Grammy winner Arooj Aftab's experimental Sufi music melds into a minimalist blur

2022 Grammy Award winner Arooj Aftab performed at the Chan Centre on July 13 as part of the Indian Summer Festival. Though Aftab’s performance of her experimental jazz-influenced Sufi music created a distinct mystical atmosphere, the minimalist chain of long notes blurred together endlessly.

Occupying a small part of the stage for her entire performance, Aftab stood in a dramatic goth look — an all-black outfit with feathery sequined shoulder pads — accompanied by Gyan Riley on guitar and Darian Donovan Thompson on violin. She performed most of her latest album Vulture Prince.

The stage setup, like the lyrics, was minimalist, which helped the audience focus on the music. A small table with a bottle of wine, a wine glass and a vase of roses stood next to her. Throughout the performance, she threw roses, one by one, at the audience while joking about how she wished the audience would shower her with roses instead.

Her jokes suggested self-awareness about her work: Aftab’s sparse vocals and ambient arrangements are critically-acclaimed, but they aren’t for everyone. It helped that she clearly doesn't take herself too seriously.

Her sense of humour and showmanship kept the evening light and hearty. She joked about her music being about sadness and sex, which describes it well: her voice is roaring yet sensual while the violin lines evoke longing and uncertainty.

Born and brought up in Lahore, Pakistan, Aftab currently lives in New York, and her music is inspired by both: an amalgamation of Sufi music and jazz.

Her voice is deep, and she uses it as an instrument rather than just for singing lyrics. She often does renditions of old ghazals — a style of poetry written in the form of couplets that is also a genre of music. She attempts to turn the old into something new. Though her experimentation with ghazals is interesting, it has not seemed to reach a concrete end result.

Her minimal style takes away most of the lyrics and hence, does not do justice to the ghazals, which are heavily dependent on lyrics to convey their message. The second line of a couplet is often a continuation of the idea presented in the first. However, her long notes often disfigure the couplets to a point where the listener can’t piece together their meaning.

She mentioned that Sirish Rao, founder of the Indian Summer Festival, suggested playing live translations for the Hindi-Urdu lyrics in the back, to which she said that it was a horrible idea because the lyrics all mean the same thing. Even though a lot of songs are about longing, the ghazals are exponentially different in their meaning.

For the audience who couldn't understand the lyrics, it would have made the music even more uniform. She additionally does not use any percussion to help in building and keeping up the rhythm, making everything sound similarly fluid.

Her music creates a mystical, spiritual space. It’s music for the bus loop after 11 p.m., when a few meandering souls wait for the 99 or the 84 to carry them home.