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Activist, Scholar, Dandy

Reinventing the Past

A conversation with Arooj Aftab
By Nilo Tabrizy |
AUGUST 21, 2019
On August 24th, SAADA launched the soundtrack to our "Revolution Remix" South Asian American history walking tour with a one-night-only concert at Christ Church Neighborhood House in Philadelphia. We shared stories of South Asians in Philadelphia from the 1780s to the present day and original compositions by five talented South Asian American artists: Arooj Aftab, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Zain Alam, Seti X, and Anju. The album is available now on all streaming platforms including Spotify, iTunes, and SoundCloud.

Listen to Arooj's track while reading the interview below:

If you search for Arooj Aftab online, there are countless articles describing her music as soulful, dreamlike and hypnotizing. Aftab’s work is known for a revolutionary blending of ancient Sufi poetry with modern jazz. Her voice soothes and soars over modern and minimal beats with an approach firmly rooted in her culture. Born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan, Aftab won an online scholarship in 2004 from Berklee School of Music’s online continuing education division. After taking several online courses, she applied to Berklee in Boston, Massachusetts and eventually moved to the U.S. the following year.

I first met Aftab in 2014 when we both worked at VICE. She was a video editor and we collaborated on a few stories for VICE News. I heard rumors that Aftab was a secretive musical genius. Humble as she is, Aftab never admitted this and I had to do some medium level googling on my own to find out more. Sure enough, I found out that Aftab is well known in world music circles. In 2011, NPR named her as one of the Top 100 Young Composers of our time. The New York Times also included her in their list of Best Concerts of 2012. More recently, her album Siren Islands made it onto The New York Times’ 25 Best Classical Songs of 2018.

Aftab is one of five South Asian American artists collaborating with the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA) on a sonic tour of Philadelphia that aims at highlighting overlooked stories of South Asian Americans in the heart of the early-American Republic. SAADA’s walking tour of Philadelphia starts at the Liberty Bell. That’s where the Indian revolutionary Taraknath Das led a march of thousands to the Knickerbocker Theater in West Philadelphia and read a proclamation for India’s independence from British rule.

Aftab’s work is a part of “Revolution Remix.” She’s created a new musical composition that coincides with the last leg of the walking tour.

I wanted the music to have that sort of inviting, docking, terminal kind of feel, of people arriving and beginning new lives,” Aftab said of her new work.

In an interview, Aftab shared more details about her new project with SAADA, her feelings about being a member of the South Asian diaspora and the importance of preserving the stories of immigrant communities in the United States.

When you moved to the U.S., how aware were you of the South Asian diaspora and community?
I wasn't aware of it at all when I first came to Boston for college. I did find them eventually, like through student groups at Harvard and M.I.T., but their scene was different from the musician community. There were very few South Asians when I started at Berklee and I was literally the only Pakistani.

As a first-generation immigration who spent most of your life in Pakistan, how do you see your place in the larger South Asian diaspora? How do you connect with members of your community who have been here for multiple generations?
Within the larger South Asian diaspora, I often find myself at the receiving end of a lot of respect and gratitude for the music I make, which reinvents beautiful old poetry and thumris with a modern, post minimal and jazz flare. It evokes a sense of nostalgia and melancholia for the folks who have been away from Pakistan for so long. I guess that feels like a good place for me to occupy. To bridge the old home with the new home, and somehow that neither here nor there feeling of being an immigrant finds its own place.

Tell me what drew you to being a part of this artist workshop in Philadelphia? Have you spent much time there?
I have been connected to Philly for quite some time now through the owner of this gallery called Twelve Gates Arts. Aisha herself is a Pakistani immigrant living in Philly, and is at the center of one of the most diverse, supportive, progressive and art/music loving South Asian communities I’ve ever come across. She’s been inviting me to perform at various events for years and I am very grateful to her for it.
Photo courtesy of New Amsterdam Records.
Were you aware of the South Asian history in Philadelphia? If not, how did you feel when you started learning more about it and SAADA’s walking tour there?
I really wasn’t aware of it at all, like for example, that the founder of Bose speakers had his come up in Philly. It’s a great tour and I highly recommend it.

Are you going to collaborate with the other four artists as a part of this workshop?
We are meant to do individual pieces, but the piece I did features Afghan-American rabab player Qais Essar, which I am pretty excited about.

How are you conceiving of your participating in the artist workshop in Philadelphia? Will it be a departure from your current work? Are there themes you’re looking forward to exploring?
I believe my music piece is for the last leg of the walking tour. The tour ends along the Delaware River, where so many early South Asian immigrants first entered the city. I wanted the music to have that sort of inviting, docking, terminal kind of feel, of people arriving and beginning new lives. So the ambient drone is full of little individual ornaments, and then the beat is a modern day trap which is a massive music trend right now, and then of course the lyrics are from an age old ghazal ‘dil jalaney ki baat’ popularised by the Pakistani vocalist Farida Khanum.

There are so many ethnic and cultural communities in the US. Is it important to preserve their histories and legacies? What do you think is the most meaningful way to do this?
I think by creating art that reflects the history and the legacy, we can in many ways preserve it, or at least create new versions of what once was, so that we have a way of tracing back to it if we need to.

Are you surprised at the erasure or lack of promotion of South Asian history in the U.S.? Tell me why or why not.
I’m really not surprised at all. We live in a society where India is Bollywood, Pakistanis are terrorists from the Middle East, and what even is chicken tikka masala? Why is that thing so red? Our food, our cultures, our differences, our history are all super watered down and misrepresented. I’m glad that organizations like SAADA are programming and performing and creating opportunities for the community to come together and represent ourselves in the way we want to.

How do you identify within your culture or larger religion? Has that identity shifted for you? Tell me the points where it has shifted.
I think I’ll always have a really strong sense of my South Asian identity because of how I use pre-partition poetry in my work. I mean while I am essentially creating a new-music out of it, it is very much the nucleus of the work. I definitely cannot fully identify with the larger religion though, and that is not really a shift I think that has always been there for me.

What’s the most basic / annoying question you get about your culture in how it relates to your music and artistry?
I guess people find it really amazing that a woman from a crazy repressive country like Pakistan came to the U.S. alone and studied music… and is actually successful at it. It’s not repressive. It’s great, it’s feminist. It has a very deep history of dance, poetry and music. A history people are proud of. Another inappropriate question is when people ask me how I got my parents to “let me” do what I’ve done. Like, I am an award-winning musician in my 30s. Why are we still talking about my parents?

Many in the South Asian community have felt alienated and targeted under the Trump Administration and its Travel Ban. How has this made you feel? How has this impacted your identity, artistry and overall priorities?
I think the travel ban in general on Muslims at every airport has been in place for a very long time and it definitely constantly gets in the way of my artistry. I think for an artist, being able to travel freely is key, and so in that way it hinders my work and gives me a lot of anxiety often.
Nio Tabrizy is a journalist, filmmaker, and writer based in New York City.