LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Arooj Aftab's music and compositions are like listening to a soundscape of her home country, Pakistan.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOHABBAT")
AROOJ AFTAB: (Singing in non-English language).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Featuring recitations of poems and themes of grief and longing, "Vulture Prince" is Aftab's third album, and it's out later this month. She joins me now. Welcome to the program.
AFTAB: Hi. Thank you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You dedicated this album to your younger brother, Maher, who died. Can you talk to me a little bit about this? I'm so sorry for your loss. I mean, how did it affect your creative process?
AFTAB: You know, my previous work has been very, like, beautiful and very meditative. And for "Vulture Prince" I was like, I would like to kind of take that to the next level and continue to have that sense of peace but make it a little edgier and almost like Afrobeat where, like, the vibe is still chill, but you can kind of dance a little bit - you know, just a more fun and grown kind of evolution of my sound.
And as I was writing, this life event occurred, and I had to stop because I couldn't resonate with the moment anymore because he had passed. And when this happened in the middle of my writing process, the album title itself, "Vulture Prince," somehow got a new meaning, which was a very important saving grace.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did your brother die, if you don't mind my asking?
AFTAB: You know, he was young and one of those kids who just is always looking for something in the world and, like, isn't really fitting in. Societies can be really brutal, and I think some people - you know, it's hard for them to cope with that or to rise above it or to fight it. So, yeah, I don't think - he tried, but he couldn't really stay with it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm so sorry. Is there a song on this album that we could play in his memory?
AFTAB: Yeah. Actually, "Diya Hai" is the last song that I sang to him in person.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIYA HAI")
AFTAB: (Singing in non-English language).
We were just kind of chilling together, and I was like, oh, you sing me something because he was really - he's a good singer, too - a beautiful voice. So he was singing. He was like, I just - now I just sing, like, Punjabi folk songs. And I was like, yeah, yeah. Sing me some stuff. We had the harmonium between us. And then I was like, well, this is kind of what I'm working on. And even though actually for this album I didn't feel that - like, I hadn't really completely prepared "Diya Hai" musically, but I was like, I'm going to put this in the album.
(SOUNDBITE OF AROOJ AFTAB SONG, "DIYA HAI")
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You were born in Pakistan. You now live in Brooklyn. Tell me about that sort of musical fusion, bringing your sort of roots to this country and sort of making it into something new.
AFTAB: I think that spending a considerable amount of time in Pakistan - I guess up until I was maybe 18 or 19 - I inherited the heritage, right? And then moving from there to study music to go to a school that had, like, a lot of diversity, you know, a lot of...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because you were in Boston at the Berklee College of Music.
AFTAB: Mmm hmm. I built more roots there, and I inherited, you know, samba and jazz and Afro Cuban. I have roots in many places, you know, since I moved in 2005. But I think most dominantly what fused was what I studied, which is jazz, and what I knew subconsciously, which was Northern classical stuff and ghazal stuff, and then kind of my energy - feeling very chill, feeling like, you know, ambient, minimalist. I love, you know, Terry Riley or, like, this type of sort of minimalist music. And so I think now, after all these years, like, those things have all kind of come together and are holding hands and are kind of like a statement to someone who has roots in multiple places.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's listen to "Last Night," which features a poem by Rumi.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST NIGHT")
AFTAB: (Singing) Last night, my beloved was like the moon - so beautiful. So beautiful like the moon. So beautiful like the moon. So beautiful like the moon, even brighter than the sun.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, you can really hear all those influences there that you were speaking about - so much there. What spoke to you about this poem?
AFTAB: So this happened in 2010 or something. You know, I was just chilling with some friends. I had newly moved to New York. So my friend was just playing some sort of - like, a reggae skank sort of thing, and I just felt like, I got to jump on that. And I was reading this Rumi translation book called "Hidden Music." And so I just grabbed it, and I had a favorite - some of the pages, you know, that I really spent time on, they just opened automatically. So it opened onto that. And I just started riffing and it sounded so good. But, you know, I didn't put it out for a long time because I was sort of aware of the fact that, like, I'm not a reggae artist, and I don't know what that means. You know, is this appropriation? But, you know, over time, I think it's not really a reggae song. It's an interesting take on it, right?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me about that struggle. It's interesting that you would think about appropriation, considering that you're also from, you know, a culture with an incredibly rich experience that perhaps has also been appropriated by others.
AFTAB: Yeah. I don't know. You know, I think there's a certain type of awareness that some people have and others don't. I mean, I sometimes feel that, even approaching my own music - what I mean is South Asian music - is like the quintessential imposter syndrome situation where it's like, you know, I haven't really studied this, and I never went back since 19. I might be appropriating it, too, you know? So I'm always kind of making sure that I'm actually inheriting the music with integrity and with some kind of depth and with some kind of respect for its history rather than using it, which also happens a lot in music, where people just take stuff. You know, we borrow and we share, and some people do it with integrity and respect, and some people don't. So I've always been very conscious of that, and I hope to continue.
(SOUNDBITE OF AROOJ AFTAB SONG, "BAGHON MAIN")
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, it occurs to me, listening to your music, the solace of sound. And this has been such an incredibly difficult time for so many people. Have you been sort of thinking about that and how your music plays into that literally?
AFTAB: Yes, always. I feel a certain type of way about the world. And especially in the last three or four years, the way things have been unfolding - it's just madness. It's just - it's crazy, and it almost sometimes feels like it's too much.
And I think that's really the direction I threw myself in when we pivoted on "Vulture Prince" and how it's come out now and the time that it's coming out. I think it's very relevant. I think there's a way for artists to say something with their work that is not always very direct. It's not always like a social activism, but it is, you know? In its subtlety and its grace, it can just be there, you know, very non-imposingly. And I think "Vulture Prince," by design - you know, I intended for it to have a lot of those elements in it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Arooj Aftab's new album, "Vulture Prince," is out later this month. Thank you very much.
AFTAB: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAGHON MAIN")
AFTAB: (Singing in non-English language).
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.