Lahore-born and raised Arooj Aftab is an emerging musician whose music is influenced by an array of artists – from traditional Pakistani singers to contemporary sounds from the likes of Erykah Badu. A self-taught guitarist, Arooj was one of four recipients of Berklee Music’s first merit-based scholarship, allowing this innovative musician to receive a formal music education at the acclaimed college. Today, she lives in Brooklyn, and has plans to tour Pakistan and the region next year with a unique blend of artistry that encompasses a true spectrum of global sounds. Below, she answers a few questions for CHUP:
Q: You are a self-taught guitarist from Pakistan who received a scholarship to study at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. What was the transition like? Did you have formal training prior to your time at Berklee?
I actually received a percentage of my tuition as scholarship from Berklee on voice merit, and managed the rest through college loans in true struggling musician fashion! I continued to study voice as my instrument, and music production/engineering as my major at Berklee College of Music. I was teaching myself guitar through my A Levels, performing a bit underground and releasing cover songs on the internet. Right out of Lahore Grammar School (LGS), I won the Steve Vai Berklee Online school scholarship, which gave me a year to study Western music theory prior to actually attending the college.
The transition was pretty smooth- I was very hungry to learn as much as I could about music from everyone around me.Aside from the organized Western classical music and jazz theory I was introduced to, the college also had a large percentage of international students — so it really was incredible to be exposed to instruments, rhythms, sounds and messages from all over the world as well. However, I was the only Pakistani, and with no classical training I spent much time reading and listening to our own music – solidifying and familiarizing myself to old recordings, learning the root by ear so that I could reproduce, replicate and represent Pakistani music in the West.
Q: How have traditional Pakistani music and sounds influenced your music and growth as an artist? What other artists and genres influence you as an artist?
I think it is essential to know the root, and own it with whatever art form you chose to embody. I have always looked to our ancestors and the endless army of great musicians from all over the diaspora for guidance through my years of pursuing music. I would say that a lot of my vocal technique and phrasings come from repetitively and incessantly listening to recordings of Abida Parveen, Begum Akhtar, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali, Bismillah Khan, Nusrat, Ustad Barkat Ali Khan, and so forth. Brazilian fado and flamenco styles also inspire me, as do other types of music.
Q: In Pakistan, there isn’t much importance placed on musical training among youth, despite the popularity of Pakistani pop stars. However, shows like Coke Studio have become popular because of their fusion of traditional and mainstream sounds. Do you think these trends are changing society’s sentiment towards music in Pakistan? How important do you think it is to give youth access to such training?
Classical training is not easy. It requires years of solid dedication and being both physically and mentally present.
The skill is so intricate, intense and intimate that the relationship between teacher and apprentice is sacred. Everything has its own pace, knowledge is imparted in stages, hard work is noted and rewarded for – all together, it’s a very serious process.
I think it’s hard for people to wrap their heads around such an intense dedication to music- and it is something that is not given much social or monetary value in Pakistan right now. Initiatives like Coke Studio are creating a new found appreciation and fresh direction for music listeners, but young people will not feel confident making solid commitments [to pursue music] unless attitudes towards musicianship itself change.
Q: What do you hope to achieve through your music? Has there been a difference in people’s response to you in the West versus in our part of the world?
Well to be honest, I have yet to perform properly in Pakistan— it has been almost five years since I moved to the U.S. for my degree and have been performing throughout this country, representing Pakistan, while learning, experimenting and developing my sound. Appreciation will always be warm and ample in the U.S., people approach music with a great deal of etiquette and respect. Even when the audience is unfamiliar with the language, they have always been keen on taking in whatever they can get via instrumentation, energy and vibe of the pieces. I am excited to book our debut Pakistan tour soon! Next year we plan to fly through all the main cities with the full band– and also possibly do a few cities in India [my guitar player and co-composer Bhrigu Sahni is from Pune]. I want each concert to be like a big shaadi, as if we are wedding all the cities together. It is a really romantic peace healing concept.
Q: What role can music play in bridging divides? Do you hope to play a role in such forms of public diplomacy?
As an activist in Boston and New York, I have found it very difficult to rally people here towards pro-Pakistan activities. The media misconceptions and general fear of what Pakistan even is, has laid a bed of silence over activist communities here. That’s why it’s important for everyone who is Pakistani and has creative, peace promoting, healing agendas– to be louder than ever before. Be present on the web even if you hate Twitter or Facebook— really get the color, the alive, the humor, the heritage and all the love out there. There is much diplomatic power in unifying and celebrating creativity throughout the diaspora.
Collaborative projects are also a great tool that we arent using enough- I have been working with a lot of incredible South Asian artists in the Brooklyn/New York scene recently, including Tamil Sri Lankan Dance/Spoken word artist YaliniDream. There are other amazing artists doing incredible work that should be celebrated, and one of my upcoming projects will be a blog that aims to showcase new South Asian/Diaspora artists each week.
To learn more about Arooj Aftab and her music, visit her website.
Arooj Aftab – Man Kunto Mola [for the initiative Rebuild Pakistan]
And for the Xmas spirit, her cover of Hallelujah: