Pakistan-born ‘neo-Sufi’ singer breaks free from music traditions

Arooj Aftab’s musical style is inspired by a diverse range of singers but she refuses to identify with a conventional genre.

Aftab says she consciously planned stripping her music from any percussion in a self-effacing way [Diana Markosian/Courtesy of the artist]

New York, United States – It is a music album born in an extraordinary time of strife. The artist was not only grappling with the challenge of creating music during a pandemic, but also with the death of her younger brother.

Arooj Aftab’s third album, Vulture Prince, out on Friday, reflects this pain but stands out for the power of her musical expression.

And that power has already been recognised. Pitchfork, a respected online music magazine, named her first single, Mohabbat, the Best New Track.

The 36-year-old singer had been making waves since 2018 when the United States’ NPR network called her song Lullaby one of the Greatest Songs by 21st Century Women+, and The New York Times included her song Island No 2 in its list of 25 best classical music tracks that year.

The musical style

The Pakistan-born, Brooklyn-based artist’s musical style is inspired by a diverse range of singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Reshma, and Abida Parveen – the “queen” of Sufi music. Sounds of Greek, Egyptian and Spanish idioms are also hauntingly intermingled.

The genre can best be defined as somewhere at the intersection of Sufi, Pakistani folk, jazz fusion and semi-classical.

“I didn’t want to call it any of these. It was none of those genres. At first, I coined it neo-Sufism because I had to call it something because people can’t place it and you get lost in the sauce,” Aftab told Al Jazeera.

“It came to me as a genre during the creation of my first album listening to Abida Parveen and reading a lot of [poet] Rumi.”

While categories in music still force terminologies such as “neo-Sufism”, Aftab now has the confidence to call it something else.

Arooj Aftab’s third album, Vulture Prince, releases on Friday [Courtesy of Arooj Aftab]

“It isn’t neo-Sufi any more,” she said. “I have more confidence in using a longer sentence to describe it.”

In a musical world where lyrics often get submerged in beats and melody, Aftab makes poetry her lead singer – a quintessential characteristic of her music.

The ghazals (a form of Urdu poetry) she sings, some celebrated for decades, have a neutral cadence in their renditions, where poetry shines independent of the musical accompaniment.

Think of the minimalistic and soulful structure of Norah Jones with an even less focus on accompanying instruments.

“She breaks free from the hard, traditional norm of subcontinental music and yet remains very deep in her interpretation of that music without being guilty of cultural appropriation,” Arieb Azhar, veteran musician and commentator on Sufi music, told Al Jazeera.


Aftab says she consciously planned stripping her music from any percussion in a self-effacing way.

Madan Gopal Singh, Sufi musician and cultural historian in India, says Aftab’s “voice grain has a languorous quality”.

“With it, she has broken the hierarchy between instrumentalisation and the emergence of voice so that the dignity of both remains, and that is unique,” Singh told Al Jazeera.

Singh comes from the Indian side of Punjab province while Aftab was born in Lahore on the Pakistani side.

But the two share a serendipitous connection with a song called Mohabbat (love). It is the song with which, recollects Singh, he charmed his wife into marrying him many decades ago.

The song was originally written by Hafeez Hoshiarpuri, a poet born in 1912 in Hoshiarpur in India’s Punjab. But Hoshiarpuri died in 1973 across the border, in Karachi.

His song has since gathered a cult-like following through the renditions of famous singers, including Mehdi Hassan, Iqbal Bano, Jagjit Singh and more recently Papon.

For Singh, Aftab’s version is equally evocative.

“I love her rendition and the way she is thinking in her musical arrangement. I just wish she would look at the translations more attentively,” he said. “Then the song has potential for even more musical impact.”

The repetitive lyrics of Mohabbat – Mohabbat Karne Waale Kum Na Hongey (the number of people who love will never come down) – can have various interpretations.

“Arooj’s music is abstract enough and as abstract art, you are free to interpret it in any way you like,” said Azhar.

“It is an internalised emotion that she is projecting. One can’t say whether it is personal love or loss or political or a revolutionary expression?”

Arooj herself feels Mohabbat has many faces. She says, “Immortalising this song was a lifelong dream.”

“It could be a love song, breakup song, a political statement, a nostalgic memory. It has comforted me in so many different emotional moments,” she says, adding that the interpretation that resonated most was a “dissatisfaction with the world”.

The feeling that the song creates when you listen to it is of a “wallowing despair but that I’m OK. I am just disappointed in everyone and everything”, Aftab said.

As a young woman from Pakistan, Aftab says her journey as an artist has been a struggle [Daniel Hilsinger/Al Jazeera]

“In whichever place you look – Kashmir, India, Pakistan, the US, mass shootings, or Palestine, wherever you look, there is this unbelievable, inexcusable atrocity going on. So, Mohabbat is kind of like a ‘f*** you’ to the world.”

The struggle

As a young woman from Pakistan, Aftab says her journey as an artist has been a struggle. “In order to pursue the dream, I have sacrificed,” she says.

“Separating yourself from friends and family. It’s like self-exiling yourself because the situation doesn’t agree with you.”

In the US, she had to build a new support system, which included recruiting musicians for her album. Going to Berklee College of Music in Boston, one of the best music schools in the world, also meant paying off student loans.

She also recollects moments where she had only $20 left in her bank account, or facing unruly audience members who misbehaved with her band’s musical equipment during a performance near Times Square.

“But it’s still been all worth it.”

Ahmer Naqwi, a Pakistani writer on popular culture, says “to do what Aftab did is quite unique” coming from a society like Pakistan.

“It is a remarkable story of Pakistani music that it keeps finding ways to thrive despite hostile financial and social obstacles,” he told Al Jazeera.

Subcontinental and global recognition

Musical and cultural experts believe Aftab’s new album has the promise to attain global recognition. But they also worry about America’s categorisation for awards like the Grammy’s.

Aftab’s music will likely fall in the US industry’s limited category of World Music.

“Grammy’s may not recognise her because they are limited in their categorisation but that doesn’t take away from the quality of her music,” said Azhar.

As for the subcontinent, and Pakistan in particular, Aftab’s music “isn’t suited for virality”, Naqwi said.

“Aftab’s music has great potential but it is difficult for me to divorce the reception of this album from the reality of Pakistani music right now. It is not a great reality.”

But Singh believes “no other musician from Pakistan is thinking like she is”.

“She has a huge future,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera