Singing Our Shared Humanity

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Singing Our Shared Humanity

Arooj Aftab on Love in Exile, Vulture Prince, and What Ancient Poetry Can Teach.

by Mary Murdock

On April 14, singer-songwriter Arooj Aftab joins instrumentalists Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily for a transcendent performance in the Music Center. The trio’s project, Love in Exile, cultivates lush soundscapes that explore how we find identity and freedom through music. Aftab describes the synergy between the three performers as “instant and organic.” From the first time they shared a stage with their largely improvised, nearly telepathic performance style, they haven’t looked back. 


Aftab’s star has been steadily rising in the world of global music. Her song “Mohabbat” won the 2022 Grammy for Best Global Music Performance, and she was nominated for Best New Artist. Notably, she was the first Pakistani artist to win a Grammy!  

Aftab’s work has sensory and emotional breadth, and is grounded in her Pakistani heritage and experiences in the New York jazz scene. Thematically, she finds herself returning to explorations of longing, sadness, attraction, and unrequited love, sonically and lyrically. In her 2021 album, Vulture Prince, Aftab identifies the inspirations as “a mix of original poetry and compositions, [as well as] my experiences of life.” She characterizes Vulture Prince multidimensionally, situating the musical journey of the album in the realms of “love, loss, darkness, light, scent, and memory.” 


On Vulture Prince, Aftab reimagines Urdu verse and ancient Arabic poems called ghazals alongside her original lyrics. She finds herself drawn to the continuity and repetition of emotions within the ancient poetry, acknowledging that “people have already written about the things that we’re feeling right now…so beautifully.” Aftab responds deeply to the cyclical nature of history and finds comfort in the way that our deepest experiences, no matter how earth-shattering or unique they feel, have been felt before. “This old poetry is very beautiful, very articulate, and minimal,” she explains, in a description comparable to how her own music and lyrics are often lauded. 

Aftab’s sung interpretations of ghazals and Urdu poetry, intertwined with her own lyrical and instrumental inventions rooted in American folk, jazz, and South Asian classical music, make for a gripping artistic experience. Aftab says that audiences, “connect with the world-building,” contemplating what has made her work deeply touch so many different people. “So many lived and shared heritages coming together is what makes it really intriguing, complex, and exciting for people.” 


Aftab collaborates with Iyer and Ismaily, two other standout musicians invested in excavating the depths of human experience through experimental, multi-instrumental, innovative music making. With a new album arriving in March, Aftab is excited to see how audiences respond to the creative fusion of electronic, instrumental, and vocal music that the group is known for. 

Whether she is performing solo or with a group, Aftab can’t get enough of the exhilaration that comes from being on stage. She finds beauty in the communal experience of live performance with onstage collaborators and the audience. “The exchange of emotions is so rewarding when you’re baring your soul onstage,” she remarks. As part of the Strathmore Windows series, Aftab’s musical ethos fits into the intention of engaging with universal human experiences through cultural art forms. She and  her collaborators each bring their individuality and multicultural roots to Love in Exile, translating joy and pain, through instruments and voices, in breathtaking, shared moments with the audience. 

When asked what she is looking forward to most in work and in life, Aftab expresses anticipation for her continued work with Iyer and Ismaily, alongside the album release. Notably, though, she responds with what could be seen as a distilled mission statement for her musical endeavors: “I just want peace and the truth.” This profound yet simply put remark encapsulates how Aftab and her collaborators engage complexity and minimalism in their storytelling. A performance from Love in Exile transfixes audiences in a state of contemplation of their greatest loves and deepest longings, reminding all what it means to be human. 


Fri, April 14, 8pm

This performance is part of Strathmore’s Windows series and is accompanied by a preconcert talk—South Asian Music in Global Context: Navigating Creativity and Cultural Identity. Free with concert ticket. Registration required.