Words by Rhian Daly
Ripples of twinkling harp open Arooj Aftab’s new album Vulture Prince, setting the tone as something bright and optimistic. As the song ‘Baghon’ unfolds further and the ripples are joined by deep steps of double bass and the New York-based musician’s elegant vocals, it becomes clear that although this is something new, it’s also something familiar too.
Baghon is, in fact, a song that first appeared on Aftab’s debut album Bird Under Water in 2014. Back then, it had a longer title (‘Baghon Main Pade Jhoole’) and a different arrangement. That version was darker, more sombre; elongated accordion notes floating uneasily under sparse percussion.
“It’s funny because this version that’s on Vulture Prince is actually the original version that I had written, but it just didn’t come together back then,” Aftab explains. She headed in a different direction but never forgot her initial idea, always feeling connected to that first draft. When working on her new record, she decided she wanted to subtly link it to her debut album and – as well as connecting them via avian-themed titles – chose to bring back the version of Baghon she’d always loved.
Bringing together the old and the new is an inherent theme in Aftab’s work. She has described her sound in the past as “neo-Sufi”, referring to the fresh twist she puts on the music and poetry of Pakistan (where she was born), merging it with influences like jazz fusion and Ella Fitzgerald. Her records also present songs and poems by the likes of 13th-century Sufi mystic Rumi and Urdu poet Hafeez Hoshiarpuri, reworked with her own ideas.
Vulture Prince's title itself has a similar bridging effect between the past and something more present. It has many different meanings for Aftab, including being a reference to the vultures that pick at the dead laid to rest at a Tower Of Silence – a traditional circular burial site. But it also represents Aftab’s ambitions for this album, her desire to merge more of her personality with the music.
“It’s always been perceived as very serene and beautiful – and almost sacred – music,” she reasons. “I wanted to push the envelope a little bit and take ownership of how I am as a person who’s smoking cigarettes and cursing a lot, drinking whiskey, and just being in the streets.”
I wanted to push the envelope a little bit and take ownership of how I am as a person.
Even with these aims, reimagining the old is a process that the Berklee College of Music graduate treats with the utmost care, apparent in the love and thoughtfulness you can hear in her compositions. She says it takes a lot of time and energy to do things the right way, but the results are worth it. “I do love to stay with the music and stay with the poetry to make sure I’m paying the right amount of respect and time to it so that it’s something new and not borrowed,” she explains. “These don’t feel like covers – it’s not an interpolation either. It’s really something new, but at the same time it’s old.”
In the past, the composer would scour old historical books from Pakistan as a way of researching material to draw from. This time around, though, the songs she was working with were ones that she knew a lot more intimately. ‘Inayaat’ is something that’s been with her for “six, seven, eight years – I could even say longer”, while ‘Last Night’ is a Rumi poem that has featured in her many of her past live performances.
On the latter, she sings, “Last night my beloved was like the moon, so beautiful” over and over, her voice full of romantic feeling. It’s a line that she was “blown away by”, impressed by how such a straightforward set of words could be so powerful. “The moon is this gentle, luminescent energy and it almost represents this transcendent feeling,” she notes. “It’s an ethereal force and super intimate and romantic on so many levels. The beauty of how Rumi wrote that and encompassed so many of those things in a very simple line spoke to me a lot.”
Repetitiveness might often come with negative connotations – too boring, a sign of a lack of ideas – but Aftab challenges that perception in her work, raising instead the notion of something beautiful and mesmerising. On ‘Last Night’, repeating that line gave it even more potency and meaning, while in the echoing, revolving elements that crop up across the rest of ‘Vulture Prince’ she finds the antithesis to the busy layers that often appear in modern music.
“There’s so much noise and so much overproduction and unnecessary, idiotic notes everywhere all the time,” Aftab says. “But you can do the opposite and still have written something that’s really complex. It’s tricky to write something that feels digestible to the listener but is actually super complex and super layered. The repeating structures help people with that a bit – you can identify that the same motif is happening and the musicians are passing the baton to each other throughout the song.”
