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 his rendition of a famous ghazal by the legendary Mehdi Hassan. She spoke to DW about the challenges she faced on the road.

“I wanted to make music that I was suffering from, that I couldn’t really find, that I wanted to hear,” singer Arooj Aftab told DW. However, making the kind of music he wanted to hear about instruments and vocabulary that he lacked when he was younger in Lahore, where music wasn’t really a career option for most.

To make matters worse, she felt like she didn’t fit in. “Growing up, I felt like dressing or looking different, thinking differently, caused a lot of friction and made me feel completely unaccepted. . “Not being able to dream freely or be yourself is not healthy and is like death for an artist.”

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However, the power of the internet was at his fingertips: In the early 2000s, at the age of 18, he recorded a casual jazz cover of Jeff Buckley’s song “Hallelujah.” Its cover has been 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 spurred him to take out a student loan and apply to Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where he was accepted.

Inclusive music

Since then, Aftab has learned the tools of the trade, becoming a music composer and producer in addition to a US-based singer. It can transform pre-existing songs into new, complex tracks entirely with their own unique characters.

Yet his music doesn’t just repeat old numbers, he says. “I get annoyed when my music is called ‘cover’ because it isn’t. When you render something, especially if it’s that old and almost public, you’re rooting but you’re building something original, new. And it hasn’t been done before, it’s now,” he emphasizes.

It is important to build a sense of place in Aftab’s music because of its transnational nature. His music is neither Pakistani nor Western. It transcends duality and encourages the listener to imagine a new place: a place of inclusion.

“This generation is really brave and demands something, they want equality,” he said, adding that young people no longer want to be limited to fixed categories. “For years Asian artists have been pushed aside – but now there is a space that opens the world to more beautiful things, to beautiful things that have always existed but are unknown,” Aftab says.

‘beautiful’ in Urdu

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

Gazel is a musical interpretation of couplets that poetically deals with the trials and tribulations of love. Arooj’s rendition of the song earned him the 2022 Grammy Award for Best Global Music Performance. It also earned him a spot on former US President Barack Obama’s 2021 summer playlist. Now, Arooj and “Mohabbat” are as good as mainstream.

The artist is dedicated to singing in Urdu because she considers it “very beautiful and a good language to sing in”. I do the things I want to do with my voice, with vowels. The poem is nostalgic, funny, light—but also haunting,” Aftab says.

As a composer and producer, Aftab understands the intricacies of music and puts a lot of thought into the “combination of sounds and instruments that weave an intricate web.”

Bringing together disparate and disparate instruments helps his music reach a wider audience. “I hope anyone who listens can hear something they identify with or like, like jazz or pop. For people who understand Urdu or Hindi, it’s like a secret for them to enjoy,” Aftab explains.

trying to adapt

In 1997, his fellow countryman, the famous sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, was nominated for two Grammys but failed to win.

Aftab is the first Pakistani to win a Grammy. Now that she’s won the highest award in music, she’s also been highly praised for her hard work at home.

“My family loves music and is pretty liberal, but they just didn’t understand what I was trying to do. It’s kind of sad that some people finally won a Grammy for what I’ve been doing all these years to think it’s worthwhile,” she shares candidly.

However, upon returning to Pakistan following his Grammy victory, Aftab realized how the city of Lahore offered more space and acceptance to emerging musicians.

Aftab’s is currently on the “Vulture Prince” tour in Europe and the US and is returning to Germany after almost seven years. He has a concert in Cologne on August 18, and there are other shows in Berlin and Hamburg later in the month.

“German listeners are really great. They really listen very closely with respect and honesty, because they are one of those societies that are privileged to have the resources, time and energy to appreciate music and build a thriving industry,” he says.

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