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Album review: Arooj Aftab “Bird Under Water” (FRUK)

February 23, 2015

Cover of Arooj Aftab "Bird Under Water"Having studied music production/engineering and composition at Berklee College of Music, the Lahori musician Arooj Aftab moved to New York, where she worked as a sound editor and composer while her musical vision gradually took shape. In a recent interview she explained that she wanted to create a sound which is both unified and distinct, an idea which arose from “one of the central experiences of Sufism: the oneness of being”. As part of the necessarily slow process of actualising her musical vision for her self-released album Bird Under Water, Arooj has drawn on a number of inspirations, from ancient Sufi poetry and Pakistani classical music forms, through jazz and electronica, and the result is a confident, genre-defying collection that finds its own identity, crossing multiple boundaries and will surely find receptive ears wherever it’s played.

‘Man Kunto Maula’ unfurls like slow-motion butterfly wings in the morning sun, the wooden flute of Baqir Abbas trilling like birdsong into a huge sky as Arooj’s voice tiptoes in, spiralling around like petals on the breeze. Swathed in sheets of echo and sounding like raw silk, her voice rising and falling across modalities of sound, a meditative whisper in your ear. Bhrigu Sahni’s minimalist acoustic guitar gradually coalesces around the textures of the sound of fingers rasping over strings, the whole slowly coming to rest over a strummed chord sequence as the flute dissolves into a reverbed immensity.

The more overtly rhythmic ‘Lullaby’ follows, a guitar-led major key piece with some almost jazzy changes over Mario Carrillo’s walking bass and Jorn Bielfeldt’s discreet cymbal splashes. Sonny Singh’s overdubbed trumpets follow Arooj’s melody as she, in turn, follows Magda Giannikou’s crooning accordion through a series of changes, treading a path, finding our way home, opening and closing field gates behind us on the way.

Rising through a mist of treated guitars and the soft explosions of Mario’s double bass, ‘Ae Na Balam’ starts in a minor key with a sense of foreboding against which Arooj picks out a melody in a voice high and clear, long notes bending. Bhrigu’s arpeggiated guitar chord signals a slide into a rattling breakbeat section, flurries of whirling, jazz-inflected sitar as the tempo increases, resolving the tension before Arooj returns for the song’s brief coda, focusing the musicians and bringing it all gently back to earth and a full-stop of ambient birdsong.

‘Baghon Main Pade Jhoole’ occupies a vast space, illuminated by Jorn’s percussive flares as Mario’s slow walking bass underpins Magda’s accordion washes, treated layers of sound panning slow and steady across a celestial stereo field. Distant shrieks and harmonic pings from Bhrigu’s guitar, draped in echo, counterpoint Arooj’s long, smooth notes, complex melodies multitracked and hovering like inquisitive drones. Fragmented, near-atonal guitar solos appear, disappear and reappear unexpectedly before a heartbeat’s pause at the midpoint heralds a change to a major key. Slowly-decaying guitar chords wrap around the accordion, while Arooj’s quiet melody sounds as if she’s singing to herself, simply for the joy of it, her voice reverberating with a thousand whispered echoes, up into a starlit dome of midnight velvet.

Fingerpicked guitar flows around the spacey whoosh of phased cymbals as Arooj’s slow, breathy voice eases into the closing ‘Na Ja Balam Pardes’. Quiet tambourines punctuate her multitracked vocals, an abstract recitation with eyes closed. A sinewy, insistent, jazzy double bass pushes the piece along, time and distance merging, building a minor key tension against Arooj’s rising wordless vocals, guitar shadowing her mantra. An urgent flurry of breakbeats raises the pressure and the bass hits a downwards riff, treated guitars and accordion circling like birds; Arooj’s voice fills the speakers before the sounds dissolve, fading into an echoey endlessness.

Bird Under Water is one of those rare records that comes completely out of the blue and promptly ensconces itself in head, heart and playlist. It’s an astonishingly good record in every way, a fact made even more impressive when you realise that it’s only Arooj Aftab’s debut album. A transcendent and essential listen, this is indeed the sound of the oneness of being.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (23 February 2015)

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