Arooj Aftab

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Pakistani singer, composer, and producer Arooj Aftab creates a captivating blend of neo-Sufi, classical minimalism, jazz, electronic music, and other disparate styles. As a teenager in the early 2000s, she played a significant role in helping to develop her country’s independent music movement, then moved to New York City, where she became active as a film composer at the end of the decade. Throughout the 2010s, Aftab’s broad stylistic mix was reflected in her performances, which ranged from major venues like New York’s Lincoln Center and Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt to smaller jazz and indie rock clubs. Her choice of collaborators is similarly diverse and includes names like Esperanza Spalding, DJ /rupture, and Vijay Iyer. Her first two albums, 2014′s Bird Under Water and 2018′s Siren Islands, earned critical acclaim and in 2022, Aftab became the first-ever Pakistani artist to win a Grammy Award when the song “Mohabbat,” from her third album Vulture Prince, took home the prize for Best Global Music Performance. She then collaborated with Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily for the 2023 full-length Love in Exile.
Aftab was born in Saudi Arabia, where her parents had emigrated. When she was ten, they moved back to Lahore, Pakistan, where she began to develop her interest in music. A self-taught singer and guitarist, her early influences ranged from western pop and jazz (Jeff Buckley, Billie Holiday, Mariah Carey) to Pakistani and North Indian classical music. With little access to western online platforms, Aftab’s Internet savvy helped her become something of a rising star at home, where she enjoyed viral success in Pakistan’s fledgling indie music scene.
In 2005, she moved to the U.S. and studied a combination of music production and engineering and jazz composition at Boston’s famed Berklee College of Music. After graduating, Aftab relocated to New York and became active in the city’s jazz and new music scenes while composing for and editing films.
By the early 2010s, Aftab’s unusual blend of Sufi poetry, South Asian classical traditions, electronic music, and jazz had garnered critical praise from major sources like NPR and The New York Times. She self-released her first album, the ethereal Bird Under Water, in 2015, then signed with avant-garde label New Amsterdam Records, which issued her follow-up, Siren Islands, in 2018. In between the two, she continued to work in film, singing and composing on various soundtracks to Pakistani films, even winning an Emmy Award for her editing work on the 2017 documentary Armed with Faith. Aftab entered the gaming realm as well, composing the music and sound design for Eggnut Games’ Backbone video game.
Released in 2021, her third album, Vulture Prince, became her highest-profile release yet, earning widespread acclaim and topping numerous critics’ year-end lists. The transcendent “Mohabbat” was the album’s breakout star, earning enthusiastic praise and a playlist spot from Barack Obama; it won the 2022 Grammy Award for Best Global Music Performance. The album’s deluxe edition, issued by Verve, included the Anoushka Shankar collaboration “Udhero Na.” Love in Exile, an album of lengthy chamber jazz pieces recorded with Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily, was released to similar acclaim in 2023. ~ Timothy Monger