The Pakistan-born, New York-based musician Arooj Aftab creates her singular sound by blending elements of the Pakistani classical music tradition, jazz, and trance. Her technical skill and compositional fearlessness have led her to explore unique song forms, as she did while reimagining the classic Qawwali song “Man Kunto Maula.” “Mohabbat,” the lead single off her forthcoming album Vulture Prince, is her take on a famous ghazal, a poetry and song form that finds beauty in longing.
Originally written by Hafeez Hoshiarpuri, the song has been covered by famous Pakistani singers like Medhi Hassan and Iqbal Bano. Their versions buzz with the drone of the harmonium, the twangy percussion of the tabla, and the taan, a characteristic vocal modulation where a singer quickly shifts between notes while climbing up a scale. But Aftab completely transforms the song. She scales back the instrumentation and elongates her words, beautifully drawing out the consuming sadness of separation from a lover: “The sadness of this is equal to the sadness of all the world.” In the moment that Aftab’s vocal register drops, evoking the transcendent power of legendary singer Abida Parveen, the intensity of her longing expands beyond the speakers and straight into your soul.
Though the song never approaches a major catharsis, these small moments patiently build on each other into a mountain of feeling. Aftab has said that she wants her work to have the emotional resonance of Sufi devotional poetry: “Calmness, peace, patience, simplicity. And then sadness, longing, wandering, searching, openness, oneness.” Over the slow burn of nearly eight minutes, “Mohabbat” encapsulates them all.