: What do you think about the current music scene in Pakistan? Has it changed since you left for college?
I actually haven’t been home for more than 3 years now! So I’m not current with the scene. It seems like good things are happening though… Coke Studio was fantastic, and now I see more clever musical ideas like Uth Records being corporate sponsored. It’s a bit bizarre, but we are struggling and are for sure making good progress… considering the state of economic and political affairs, natural disaster and unrest in the country! Jevay Pyaara Pakistan
EGO: I’ve read that you’re passionate about social and political issues. Has your work prioritized any specific issue?
Soon after the floods, I started a project called ‘ReBuild Pakistan’, which is basically a branding of music, videos and live shows to promote a vision of peace and healing for Pakistan. My hope is that the branding will send a subliminal message – for a global community to rebuild perspective on Pakistan, and for the people of Pakistan to actively engage in rebuilding our homeland. Beyond this, I participate/ make my voice heard within political and social movements against inhumanity and injustice, violence towards women, any form of extremism, racism, people who dont use a lota, etc.
EGO: Any advice for aspiring musicians?
Focus and organization are key, as is curiosity, openness towards new ideas. Music evolves everyday; being a musician is a long, beautiful, and rewarding journey.
For more info about arooj aftab, please visit www.aroojaftabmusic.com