Arooj Aftab was born in Saudi Arabia to Pakistani parents. She taught herself guitar and became a viral sensation in Pakistan, an early adopter of the internet with hits ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Mera Pyaar’. She moved to the US at the age of 19 and studied at Boston’s Berklee College of Music.
Vulture Prince, her third studio album, is the standout moment in a fledgling career. Barack Obama featured one of its tracks on his annual playlist, and she became the first Pakistani musician to win a Grammy.
Her discography is a little confusing to date – debut Bird Under Water and Vulture Prince form the core of her discography, mixing elegant folk and jazz arrangements with Ghazal music of South Asia, spiritual and emotional. On the other hand, 2018’s Siren Islands is ambient soundscapes while 2023’s Love in Exile is an improvised collaboration with two jazz musicians.
Arooj Aftab Album Reviews
Bird Under Water | Siren Islands | Vulture Prince | Love in Exile (with Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily)
Bird Under Water
Bird Under Water is a mere half-hour – it’s listed as an EP in some places – but of all her records it’s closest in tone to the acclaimed Vulture Prince. She’s still developing her style – she’s talked in interviews about how she was using a conventional drum-kit on this record, something she’s avoided in subsequent records. She’s also developing her songwriting – I don’t find these songs as memorable as her later work, maybe explaining why this gorgeous-sounding record has remained under the radar.
Aftab’s vocals are typically beautiful on the opening ‘Man Kunto Maula’. She already has a flair for unusual arrangements – the sitar on ‘Aey Na Balam’ fills out the song beautifully.
Bird Under Water is a promising debut, a test run for the successful Vulture Prince.
Aftab also dabbles in soundtracks for films and video games. Siren Islands fits more into that side of Aftab’s discography – she describes it as a “detour album”. She also told Atwood Magazine that “she got bit by the analog synth bug and arpeggios. I wanted to see if I could make music that isn’t some pretentious new age thing.” It’s essentially ambient soundscapes, with Aftab playing all the instruments herself – she vocalises and plays synth and electric guitar. It’s a weird album on headphones as all of the action is happening in one channel.
Siren Islands is pretty, but if you enjoyed Vulture Prince and are looking for similar work from Aftab, Bird Under Water should probably be your next port of call.
It seems at this point in musical history that every possible style has been tried, but Vulture Prince sounds fresh with its cross-pollination of western and Pakistani sounds. There’s jazz in Aftab’s vocal style – she was influenced by Billie Holiday. But her musical backing has elements of Hindustani classical and minimalism – she’s backed by gorgeous guitar, harp, strings, and subtle ambient electronics.
The album pacing is helped by placing a notably different track at the midway point – ‘Last Night’ is in English and has a dub flavour. It feels like an island of familiarity in an exotic sea. Elsewhere, Vulture Prince is gorgeous – the minimalism of ‘Mohabbat’ is stunning, and there’s a lovely violin solo on ‘Baghon Main’.
Vulture Prince is immersive and gorgeous – it’s lovely to see something so original gaining a wider audience.
Love in Exile
On Love in Exile, Aftab collaborates with two other musicians from diverse spheres. Jazz pianist Vijay Iyer is on the ECM label, while Shahzad Ismaily has a wide-ranging portfolio, playing bass with Trey Spruance in Secret Chiefs 3, producing, and dabbling in ambient music.
Together the three have created a 7-track, 75-minute album. It’s improvised, although the trio prefer to call it co-constructed. They’ve played together as a trio a few times over the years – their first performance was in 2018 – but they entered the studio for Love in Exile without pre-planned ideas.
Aftab’s soulful singing, her biggest drawcard, is only featured sparingly – she told grammy.com that she’s not there 90% of the time. If you’re checking out this record because of Aftab’s involvement, you may wish to stick to her solo records. I enjoy Iyer and Ismaily’s interplay and pretty noodling, but it’s largely like a jazz record where a star vocalist happens to drop in occasionally.
Love in Exile is pretty, but it’s more a pleasant diversion than a fully-fledged masterpiece.
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