"I'm glad you are the chosen ones!" Arooj Aftab, at London's King's Place, reviewed

Updated: Mar 1

When we sat in our concert seats, I told my other half, "I can't wait to tell our future kids that we were here, that we saw Arooj Aftab."

I wake up on the day of Arooj Aftab's London concert to the sound of Baghon Main playing from the lounge's speakers. "Am I dreaming?" I quickly ask myself. As I drag my feet through the corridor, I see my other half enjoying his morning coffee accompanied by the quiet intensity of Aftab's singing and the delicate combination of strings and keys. He remarks, "I'm getting my homework in for tonight. She's pretty good." I smile, thinking how lucky I am to not only be seeing Arooj Aftab tonight but that I get to do so with my fiancé. Even though Aftab's music are songs of longing in native Urdu and the language barrier between myself and my other half, Aftab's music is a love letter that is understood by all.

Arooj Aftab's poster for King's Place, London

Arooj Aftab, twice Grammy-nominated, A Pakistani Brooklyn-based singer, composer and producer, was a recent addition to my Spotify. Being her 3rd album, Vulture Prince rose to fame as her fifth track, Mohabbat, was listed on Barack Obama's 2021 influential summer playlist. The record helped her become the first Pakistani woman ever to be nominated for a Grammy as she picked up two nods: Best New Artist and Best Global Music Performance for "Mohabbat."

Barak Obama's 2021 Summer Playlist, Page 1

I spent the last two days refreshing my chrome tabs and my phone screen to purchase tickets for Aftab's performance in London. I had two tickets for her Bristol performance due to work commitments that I couldn't make. That wasn't going to stop me. After sending multiple emails between King's Place, my contact responded, "a lot of people trying to get tickets for this one!". Aftab confirmed on stage, "It was crazy to get tickets to tonight's show. I'm glad you are the chosen ones."

Her Leeds show was scheduled to be seated but having sold most of the tickets and fielding inquiries, Aftab and her promoters made the event standing only to increase capacity.

When we sat in our concert seats, I told my other half, "I can't wait to tell our future kids that we were here, that we saw Arooj Aftab."

Before the performance began, I started a conversation with the Pakistani couple next to me. One was a fan before Aftab's recent Grammy nomination, and one was new to Aftab's music like me. They both asked how recently I got my seats. I explained the struggle and success in securing my two tickets to then be told they refunded their tickets, which resulted in me having them. "My family couldn't make it in the end."

I thanked them for my tickets in time for the lights to dim. The room buzzed with excitement and high expectations, which were exceeded. A purple light from above shone on the stage; Aftab entered, introducing Maeve Gilchrist, accompanied Harpist, and Petros Klampanis on the Double Bass. She remarked that she was wearing trousers that she didn't own thanks to her new stylist and self-deprecatingly was amazed an audience of this size would choose to spend their Friday night listening to her sad music.

Nina Simone, Michael Ochs Archives

Aftab's introductory gambit was as humble as her attitude to the audience despite her recent album titled the most accomplished and interesting record of the year, which graced a plethora of end-of-year charts. Later, I learned that Aftab has signed to Verve's jazz powerhouse, once home to Nina Simone.

As the night continued, the performance felt like a timely and attentive three-way conversation between the double bass, harp and Aftab's vocals. I found Aftab's singing to be the star attraction. Her voice ascended to what looked like a ceiling less venue due to the darkness in the room. Vocally and visually, I felt like the audience was following the undercurrent of darkness towards the light that shone on the stage. On the surface, Aftab's devotion to minimalism masks the multi-layered and multi-faceted album.

I found it impressive that all seven tracks from Vulture Prince were composed by the guitar, violin and flugelhorn but were reworked for a live performance with a harp and double bass.

Gilchrist, Klampanis and Aftab took it in turns to dominate the stage with their performances. You could see Aftab closing her eyes and allowing herself to be carried by the harp and double bass. Whilst Aftab sang, Gilchrist continued on her harp, rippling arpeggios and swaying with her instrument. Simultaneously, my fiancé and I looked at each other and voiced, "I want Maeve to perform with her harp at our wedding."

I saw each performer giving ample time and attention to each other's segment. Every track from Aftab's performance captured me. I'm blown away by her command of Western Jazz traditions and experimental electronica balanced with South Asia's folk and classical music. There is a touch of reggae and blues to her discography.

I later learned that the ghazals are South Asia's closest equivalent to the blues.

Understood as a poetic expression of both the pain of loss and separation and the beauty of love despite that pain. Commonly ghazals are presented as Persian and Pakistani forms of poetry.

Aftab's album permeates the pain from the passing of her brother, Maher. The personal tragedy took place in Pakistan while writing Vulture Prince, to whom the album is dedicated. During her mourning, Aftab reached for the familiar Urdu ghazals. The ambience of the performance echoes the features of a ghazal.

"Diya Hai", the second track on Vulture Prince, is the last song Aftab performed for her brother. My heart experiences the emotional resonance that the strings and vocals create throughout the melody. I feel like a bird soaring through the sky, moving between different heights to sweep to the ground gently. As the track ends, I feel emotionally grounded after the melodic ebbs and flows Aftab's vocals carry me through.

Aftab uses ghazals and poetry on suffering and loss by diving into the work of Mirza Ghalib, one of the subcontinent's most admired poets. Similarly, Last Night, the 4th track on the album, is also one of Rumi's poems. It is the only song sung in English with the single line: "Last night, my beloved was like the moon."

From left to right: Painting of Mirza Ghalib, Painting of Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī, Photo of Hafeez Hoshiarpuri

Mohabbat, now known as one of the best songs of 2021 by TIME magazine, is a ghazal originally written by Hafeez Hoshiarpuri in 1921. Aftab draws the evening to a close by announcing, "This will be the banger off the record." The eclectic demographic of the audience simultaneously shuffle in their seats to be 100% present for the last song of the evening. As Aftab sings, her voice fills the room with a shared feeling of sadness and love so expansive that I feel it is transcending realms beyond. Mohabbat bleeds joy, darkness, love, light and nostalgia from every string and key played and every vocal note hit. The song comforts my soul. The lyrics and Aftab's vocal stylings take me on a trip down memory lane. I see my childhood summers in Pakistan. My head stuck out of the car window waving my flag on Independence Day, the sky's colour palette during sunset, and the call of prayer punching through the humidity to my ears. I remember eating mangoes on my grandparent's rooftop and sharing secrets with my favourite great aunt late at night. As a child, I faced a language barrier with her, but every look at each other communicated our mutual love.

Arooj Aftab's music transcends me through the most meaningful memories in Pakistan. It equally lifts my heart full of love and hope for the beautiful life I'll pave with my other half, who is swaying along with Aftab's melodies. There is something powerful about spending an evening with others moved by Aftab's songs.


Recent Posts

See All