On tour, Pakistan’s first Grammy winner pushes boundaries with her music

This year, Arooj Aftab became the first Pakistani artist to win a Grammy for her rendition of a famous ghazal by the legendary Mehdi Hassan. He spoke to DW about the challenges he faced along the way.

“I wanted to make music that I longed for, that I hadn’t really found, that I wanted to hear,” singer Arooj Aftab told DW. However, making the kind of music he wanted to hear required musical tools and a vocabulary that he lacked when he was young in Lahore, where music wasn’t really a career option for most.

To make matters worse, he felt like he didn’t fit in. “When I was growing up, I felt that dressing or looking different, thinking different, caused a lot of friction and made me feel like I wasn’t fully accepted. . Not being able to imagine freely or be yourself is not healthy, and it is like death for an artist,” said Aftab.

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However, he had the power of the Internet at his fingertips: At the tender age of 18 in the early 2000s, he recorded a stripped-down jazz version of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah.” Its cover was widely shared through file-sharing sites such as Napster, MySpace, and Limewire.

The song went viral in Lahore and most importantly gave Aftab confidence in his voice and expression. This success encouraged her to take out a student loan and apply to Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she was accepted.

Inclusive music

Aftab has since learned the tools of the trade, becoming a songwriter and music producer as well as a singer based in the US. It can completely transform pre-existing songs into new and complex pieces with their own unique character.

However, his music is not just about repeating old numbers, he says. “It irritates me when my music is called ‘cover,’ because it’s not that. When you render something, especially if it’s so old it’s almost in the public domain, you’re rooting but building something original, something that’s new. and not it had been done before, it’s in the now,” he emphasizes.

Building a sense of place is important to Aftab’s music because of its transnational quality. His music doesn’t seem very Pakistani or Western. It transcends duality, challenging the listener to imagine a new place: one of inclusion.

“This generation is really bold and demands things, they want equality”, he says, adding that young people now don’t want to be limited to fixed categories. “For years, Asian artists were left on the sidelines, but now there is an emerging space, opening the world to more beautiful things, which always existed but were not known,” says Aftab.

urdu is “beautiful”

Aftab’s third album “Vulture Prince” features his most commercially acclaimed rendition of legendary Pakistani ghazal singer Mehdi Hassan’s song “Mohabbat” (“love” in Urdu).

The ghazal is a musical rendition of couplets that relate poetically to the trials and tribulations of love. Arooj’s performance of the song won him the 2022 Grammy for Best Global Music Performance. It also earned her a spot on former US President Barack Obama’s 2021 summer playlist. Now, Arooj and ‘Mohabbat’ are as good as the mainstream.

The artist chooses to sing in Urdu, as he considers it a “very beautiful language and a good one for singing. I do the things I want to do with my voice, the vowels. The poetry is nostalgic, playful, light, but disturbing too,” says Aftab.

As a composer and producer, Aftab understands the intricacies of music and thinks a lot about “the fusion of sounds and instruments that weave a complex web.”

Bringing together disparate and diverse instruments helps open up your music to a wider audience. “Whoever is listening can listen to something they identify with or like, like jazz or pop. For people who understand Urdu or Hindi, it’s like a secret to enjoy,” Aftab explains.

Trying to fit in

In 1997, her compatriot, the famous Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, was nominated for two Grammys, but did not win.

To her credit, Aftab is the first Pakistani woman to win a Grammy. Now that she’s won music’s biggest award, she’s also been receiving high praise for her hard work at home as well.

“My family loves music and is pretty liberal, but they didn’t understand what I was trying to do. It’s kind of sad that it took winning a Grammy for some people to finally think that what I was doing for so many years was worth it. .” he shares sincerely.

However, after returning to Pakistan after the Grammy win, Aftab realized how the city of Lahore is offering more space and acceptance to emerging musicians.

Aftab’s is currently on the “Vulture Prince” tour in Europe and the United States, returning to Germany after nearly seven years to perform. He has a concert on August 18 in Cologne along with other shows in Berlin and Hamburg at the end of the month.

“German audiences are truly fantastic. They listen very closely with respect and integrity, because they are one of the privileged societies to have the resources, time and energy to appreciate music and build a thriving industry,” he says.

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