Shrouded by heavy red lights and dry ice, award-winning singer Arooj Aftab enraptures her audience with mesmerising vocals and her unique sound.
Tonight, Leith has become otherworldly as guitarist, Gyan Riley, brings his expansive style repertoire to the set. He wanders through classical, Spanish, Persian, prog rock, funk, and psychedelic melodies with nods (or so it seems) to the folk/rock styles of John Martyn, Nick Drake, and Jeff Buckley. Double bass player Petros Klampanis provides a vocal foil to Aftab’s own voice. He whistles too, and although he’s no Molly Lewis, he has the comforting whistle of a favourite uncle. His bass playing is a sublime mix of jazz, blues, and folk rhythms.
The opening number, Baghon Main, distils the album version down to what this trio offers through the mist but loses nothing in the transition. Indeed, Aftab’s utterly enchanting vocals need to be experienced live. Quite rightly, her recent album Vulture Prince won a Grammy, but nothing prepares for her ability to soothe, hypnotise, raise, and connect with this transfixed audience. It seems slightly unfair to compare the music with that of depressed/deceased white fellows (mentioned above) as she is full of humorous asides.
Aftab greets the audience like old friends, commenting on how good they smell and on the lack of acceptable Pakistani food in NY. She says how great it is to just “…drink wine and sing long notes…” as if we should all be doing it. This belies the exacting skills of her vocal range and her ability to deliver with deceptive ease. Midway through a demanding tour, she shows no signs of flagging. As an added gesture, she throws roses into the audience but also explains the prior eye contact that must be undertaken to avoid any audience members feeling assaulted by a bloom.
As a term, fusion or world music are no longer satisfactory labels for this new wave of musicians like Aftab who have established their own cross-genre musical identity. Aftab’s music is a contemporary meditation on universal themes of love, loss, and empathy – a need for which transcends man-made borders of all kinds.