Music, minimalism and Mohabbat: the Pakistani melody shining through Barack Obama’s 2021 summer playlist

Eternal, euphoric, esoteric- good music that vibes with the soul and does not just play along to the ears is a discovery that can enrich life and inspire legacies, earning praise from all and sundry, evoking as it does a certain spectrum of emotions not easily ready to burst forth in full appreciation of what the many musings of the worldly affairs otherwise cater to. For music is universal and bound eternally to each of the dichotomies that the heart is permissive of, it makes sense therefore to embrace also this confluence of the senses- that pervades also the more nuanced realisations of the sensations and emotions apart from the mere appeal to the auditory, as something that is understood and felt despite its incomprehensible beltings based on soulful but alienated scribblings that surprisingly sometimes end up making a greater impact than some of the most intelligible of spells does. No less pronounced has been this particular strand of life running deep through the cultural plays of something as enormously incorporative as music that brings together semblances of understanding and pathos and woes and joys effectively into one single rendering of its heartfelt brilliance, delivered so intently to the souls of all those forever enticed with the magic that the singing mode of expression, or rather existence itself, embodies within its every single note and the many tugs of the palpable feels evoked so poignantly with its each melody that music at many times ceases to be a mere way of life, rising instead to be a panacea of sorts that heals not just miseries but also a more deep rooted inclination to fathom joys in nothingness to bring one to such an acute awareness of life where peace and calm reigns supreme.

And while that is the very nature of music and melodies that they heal and soothe and cure and mend by virtue of which this exalted form of the arts attains its therapeutic powers and properties, it also is in the essence of this lyrical mode of sublime expression that it manages to make its way among them who nurture a certain inexplicable connect with the many vagaries of life that the human soul consistently finds itself concerning with, finding also a stronghold amongst such of their clan harbouring a deep appreciation of the creative expression that music entitles one to. But it still are the ones who make music, selflessly, passionately, enthusiastically, unconcernedly yet still knowingly enough in persuasion of their interest, or more aptly their calling, who stir up a world of their own, reaching out to folks with whom they have not the tiniest bit of affiliation but inspiring and connecting with them such that they forge a bond, one that earns them praise and appreciation and accolades no doubt, but also a validation that might not be essential to their being but indeed a far greater allegiance to the impact that they have managed to bring upon the world.

One such artiste currently residing in one such resplendent space of acknowledgement of her truly global appeal as far as her music goes is Pakistani musician Arooj Aftab, whose latest buzz concerns with her emerging as a 2021 favorite feature on Barack Obama’s Summer Playlist. Courtesy her soulful, gripping and enchanting rendition of the number Mohabbat, Aftab has managed to capture the fancy of Obama whose now annual sharing of his summer playlist finds herself amongst a bevy of other global artistes like George Harrison, The Rolling Stones, Rihanna, Bob Marley, Bruno Mars, Jay-Z et al. And it is no surprise at all that Aftab features there so prominently in the list, having established herself as a standout musician, global indeed, ever since she released her debut album in 2015. But that for sure wasn’t the year that Aftab’s extraordinary journey started, phenomenal as she has been in making waves in the global circuit, this Pakistan born talent went about dabbling also in her home country with her recording of Hallelujah that went on to become the first song to go viral online in Lahore, sparking therefore the start of the indie scene there. A trendsetter therefore even in her unheralded beginnings, the Saudi Arabia born Aftab went on to pursue her penchant for this language of the soul in her own defiant way, with a conviction in her own deep understanding of music that was the result of years of close connect with the rare, legendary melodies of the celebrated Qawwali maestro Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and perhaps also a stemming from her genes resident in a family of ‘fiendy music lovers’. Developing therefore an affinity for the mysticism steeped within the Sufi music experience was Aftab whose musical transcendence however also rested in her personal idolisation of Jeff Buckley.

arooj aftab
Source: Unite Asia

A self taught guitarist, Arooj Aftab went on to chart her professional route among the meandering melodies that had always held her captivated as a teenager by enrolling herself at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Having studied music production and engineering there, Aftab dished out her debut album Bird Under Water independently in 2015, following it up with Siren Islands in 2018 and Vulture Prince, of which one of Obama’s favorite Mohabbat is a part, in 2021. It seems quite disorderly, for a musician exclusively known for her definite leanings to the soulful sounds that Sufism essentially and substantially lives through to be coming up with such albums each time titled somewhat edgily, or at least in such terms that perhaps do not resonate with the ‘saintly’ Sufi solace running through them. But such is the versatility of Aftab that even in her deviant understanding of what makes music she asserts her comprehension of it in mannerisms that are striking, whether it be in her deliverance of the melody or the insight she works upon when she goes about releasing them under such names that might occur as a stark diversion from what is on offer thence.

