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Recording of the Week, Arooj Aftab - Night Reign

Images: Stefano Ortega
Images: Stefano Ortega

nocturne, n. 


Music. A composition suggestive of night, usually of a quiet, meditative character.”

Over its fruition, the Western canon has amassed instrumental scores imbued with romantic notions of night-time by the shedload. Dating back centuries, these aesthetic secrets jotted down in black ink onto eggshell paper are ready for the performer to interpret as they see fit. However, in other musical cultures where oral traditions have been more prevalent, it’s not so much the tale insofar as how you tell it.

For a number of years now, Pakistani-American vocalist Arooj Aftab has been a force to be reckoned with on the global new music scene. Having moved from her homeland to New York after studying at the Berklee College of Music, she has remained on the cutting edge of her adopted city’s creative hub over a decade ago. Her work often builds on the long cultural heritage of the Indian subcontinent, whether that’s the heartfelt lyrics she impeccably crafts along the ancient lines of Urdu ghazal, or the meditative classical vocal style that she has now perfected. Having blown us all away on Love in Exile (2023), recorded with jazz pianist Vijay Iyer and self-taught instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily, listeners around the world have waited with baited breath in anticipation of what the singer might do next.

In 2022, Aftab won the Grammy for Best Global Music Performance, becoming the first Pakistani artist to do so – but she doesn’t feel that her work properly belongs to this sort of label, however. For an artist whose touching music combines so many styles into a balanced whole, it seems only natural that the former-audio engineer would seek to transcend such boundaries. As with any great poet, there lies a deep message at the core of what she does. Aftab aims to provide the listener with a multi-sensory experience, as was previously evidenced when she released her own fragrance as a companion to her breakthrough third album, Vulture Prince (2021). 

Instilled with a similar sense of somnambulistic darkness, Night Reign is the latest chapter in this unfurling story of virtuosic brilliance. I’ll be the first to admit, as a native-English speaker, I don’t understand a word of the Urdu songs which make up over half the album. If you’re in the same boat, however, fear not. Besides Aftab's scholarly poetic techniques we may be missing out on, I still inevitably manage to lose myself in that incredible voice. Her music doesn’t defer to the demands of the Western ear, nor should it; rather, it remains faithful to the musician’s uncompromising blend of ambient jazz, indie singer-songwriting, electronic minimalism and devotional worship.

For a song I’m more able to get my head round, why not let's unpick ‘Autumn Leaves’ (yes, that Autumn Leaves) for starters. Its hand-beaten drum and bass rhythm drive propels us from the get-go, whilst a reverb-drenched Aftab allows Johnny Mercer’s lyrics to abscise, ghostly phrase by phrase, reinventing the standard in the end as if she was languorously drafting it out of the air. Ever a delight, Iyer makes a pleasing appearance to reunite with his Love in Exile collaborator on ‘Saaqi’, an extension of the immersive splendour the pair concocted on their previous recording – even a studio outtake, perhaps. But the track that best encapsulates the whirling dervish atmosphere, ‘Last Night Surprise’, is where the album reaches critical mass. Its main lyric, “Last night my beloved was like the moon/So beautiful like the moon/Even brighter than the sun,” reads like the mystical Islamic poetry of Rumi or even a passage from a Hafezian ode. In fact, Aftab’s own style has occasionally been described as ‘neo-Sufi’ on account of the ways in which she manages to break free from earthly limitations and effortlessly stroke the divine.

All in all, Night Reign is a perfect distillment of Aftab's ecclectic influences and taste, a refined statement of her musical prowess without losing any of its detail in the process... The drama of her previous work, the spirituality of her own metaphorical songwriting and the acknowledgement of her carefully chosen musical partners amounting to a considered reflection of the artist's progressive soul. 

Arooj Aftab

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Available Format: Vinyl Record