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Pakistani musician Arooj Aftab’s ‘neo-Sufi’ music blends Rumi with reggae and more
Judy Woodruff: The South Asian art form known as Sufi music has a centuries-old tradition built on poetry and mysticism coupled with specific instruments, meters and repetition.
One Brooklyn-based Pakistani musician is steeped in that history, yet also going her own way, refusing to let others define her work.
Special correspondent Tom Casciato has our story. It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Tom Casciato: Arooj Aftab recently debuted work from her latest album at a concert at Brooklyn's Pioneer Works. Her compositions are personal, her performance intimate, but it was far from a solo effort.
Arooj Aftab, Musician : The way that I like to kind of produce this music is leaving space for the band. We're all involved in telling a story from this moment the song starts until the very end.
Tom Casciato: Still, the band is executing a vision of which she is in command.
Arooj Aftab: To even actually conceptualize a band like that is a creative work. Especially as a singer/composer who doesn't actively play an instrument, there is this sentiment in the industry of, like, kind of discrediting women for the work that they do.
You have to kind of overstate that you're not just a singer. You are also the composer. You're also the producer. You're also the arranger.
Tom Casciato: She's also unwilling to let others define her. She sings mostly in Urdu, her lyrics drawn from poetry often centuries-old. Her music draws from seemingly everywhere.
For example, she will bring non-traditional instruments like synthesizer and lever harp to a traditional South Asian poetic form like the ghazal. She's even given her style its own name, neo-Sufi.
Arooj Aftab: It's not South Asian classical music with -- like fused with jazz. It's like it's living in its own world of, like, a marriage of many roots and heritages. So I was kind of like, I need to, like, name this right now, you know?
Tom Casciato: Take ahold of it.
Writing of her recent album, "Vulture Prince," the music site Pitchfork said she has "as much a claim to the Western traditions of jazz and experimental electronica as to the folk and classical music of her homeland."
The album is dedicated to her younger brother, Maher, who passed away in 2018.
Arooj Aftab: When it's a younger sibling, it's almost like you're kind of -- if they're young enough, you kind of raised them too. So it's like such a weird -- kind of weird sort of loss.
Tom Casciato: Her loss and her art converge in a composition called "Diya Haiti," its lyrics derived from a poem by the popular 19th century Indian poet Mirza Ghalib.
Arooj Aftab: And I loved the poem itself, but it took me a really long time to actually, like, make it mine.
When I was workshopping it and trying to figure it out, like, I was in Pakistan, and I was hanging out with Maher. And so it's the last thing that I really sang to him. And so that kind of felt important to me that I should really just, like, figure it out and put it in the record.
Tom Casciato: There was a time as a teenager in Lahore, Pakistan, when it looked like she would never make a record.
Were your parents OK with you wanting to be a musician?
Arooj Aftab: I think they were like, that's not going to work out for you. Like, that -- you're not going to make any money. What are you saying? You want to be famous?
Tom Casciato: Still, she had the self-assurance to take on a poet of more recent vintage, Leonard Cohen, and his celebrated composition "Hallelujah."
Arooj Aftab: I think no one believed in me at the time. And I really wanted to -- I wanted to -- I wanted people to believe that I'm good at music.
Tom Casciato: She was more than good. Aftab's version of "Hallelujah" went viral in Pakistan. It also helped fuel an ambition she revealed to her parents.
Arooj Aftab: And I was like, well, there's this college. It's called Berklee. And I will get a bachelor's degree, and I will study audio engineering and jazz. And they were like, oh, OK. So somebody has organized this for us. Fine. Let's do it.
Tom Casciato: Accepted to Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music, Aftab moved to the states in 2005. She kept at her goal of becoming a professional musician, but got her degree in music production and engineering.
Arooj Aftab: I felt that I needed some sort of, like, concrete industry skill. I came out of Berklee in like 2008 or '09, moved to New York, super recession times. All the music studios were kind of closing. People were making all these products that you could record at home.
So it was just like, oh, great, no -- we don't -- they don't need audio engineers anymore.
Tom Casciato: Audio engineering's loss was composing's gain. Where else would we get a song like "Last Night," with lyrics adapted from 13th century Sufi mystic and poet Rumi put to a beat like this one?
Arooj Aftab: I really liked the idea of juxtaposing Rumi with a reggae groove, but also kind of jazz, upright bass vibes, and then, like, adding this sort of Urdu meter in the middle.
Tom Casciato: There's just a whole world of things you just talked about in half-a-sentence.
Tom Casciato: Let's just go back for a minute.
Arooj Aftab: I was reading a lot of Rumi. I was also listening to a lot of reggae. In a jam, like, those two things kind of came together.
Tom Casciato: I'm not sure they have ever come together before.
Tom Casciato: It's not like, you know, those Rumi reggae tunes that everyone does.
Arooj Aftab: Right.
Tom Casciato: Aftab says, for her next album, she'd like to explore the writings of a medieval Indian ruler and warrior called Chand Bibi.
Arooj Aftab: She was one of the only and first female feminist warrior politician bad-ass who, like, released an anthology of poems. I liked the fact that her work has never been put to song.
Tom Casciato: And do you relate to feminist badass warriors?
Arooj Aftab: I think so. I think that we all probably came from her.
Tom Casciato: Maybe that's where Arooj Aftab came from, where she's taking her audience is somewhere new.
I'm Tom Casciato for the "PBS NewsHour" in Brooklyn, New York.
b>Judy Woodruff: Such a wonderful story.