And while Arooj Aftab and her music is exemplary in more ways than one, going beyond the melodies and dwelling as much in its interpretation, the uniqueness of her style also takes precedence in the varying range of inspiration upon which she builds up her own extravagant mannerism of delving deep into the reaches of music- extravagant however not in a way that dwell on rather stylistic deployment of tones and vocal textures but in the essence of how she goes about pouring her heart and soul into each of her numbers. Take Mohabbat for instance, deep seated in an aura that is calming and mystifying and solacing yet still intriguing enough to command your rapt attention, so that you indeed lose yourself in its very soulful meaning but also bring yourself to terms with a realisation that builds up on you as the song progresses through its soothing trail. So palpable is the mellifluence of the song that has you grieving every loss you have ever experienced in life, even as you sway still along to it, intoxicated indeed on the sheer magnetism of its premises of which there is a feel commonplace but that which stands out still in its brilliantly evocative rendition. Trained in American traditions and yet deeply veered to the notches of melody that Sufism affords one to explore, Aftab brands her own distinctive style of music as neo- Sufi, that which is something that sounds tricky enough to master as effortlessly as Aftab makes sure it comes across as and that which perhaps makes her croonings the favorite of such personalities as Obama himself. Her style is a conglomerate of influences not necessarily musical, deriving instead from real experiences of her life such as her youth sauntered about in the confined but vibrant still expanses of Pakistan and building upon the current cosmopolitan sphere of Brooklyn she inhabits.

In such accounts of her, Arooj Aftab comes across indeed as a musician who is more dynamic than what her genre of choice would have allowed her the luxury of. Sufism after all is a denser, compact identity to breach through the universality allowed by the art of music, requiring therefore musicians like her perhaps to exert themselves far more in eking out their own niche in a world of music that surprisingly continues to thrive still even on the back of some really unnecessary tunes of the modern times infesting the expanses of it. But even in such dynamism of her range that has her shining through the handful of projects she has worked upon in such deft attention to the clarity of mind afforded only by music as soulful as she works with, Aftab can seriously confine herself within the demands of what her work calls for. A perfectionist perhaps to that extent in that she wants her music to be entirely her own and not influenced even remotely by sensibilities that might carry some iota of resemblance is what led this remarkable musician to completely deprive herself from other music for two whole years while she set about working on Vulture Prince, that incidentally goes a long way in some parts of its explorations. Intended as a more contemporary album that would be high on the kind of energy capable of inviting one to dance, the resultant ghazal treat redolent still of its South Asian legacy spans out as a rather minimalist take on what is still every bit a jarring account of love and loss and pain, brought to more acute realisation by Aftab’s couple some personal experiences that went a long way in directing the course of the album she had worked on for almost a decade. Inclined always in making things ‘not very obvious’, whether it be in her play with the myriad of musical instruments to consciously elicit sounds that hear like they do not really stem of them or in her own effort of not imbibing influences and similarities in her distinctively personal take on the music she creates, here is a musician defying the very traditions of music in a way that has her still respecting them very much even when she chooses not to conform to them in exactly the same manner so many others do, charting out instead a definite musical module that is unique enough to earn her song Lullaby the distinction of being one of the Greatest Songs by 21st Century Women+ as deemed by NPR. Even Mohabbat, the track to which Barack Obama has been vibing to this summer, has been named by online music magazine Pitchfork as the Best New Track. Very prominent in the feel of it is this particular track that unveils Aftab’s musical depth, cruising along with the tonal quality of her voice that stands out all the more in the cleverly downplayed part of the instrumentation, as a bold and beautiful belting of not grief, but something much more evocative, of love indeed but also of a wallowing sense of despair that might eat you up if you let it to but can also transcend the mere awareness of the human feels to transform into something that can stir the emotions of a whole world of people struggling with their own interpretations of loss and sorrow, sometimes even without physically dwelling in them. And it indeed is to the credit of Arooj Aftab and her love, that soulful crooning away to Mohabbat that makes this very despairing realisation of life a mode which Barack Obama and many others like him continue to celebrate survival through.