Finding Rumi in New York on a Sunday

Published in Express Tribune Magazine

Brighu Sahni and Arooj Aftab
Photography by Sanya Khetani


            On a Sunday evening, in summertime New York, an intimate venue located in the Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan, filled with fans, friends and first timers alike who had gathered to listen to the soulful renditions of Sufi and traditional South Asian music by Arooj Aftab.

A young female singer from Lahore, Aftab has an eponymous debut album coming out this year. She is also working on music and sound for director Cary McClelland ‘s upcoming feature documentary film about Pakistan called ‘Without Shepherds’. The singer is in line with the current crop of young female musical artists from Pakistan like Quratulain Baloch, Meesha Shafi and the duo Zeb and Haniya.

With a lilting soft voice and deep slowly unfolding melodies, Aftab already has a following among more discerning listeners, but her popularity may well be increasing day by day as news of her music spreads by word of mouth, as well as frequent live performances.  Earlier this year she played to a packed auditorium at the Asia Society Foundation in New York along with Arif Lohar.

The first song was “Man Kunto Maula.” Arooj Aftab–dressed in black velvet sherwani with gold thread motifs over a dark tank top and jeans, with kajal in her closed eyes– was the very picture of her musical style. Arooj takes elements of Eastern classical poetry composed with an eye to Western technique. There were no fire works though and her music did not try to awe. It was presented instead in an honest, almost completely stripped form that was both deep and conversational, with music rendered by guitarist Brighu Sahni who accompanied her on stage.

A tribute to the late Mehdi Hassan came next and she sang an improvised version of  “Mohabat Karne Walay” before launching into her own songs.  “Udhero na” a melancholic song from her album came next.  But it was Rumi’s poetry, that despite her warning of it still being “a work in progress,” proved both haunting and uplifting, the prose seamlessly blended with the music. The evening was brief and the performance ended within the hour after she sang two more numbers.

The crowd of 50 or so mostly young people milled about afterwards. Curious, I ambled over to the other end of the red-walled space to where Arooj was, to ask her about her upcoming album.

“We are trying to redefine and reinterpret world music and pre-partition South Asian music,” she said about her style of music. “Sufism ko bhee hum  aage daal rahe hain and we’re promoting ambient minimalist music. We are stripping it down. We are doing pahari, khayal, ghazal and thumri and re-composing and re-harmonizing all this ancient music and poetry, creating a neo-sufi genre, a new age deeply intricate class of fusion world music.”

I asked her how the response to her music has been so far.

“I think that people are really interested in being relaxed and having a vision of peace and love and people want to listen to good world music,” she said, speaking the way she sings, English sentences following Urdu ones.  “And I feel like New York is the best place for this kind of music because, yahan pe diversity itnee zyada hai and openness itnee zyada hai, you know people have been loving it—it’s been amazing thank god.”

Most of the crowd I spoke to seemed to agree. I was particularly interested in finding out the impressions of people who were not familiar with Urdu. Lehna Huie, a native New Yorker, had come with a friend and was listening to Arooj sing live for the first time. I asked her what she thought of the songs with Urdu lyrics.

“I felt like I was still able to understand it on some level through like the motions,” she said. “That was my reaction to the mellowness of her voice. I felt like I understood in a way so I really enjoyed it.”

            A woman visiting from Karachi said she had heard Arooj for the first time at a performance in Boston.

“I was crying, “ she said. “It was like a meditative experience.” As I made my way out onto the busy pavement, I couldn’t help but agree.