Grace far beyond my grasp
The rest is silence
Arooj Aftab – Last Night
Based in the United States since 2005, Arooj Aftab is a Pakistani singer, composer, producer and audio engineer. Singing in Urdu, Arooj Aftab’s music is informed by Hindustani classical music and in particular the traditional ghazal poetic tradition as well as by the Qawwali devotional music of the Sufis, Western pop music and jazz. Since settling in Brooklyn in the early 2010s, the singer has been immersing herself in the local multi-cultural and contemporary music scene.
Originally released on 23 April 2021 last on New York-based New Amsterdam Records, Vulture Prince is an extraordinary and compelling tour de force which seamlessly blends a wealth of cultural references. Instantly met with universal critical acclaim, the album also earned Arooj Aftab two Grammy wins (Best Global Music Performance and Best New Artist categories) and a new recording contract with Verve Records. “Vulture Prince” was subsequently re-released as a 2 x Vinyl LP Deluxe Edition with one additional track featuring Anoushka Shankar on 24 June 2022 last.
Including eight extended songs all developing over the five minute mark, Vulture Prince features a fascinating cast of guest musicians with a different permutation on every song. The lever harp of New-York-based Scottish musician and composer Maeve Gilchrist is (surprisingly) the first instrument heard on the first song “Baghon Main” alongside Petros Klampanis (double bass) and Darian Donovan Thomas (violin).
“Mohabbat”, the lead single and Grammy-winning song for Best Global Music Performance features the classical guitar of Gyan Riley. “Diya Hai” is accompanied by the classical guitar of Brazilian singer and composer Badi Assad and gorgeous arrangements from the Rootstock Republic string quartet while the flugelhorn of Australian musician Nadje Noordhuis can be heard on “Inayaat”, “Mohabbat” and “Udhero Na”. Accompanied by Bhrigu Sahni on guitar, Mario Carrillio on double bass, Jorn Bielfeldt on drums, and based on a Rumi poem, “Last Night” is the only song on the record featuring lyrics in English and reggae/dub arrangements.
The temptation is great to label Vulture Prince as a fusion exercise or an East-meets-West production. Four years in the making, the record rather posits the merging of two different world views and the transposition of a Pakistani song tradition into the cosmopolitan urban setting of New York city through the prism of modal folk and jazz music.
Featuring sparse lyrics throughout, Vulture Prince is a minimalist work of art concerned with “using negative space” within the songs as the singer puts it. All the instruments become additional voices and converse at length between themselves through cyclical motifs. As a result, depending on the supporting band configuration, live versions of the songs can sound radically different, as heard for instance on the outstanding 2021 live set at Le Guess Who? with Petros Klampanis and Maeve Gilchrist.
Unlike the classical harp, the Celtic lever harp is primarily a modal folk instrument. Removed from its usual “comfort zone” of a traditional repertoire, it brings a fantastic palette of new colours, especially when paired with piano, nylon-string guitar, violin and flugelhorn.
For all its acoustic qualities, Vulture Prince is also informed by electronic music and follows up on Arooj Aftab’s second solo album Siren Islands. Recorded live and released in 2018, the album is a collection of immersive ambient experimental electronic music composed for analogue modular synthesisers featuring floating vocals and partly inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses. And as the Vulture Prince project was in motion, Arooj Aftab was also collaborating with electronic musician Danshin on the electro-doom-jazz soundtrack of Backbone, an interactive detective video game released in 2021.
While the ghazal poetic form can be understood as the South Asian equivalent of African American blues or the western lament, Vulture Prince is a record which is itself infused with a sense of grief and sorrow throughout. Close friend Annie Ali Khan and co-writer of the song “Saans Lo” died in 2018 and the record is dedicated to the memory of her younger brother Maher who passed away during the recording of the album.
By constantly hovering between chamber music, experimental folk minimalism, acoustic jazz and Hindustani classical music, Arooj Aftab’s majestic vocal modulations reach a sacred space which of course transcends all language barriers and culminates on “Udhero Na” when Anoushka Shankar’s sitar interweaves with Maeve Gilchrist’s harp.
Arooj Aftab’s Vulture Prince is one of these rare creations that straddles elegantly between several artistic disciplines, all awakening the senses in various ways. The emotionally-charged work of a singer songwriter, poet and musical director, it was originally released alongside a dedicated Vulture Prince Perfume Oil. Designed by perfume and interdisciplinary artist Dana El Masri, the perfume oil was intended as an olfactory accompaniment to the album by capturing “the cylindrical cloud that weaves through each song and the soothing nature of Arooj’s vocals – embodying ideas about holding space and repetitive sound shapes.”
Arooj Aftab is currently working on a new solo album and will shortly release Love in Exile as an improvisational jazz trio with pianist Vijay Iyer and bassist Shazad Ismaily.