Five months ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Arooj Aftab, a musician who came from Pakistan to study at Berklee College of Music. I first saw Arooj perform August 2011, at Unification in NYC, where she quickly won over the crowd with her haunting Urdu vocals. After Unification, I went back home and started listening to Arooj’s music. Disclaimer: It’s addictive. One frigid fall night, standing outside her Brooklyn apartment, Arooj, one of NPR’s 100 Top Composers Under 40, shared the story of her musical journey with me via phone.
When did you know that you wanted to sing? After I finished school at Lahore, I started college, but it just didn’t feel right. I had a strange feeling that there had to be something more exciting to do in life. I had always loved music, because of my parents’ love for music and because of the music culture in Lahore. But there were no musical schools in Pakistan, which was kind of annoying.
Now your parents must be pretty cool, to let you come to America and pursue your music. Was there ever a “No beta, don’t do this” moment? It’s such a stereotypically unstable profession. So they always have a “Oh god, why did we let you do this” attitude. But I think secretly they’re excited because they both have great voices themselves and a love for music. In 2003, I made my dad sit down and listen to a cover I did of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and he became really quiet. That was when he started to take my music seriously.
How much of a music foundation did you have in Pakistan and how was that supplemented in Berklee? I didn’t really have much of a chance to study music in Pakistan. I would love to set aside three or four years to go back home to Pakistan and get some classical training, but I haven’t been able to do that. I have gone back and apprenticed with local Lahori singers. It’s quite hard, they’re very traditional. It all depends on who exactly is teaching you music. Styles vary from teacher to teacher. Whereas over here, it’s very straightforward and standard. You learn European music theory. You learn jazz arrangements. You learn orchestral arrangements. They give you all the information and tell you, “Do what you want to do with it.” Over there it’s much more fluid.
Were you a musical child? My father would have a musical teacher and instrumentalists come by on the weekends for fun and I would be glued to him. Then they would host these musharas for their friends and I loved them. Musharas go on until four or five in the morning. I would be fully focused and I would listen very carefully. All the other kids would be running around and crying.
They tell me I was also fascinated by the tabla, but my parents discouraged me, saying, “If women play the tabla, then their wrists break.” I had a similar moment in college where I wanted to switch from vocals to a drumset and my parents said, “Beta, why can’t you play something graceful like the piano!”
Which musicians influence the music you compose and sing you? People like Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Mehdi Hussin. Beghum Akhtar. Super classical people. And of course Ella Fitzgerald, Erykah Badu, Billie Holiday. Also an amazing composer is Meshell Ndegeocello, who has just funky, deep grooves. Her voice is so rich and moving. Her compositions are really dark, melancholic and slow. She’s amazing.
Tell us about your band and how you chose the instruments? I put out an album in 2006 featuring six songs that I had recorded while I was at Berklee. I put them out on the Internet with the world being the test audience. It was just intelligent pop, featuring an acoustic guitar player, an upright bass player and a percussionist. It also had a little bit of jazz, rock and some flamenco.
Recently, I’ve been switching instruments around, for instance, we have a Turkish percussion player. We also utilize an Arab instrument called the kanoon, kind of a sit-down harp thing. Also horn. I hope to arrive at a sound that is world music, but not Starbucks café world music. I’m tired of this exoticized South Asian music. There’s so much music like that. It’s so annoying. It has this exoticized vibe in the way that they treat female vocals. It features the same few chords over and over again. It makes me crazy. Over here, just walking around being a South Asian musician, they will just immediately slap that on you. Before they hear you sing or hear your music, they will assume you’re that same exoticized music. That you’re that sound.
What’s it like playing with an all-male band? There have been some really difficult moments. When the leader of the band is female, it’s really important that she be a very strong instrumentalist. Otherwise, people just think, “The diva has arrived.” It’s surprising to me that even being around really well-informed musicians, vocalists – especially females – are still belittled. There’s always that initial struggle. “I’m not going to write it for you, I’m not going to play for you.” As musicians, we should all be able to communicate with each other with respect and grace.
I have learned that you can’t just hand out charts and say “Play these notes.” That produces a forced, synthetic sound. You have to invite people that you love and respect to come with you to a space and create sound that is super organic and alive. The people I work with now, I really respect.
Tell me about Rebuild Pakistan? My band and I did a three week live installation with Sonny Singh and many other amazing artists. We holed up in a house in Brooklyn and came together in solidarity for Pakistan to record. The result was magical.