It’s tricky to write something that feels digestible to the listener but is actually super complex and super layered.
One such moment appears on Inayaat when, in the final minutes of the song, thudding bass appears in the distance and a crowd of melodies begins to circle beneath Aftab’s voice – almost resembling the bird the album features in its name. As they spin, they fall out of step with each other, creating a discordant, disorienting feeling.
“That verse lyrically has a slightly different sentiment than the others so I wanted it to have this bass pedal tension and I wanted everybody to spiral out a little bit,” its creator explains. “There are four or five verses that are exactly the same – it’s a long song – and they’re all pretty similar. I wanted that to be our wildcard and create that tension and ambience without really pointing at it.”
When she’s not creating these hypnotic cycles, Aftab draws you into her music in other, equally stunning but subtle ways. On the guitar-led Mohabbat, for example, an almost droning melody appears in the background midway through, its high-pitched, reverberating nature taking on siren form in places. It lays far apart from the rest of the song’s layers in the mix, giving the feeling of it piercing through from outside the players’ circle.
Musician Shazad Ismaily was responsible for that moment, playing the notes on a Moog that was “running through a couple of pedals that had this feeling of being set back”. Aftab decided not to mess with how it sounded because it felt “incredible in that way where you lean in to hear what’s going on”. Its end, when it increases in urgency, also added some contrast to the track.
“The whole song is almost bordering on cheesy – it’s so fucking happy,” Aftab laughs. “Then we have this heart-wrenching moment with this screaming synth and it takes you out of that dreamy little space and [reminds you] the world fucking sucks. There’s some salt in there – it’s real.”
Before you even dive into the instrumental layers of ‘Vulture Prince’, though, the composer’s voice will be the first thing to grab your attention. At times, she uses it as another instrument, layering it up to form harmonies with herself and new textures that would traditionally come from elsewhere. When she sings, she often extends her notes and words, moulding them around the space between the instruments that accompany her. While a lot of thought goes into the arrangements of her work, Aftab says the vocals are more instinctive.
“I feel like I don’t think about the vocals at all,” she says. “They just happen. I treat it the way that I produce everything else – I try to have nice colours and nice texture. I try to have a steady tone and nice little changes here and there. I’m not classically trained and that’s not what I’m trying to present. I’ve inherited the heritage of many different places and that’s what it sounds like when I sing.”
In parts, Vulture Prince is an emotional album, its feelings conveyed in Aftab’s voice and compositions. It is dedicated to the memory of her brother Maher, who died while she was writing the record. One of its tracklist, ‘Saans Lo’ (which translates as ‘Just Breathe’), also features the words of another person the musician had to say goodbye to, her friend and journalist, author, and model Annie Ali Khan.
“I was going through our emails one day and I found this poem that she’d written,” Aftab recalls. “I didn’t think ‘I’m going to compose this and put it in the album’ – I was just really going through it, you know?” Its inclusion happened more naturally, a signifier of what the song represented to her. “It means something to me that I was able to immortalise something of hers, it feels important to me to have done that.”
I’m not classically trained and that’s not what I’m trying to present. I’ve inherited the heritage of many different places.
Working on the track, she says, helped her process the grief that she felt in the aftermath of her friend’s death. “It brought me a little bit of joy too because we’d always wanted to collaborate,” she adds. “Sometimes it’s like you ran out of time – but we did it anyway.”
In a way, Aftab’s tribute to Khan is another example of her crafting something new out of the old. From an old friend, a poem the world never got to enjoy, and the memory of a loved one sadly departed blooms fresh inspiration and a gorgeous new song to cherish. While society often compels us to focus on the future, Aftab reminds us there is value in considering everything that has come before. Vulture Prince is an exquisite testament to that idea, paying its respects while simultaneously pushing things forward.