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A ghazal by Punjab-based poet Hafeez Hoshiyarpuri, which he recited in Lahore’s Government College (now Government College University) with poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz in attendance in 1929, won Brooklyn-based Arooj Aftab her first Grammy at the 64th Grammy Awards in Las Vegas early on Monday morning (India time).
A “neo Sufi” version of Hoshiyarpuri’s ghazal, ‘Mohabbat karne wale kam na honge, teri mehfil mein lekin hum na honge’, which has been earlier sung by musicians such as Mehdi Hassan, Farida Khanum, Ghulam Ali, and Jagjit Singh, brought the 37-year-old Pakistani musician the award in the Best Global Music Performance, a category added by the Recording Academy for the first time this year.
Aftab is the “first ever female Pakistani GRAMMY winner”, the Academy posted on its official Instagram page. Aftab’s version of ‘Mohabbat’, which is the lead piece in her album ‘Vulture Prince’, beat ‘Do yourself’ by Beninese singer-songwriter Angelique Kidjo and Nigerian singer Burna Boy, ‘Pa Pa Pa’ by Nigerian musician Femi Kuti, ‘Essense’ by the Nigerians Wizkid and Tems, and ‘Blewu’ by Kidjo and cello legend Yo-Yo Ma.
“This category (Best Global Music Performance) should be called ‘yacht party’,” Aftab said in her acceptance speech. Aftab had also been nominated in the category of Best New Artiste, the award for which was won by 19-year-old Olivia Rodrigo who had a breakthrough 2021 with, among others, ‘Driver’s Licence’, the lead single of her debut studio album, ‘Sour’.
Growing up years
Aftab was born to Pakistani parents in Saudi Arabia. The family moved to Lahore when she was about 10, and decided to stay on in Pakistan. Aftab’s parents often held musical evenings at their home in Lahore, but Aftab was not allowed to take music lessons, which they believed would impact her studies. Aftab decided to teach herself how to play the guitar, and listened to the music of Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, Ustad Zakir Hussain, and the American jazz diva Billie Holiday, among others. She also took an online music course.
While living in Pakistan, Aftab found recognition for her covers of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ and Pakistani musician Ami Zaki’s ‘Mera Pyar’ that she posted on YouTube. Many musicians in Pakistan followed her, as they realised they did not need production labels if they could create music and post it on the Internet.
At 19, she moved to the US to study music production and engineering at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. She then settled in New York, a melting pot of music from all over the world, and realised that she could sing in Urdu and it would be accepted.
Life and music in NY
While she kept creating her own music, Aftab worked on scoring for films and editing them. In 2013, she scored for filmmaker Cary Mcclelland’s ‘Without Shepherds’, the story of six brave people in Pakistan in the wake of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Aftab also composed the score for ‘Bittu’ (2020) by director Karishma Dev Dube, and was shortlisted for the Best Live Action Short Film at the 93rd Academy Awards.
While in New York, Aftab also worked for MTV and Vice, where she supervised music and video departments. It was during her work here that Aftab was fascinated by thumris by Begum Akhtar. The thumris eventually led her to Sufi poetry and music. Aftab released her debut album titled ‘Bird Under Water’ in 2014 under her own independent label. She did her interpretations of Sufi polymath Amir Khusrau’s ‘Man kunto maula’, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s ‘Ka karu sajni’ and Begum Akhtar’s thumri ‘Na ja balam’. Thereafter, she worked as a playback singer and sang ‘Insaf’ in Meghna Gulzar’s ‘Talvar’ (2015), and ‘Ras ke bhare tore nain’ in the Pakistani film ‘Dobara Phir Se’ (2016).
Her second album was ‘Siren Islands’ which came with spiralling soundscapes paired with her resonant voice. This was a gentle album; very different from some of her earlier work.
Aftab was writing music for Vulture Prince in Brooklyn when she lost her brother Maher Aftab. Around the same time, she lost her friend, model, and writer Annie Ali Khan. “Thank you for helping me make the album that broke me and put me back together,” she said during her speech at the Grammys Premiere ceremony, which took place hours before the main ceremony.
The writing process became elegiac, and the result was the inclusion of one of Annie’s poems, ‘Saans lo’, and Mirza Ghalib’s ‘Diya hai dil agar usko’, the last song that Aftab and her brother shared. In the seven-track album — six Urdu songs and one English — ripples of harp accompany Aftab’s voice along with the tenderness of violin, darker shades from a flugelhorn, and a double bass.