The Pakistani vocalist Abida Parveen is one of the most acclaimed musical artists in South Asian history. She is known as the ‘Queen Of Sufi Music’. So it takes a lot of courage to uninvitedly knock on Parveen's door and proceed to engage in an impromptu singing session with her. Singer-music composer Arooj Aftab did precisely that, back in 2010.
Parveen was one of Aftab’s idols and inspirations for years. So, Aftab sought down Parveen's hotel room number and made her move when both performers were slated to perform at the Sufi Music Festival in New York. Parveen knew the then-25-year-old musician from a festival audition. She quickly greeted her with a handshake and cookies, and finally, she took out a harmonium so they could sing together.
That fearless woman, who didn’t get scared of the great Abida Parveen, went on to make her country, Pakistan, proud today by becoming the first lady to win a Grammy.
Born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to Pakistani parents, singer-music composer Arooj Aftab has taken social media by storm after her Grammy win. She took to social media to relish this moment and shared pictures of the win, and of her meeting various other international singing icons.
Along with the pictures from the event, Aftab posted, “And the first ever female Pakistani GRAMMY winner is… Arooj Aftab! 🎶 Best Global Music Performance: “Mohabbat” (sic).”
Talking about music crossing all boundaries, Aftab posted, “Oh my gosh. I am so proud of this moment personally, but also for the industry itself. tonight we celebrated music as a collective, unapologetically making what we want to make, in all it’s genre-less limitless crossover glory. Thank you AND congratulations (sic).”
She has been receiving congratulatory messages on her social media posts ever since the win.
For the unversed, Arooj Aftab has had quite a tumultuous journey in her life. She was born to Pakistani parents who were expatriates in Saudi Arabia. She returned to her hometown of Lahore, Pakistan, when she was approximately ten years old. It was here that she taught herself how to play the guitar and progressively developed her vocal style while listening to international performers like Billie Holiday, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Mariah Carey, and Begum Akhtar.
Aftab was living in a place where access to Western web platforms was difficult and the infrastructure for independent music was also inadequate at the time. However, that didn’t stop her from trying to reach her goals. Even in this environment, she would promote her music online in Pakistan. Slowly and steadily, she became one of the first musicians from the country to use the Internet in the early 2000s. Her renditions of songs like ‘Mera Pyaar’ and ‘Hallelujah’ went viral at that time. It somehow led to the launch of the independent music scene in Pakistan, which is such a big thing in today’s time.
Aftab travelled to the United States when she was 19 years old, and she studied music production and engineering, as well as jazz composition, at Boston's Berklee College of Music. In 2010, she relocated to New York and began working as an editor and film composer. Aftab has stayed in the city since her graduation, where she is actively involved in the jazz and new music scenes.
Not many would know that Aftab was named one of the ‘100 Composers Under 40’ by NPR and WQXR-FM’s Q2 in April 2011. It is a contemporary classical music internet radio station. Soon afterwards, ‘Bird Under Water’, Aftab's debut album, was released independently in 2014.
Over the years, Aftab has collaborated with performers like Meshell Ndegeocello, Badi Assad, Jace Clayton, Vijay Iyer, Rafiq Bhatia, Shahzad Ismaily, Leo Genovese, Toshi Reagon, Maeve Gilchrist, Petros Klampanis, Magda Giannikou, Gyan Riley and many others. She has said time and again that she has been inspired by performers like Abbey Lincoln, Abida Parveen, Anoushka Shankar, Begum Akhtar, Esperanza Spalding, Jeff Buckley, Julius Eastman, Meshell Ndegeocello, Morton Feldman, and Terry Riley. Aftab has also stated her respect for fellow singer Billie Eilish. Lyrically, Aftab has credited Asian poets such as Rumi, Mirza Ghalib, and Hafeez Hoshiarpuri as her all-time favourites from whom she often keeps taking influences. She also finds a lot of her inspiration from Urdu Ghazals that she tries to even incorporate into her own music.
Aftab's music has been described quite often as a mix of jazz fusion, jazz, electronica, neo-Sufi, folk, Hindustani classical, classical music, indie pop, minimalism, and acoustic music. Her voice has been called meditative by many of her fellow performers.
On the global level, she has even sung the title track ‘Insaaf’ for the Irrfan Khan starrer Bollywood film ‘Talvar’ (2015). The song was written by Gulzar and composed by Vishal Bhardwaj. She served as an editor on the documentary ‘Armed With Faith’ (2017), for which she received an Emmy Award in 2018. Now, with ‘Mohabbat’ she has won her first Grammy.