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Arooj Aftab's 'Vulture Prince': Ghazals in the key of life

Arooj Aftab’s album ‘Vulture Prince’, with its intricate arrangements and smoky vocals, is a stunning new take on an old form

Arooj Aftab perfects her intimate sound on 'Vulture Prince'
Arooj Aftab perfects her intimate sound on 'Vulture Prince'

The first song I heard by Arooj Aftab was the first one she became famous for: a hushed cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, recorded when she was in Lahore, in the early 2000s. I hadn’t kept up in the years since, so it was a pleasant shock to hear, on her new album, that same haunting voice, but smokier, richer. Vulture Prince, released on New Amsterdam, is a stunning collection of seven tracks: a ghazal album, in a broad sense, but with the spirit of jazz in its arrangements.

This is not to suggest that Aftab, who lives in Brooklyn, is attempting some tired fusion experiment— there’s no scatting or overt jazz chords. Instead, she sings slowly, insistently, over hushed arrangements of harp, violin, guitar and upright bass. The first track, Baghon Main—a reworking of a song from her debut album, Bird Under Water (2014)—begins with Maeve Gilchrist’s harp playing for almost a minute (in an interview with Pitchfork, Aftab called the harp a “lead instrument” on the album and said, “I was into this idea of taking the instrument out of its comfort zone and making it darker-sounding, playing really strange chords and throwing in some dissonance”). Petros Klampanis’ double bass joins in, followed by Aftab’s vocals, stretching out the words, finding the purchase in every syllable. Darian Donovan Thomas’ violin saws gently in the background, adding little frills to the harp’s shimmers.

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Guitarist Badi Assad guests on the next track, Diya Hai, plucking a stark acoustic figure over which Aftab sings and wintry strings play (this was the last song Aftab performed in person for her brother, who died in 2018, and to whom the album is dedicated). The words on this track, and most of the others, will be familiar to anyone with an interest in Sufi music: Diya Hai has lyrics by Mirza Ghalib, Inayaat by Sudarshan Fakir, Mohabbat by Hafeez Hoshiarpuri. But Aftab’s arrangements of these standards are uniquely hers. In Suroor, which closes the album, she takes the exultant Yeh Jo Halka Halka Suroor Hai, rendered most famously by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and transforms it into a modal, mysterious track, the harp lending an almost Renaissance feel.

All the tracks are in Urdu, though Last Night starts off as an English translation of a Rumi poem. Last night my beloved was like the moon/so beautiful, Aftab repeats, harmonising with herself. A surprising quasi-reggae beat kicks in. Aftab sings a thumri, in Urdu, then sings “So beautiful like the moon” in English several times with different inflections. Repeated phrases recur through the album, most memorably on Saans Lo, where she sings the title five times in a row at the end, as if searching for the truest rendition of the thought.

I would recommend listening to Vulture Prince on headphones, without other distractions. It will be easier to appreciate the small things that make the album special: the drawing of breath by Aftab before a phrase, the thrum of the bass, the subtle layering of the instruments. This is a record that asks you to lean in. After Aftab has sung a verse or two on Mohabbat, there’s an instrumental passage. It begins with ethereal Brian Eno-like synth over acoustic guitar picking and percussion. This sharpens into a muted howl of feedback before the harp re-enters, and then Aftab. It sounds Eastern, Western, old, new, and just right.

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