LABEL: NEW AMSTERDAM
ALBUM IN A SENTENCE: The third album from Brooklyn Based Pakistani Composer reinterprets the tradition of Hindustani classical music on an album that transcends grief and loss.
The main reasons I’m writing this blog are to encourage myself and others to emotionally invest in contemporary music and inquire what can be seen and heard if your perspectives are suddenly widened.
Inevitably, I will sometimes be writing about music that I am encountering for the first time, music that deserves better contextualization than I am capable of. I can only write with the spirit of Wendell Berry’s instruction to ‘give approval to all you cannot understand.’ Approaching Arooj Aftab’s exquisite new album Vulture Prince, I do not possess the deep understanding of Hindustani classical music and American minimalism that I would wish for a critic of this album to have. To that end, please read Sadia Shirazi’s exceptional writing on this album for Artforum which does much fuller justice to this work than I could hope.
That being said, you only need a pair of ears to realise that Vulture Prince is an album of deep, earth-bound, fully-human glory. It is an album that works like perfume oil. The listener’s attention is drawn to the curl of vapour rising, the subtle release of fragrance, but none of that happens without an object that is burning. Vulture Prince is an album of memory for places and people who have disappeared, particularly Aftab’s younger brother Maher, who died during the recording process.
Central to the album is Arooj Aftab’s soul-filled voice. As Sadia Shirazi explains, in the tradition that Aftab works in, it is the job of the collected musicians to respond to the melody and mood created by the singer rather than the American way of recording that superimposes vocals on the top of instrumentation. Aftab’s voice cherishes and caresses the poetry it interprets and the disappearing world that the lines represent. She is a lady who knows how to sing the blues.
Although Vulture Prince is steeped in Pakistani tradition and culture, it also is a deeply American album.
It is fluent in the wide panoramic sweep of the prairie. It is cinematic. There is an earthy quality to every track, a gravel road for true love to walk down that gives every track consequence. This album reminds me of Mazzy Star’s ability to combine lullabies and heartache. Aftab’s spectacular interpretation of ‘Mohabbat’ carries a type of shared spiritual DNA with Led Zepplin’s ‘Going To California’. When the mood changes and the jazz and reggae rhythms of ‘Last Night’ kick in, it makes perfect sense and is a joyous surprise.
By incorporating American idioms, there is a sense in which Arooj Aftab is also able to flip back and subvert them. Vulture Prince perhaps serves as a reminder that America is not exceptional in its mythic geography; every country has some equivalent of the prairie. It is a statement that although there have always been the blues, there are forms of music, even on the American continent, that massively pre-date the blues.
On ‘Saans Lo’, translated into English as ‘breathe’, Aftab splendidly expresses the tensions at the heart of this album. Even as her vocal performance rises heavenward, her feet are on the ground. Vulture Prince always displays an awareness of the old wisdom that humans are made of dust and dust is where we are returning. But while we have breath… While we have breath we can sing, we can breathe life into what is past, we can see to the stars, we can continue to keep speaking healing over what hurts.