Arooj Aftab review – a mesmerising ambient jazz threesome

Brudenell Social Club, Leeds
Flanked by just bass and harp, the Grammy-nominated, Brooklyn-based Pakistani artist Arooj Aftab wows Leeds with a pared-down account of her latest album – and its standout track, beloved of Barack Obama

On this year’s best new artist Grammy award shortlist (the ceremony is in April), Brit-winning pop revelation Olivia Rodrigo is battling it out with Billie Eilish’s brother, Finneas, and rapper Saweetie, among others; Arlo Parks is in the mix too.

Gatecrashing this none-more-mainstream party, however, is a little-known electronic composer and jazz conservatoire graduate who sings songs of longing in her native Urdu. Arooj Aftab’s spellbinding music defies easy categorisation. Jazz, ambient and traditional forms such as the ghazal – a Persian/Pakistani form of poetry – are components, rather than complete accounts, of Aftab’s work, which is full of ancient sadness and modern compositional rigour. The point of her work is not to promote orientalist readings of traditional Pakistani music. Aftab’s is as much a New York state of mind (her current home) as it is a south Asian one. Singer Jeff Buckley is a relevant reference point; Aftab covered his cover of Hallelujah as a teenager and it went viral in Pakistan. Buckley, of course, admired the great qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

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