Mohabbat opens beautifully to the sound of gentle guitar strumming, accompanied by the harp, in a manner that gives the impression that the sound is meant to mimic a collaboration between the former stringed instrument with a sitar. In her husky pitch, Arooj Aftab croons the opening lines to her latest song: Mohabbat karnay walay kum na hongey/ Teri mehfil mein lekin hum na hongey [You will never be short of lovers/ But I will not be a part of your gathering].

Yes, it’s the famous ghazal by Hafeez Hoshiarpuri rendered to great acclaim by the likes of Mehdi Hasan and Farida Khanum. Whereas Mehdi Hasan sang five couplets and Farida sang four from the ghazal (the full ghazal has nine couplets), Arooj limits herself to only three couplets. But she makes the song entirely her own and the rendition is very much a modern one that has Arooj’s signature ambient sound.

“People ask, ‘Is this an interpolation? Is this song a cover?’ No, it’s not. It’s very difficult to do this, it has taken a lot of time and energy as a musician, so it’s not a ******* cover. I’m taking something that’s really old and pulling it into the now,” said the artist in a recent interview to Pitchfork an online music magazine.

While other instrumentation is gently introduced into different sections of the song, the sound structure largely remains the same as it was when the song started. It’s a beautiful, minimalist, unplugged track that is haunting both for its ambient sound as well as Arooj’s elongated vocalisations of longing and separation.

Arooj Aftab is far away from home but connecting with her desi roots by reinventing and reimagining how South Asian music can be done

Mohabbat is from her latest album, Vulture Prince, where she experiments ‘fearlessly’ with South Asian sounds. Arooj Aftab is currently based in New York, a melting pot of different cultures, and it provides her with both the environment needed to do the kind of music she wants to and the audience for it. I’m not entirely sure if this kind of new age experimentation would strike a chord with audiences back home. But you never know.

The track has managed to get attention from high places in her adopted country: Mohabbat has also been listed by Barack Obama as one of his favourite songs from his summer playlist for 2021.

Listening to Mohabbat, I’m taken back to when Arooj Aftab first hit the airwaves — on the radio on City FM89 in the early 2000s along with independent releases online on SoundCloud. Her covers of Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah and Aamir Zaki’s Mera Pyaar had an unplugged, raw, dark and hauntingly beautiful quality to them. Fast forward a little more than 15 years later and you can notice the difference in her voice — now well-practised, more powerful, more in tune; as an artist, she sounds surer of herself.

There is still that evocative quality to her music. There’s still that element of sticking to unplugged sounds and not going the electronic way — but not entirely. We have the minimalist synthesiser (played by Shahzad Ismaily) but that can hardly be considered ‘electronic’ by today’s standards. This lends an authenticity to her music, as if each sound created from the strumming of the guitar strings (Gyan Riley), the gentle boom of the flugelhorn (Nadie Noordhuis) or the soft, lilting plucking of the harp strings (Maeve Gilchrist) will never be the same again each time the song is performed. In a time where a song that goes above the three-minute-thirty-second mark is considered ‘long’, Mohabbat is a whopping seven-minutes-42-seconds long epic track.

Mohabbat and other songs by Arooj Aftab, including tracks from Vulure Prince, are available to listen on both YouTube and Spotify.

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 25th, 2021

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