Weekly (p)reviews: Wasting no time

Featuring Arooj Aftab, María Isabel, and Shahzad Ismaily

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Half the fun of writing about music and musicians for a living is the time spent picking through an artist’s work to find the threads connecting their work to that of their forebears. And trying to understand and elucidate the new patterns being created using those same materials as a guide.

Which is why reading critical responses to Arooj Aftab’s music has been so fascinating. The 36-year-old Pakistani artist has struck a deep chord within the listeners of the world via her outstanding album Vulture Prince–but setting her emotive sounds within a tidy genre box or under the umbrella of a label has proved to be a difficult task for the folks profiling her or reviewing her work.

Yet what appears slippery and elusive to outside ears seems perfectly natural to the person who created these sounds. 

“It’s made up of all the experiences that I’ve had,” she says, speaking recently from her home in Brooklyn. “Coming from a jazz theory background and also having the tapestry of South Asian classical music styles—these incredible melodies and raags that are part of our culture—in my ear. Then living in New York, which is a great melting pot of all cultures. It makes sense that the music sounds like this.”

And what Vulture Prince sounds like, most often, is a cavernous lament. Aftab pulls from, adapts, and in some cases rewrites a selection of South Asian poetry and song. Some of the work is centuries old, while “Saans Lo” was written by Annie Ali Khan, a model and author and friend of Aftab’s who passed away in 2018. What emerged are songs that speak to the fragility and joy of life, the anger she feels at the state of modern life, and her own sadness at the recent deaths of people in her life. 

Arooj Aftab. Photo by Soichiro Suizu.
Arooj Aftab. Photo by Soichiro Suizu.

“I needed to really absorb this material,” Aftab says. “Because I have no business knowing it. Some of these poems go away back before I was born. They carry a lot of meaning and culture for someone like me who has been away from that culture, living in the U.S. for the past 10 years. I think spending the time and letting the meaning of these words change over time and letting it evolve was an important part of the process.” 

That all comes out even when the words, many of them sung in Urdu, remain foreign to the listener. The tranquil volume of Aftab’s voice reveals so many shades of emotion as it rides the music’s fluttering melodies. She gives her vocals a lot of space to pull from this well of feeling within each song. Using primarily harp, guitar, and strings, Aftab’s arrangements slip quietly between the minimalist jazz of vintage ECM recordings and threadbare contemporary classical work. She sends listeners and critics further off her trail with “Last Night,” which sets the words of a Rumi poem to the bounce of a reggae beat.

Vulture Prince was going to be a much different affair when Aftab began developing the material in 2016. The intent was to shift away from the droning beauty of her debut album Bird Under Water and make use of percussion and heavier dance grooves. But the death of her younger brother Maher knocked the wind out of her and, as she told NPR earlier this year, left her feeling that she “couldn’t resonate with the moment anymore.” 

Arooj Aftab. Photo by Daniel Hilsinger.
Arooj Aftab. Photo by Daniel Hilsinger.

Aftab poured herself into other projects, like her 2018 album Siren Island, a vivid collection of one-take instrumentals using analog synths and guitar, and performing around New York. When she returned to Vulture, the mood of the music shifted into the more serene, twilight feel of the finished album.

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As I talked to Aftab, I had to know how the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the most recent album felt, knowing that it was borne from something so devastating. Was it strange to have this be her breakthrough or did it help make the loss a little easier to bear? 

“I haven’t really been able to understand loss still,” Aftab told me, “and what it really does and how it just stays and evolves. But I do think that the fact that this music is reaching so many people, and maybe aiding them in their losses, is comforting.” 

Arooj Aftab performs at Holocene (1001 SE Morrison, Portland OR) on September 26 w/ Sheers. 9 pm. Tickets: $35.

María Isabel @ Holocene, September 14, 2021

“You guys! I’m trying to be in my feelings and you’re making me way too happy!” 

It’s hard to know what María Isabel, the up-and-coming Latinx pop artist from New York was expecting as she stepped on to the stage at Holocene for the first date of her first ever tour. But from the look of her wide grin and even wider-eyed reactions to the gaggle of folks huddled at her feet that knew all the words and Snapchatted every moment of her hour-long set, it clearly wasn’t this.

Hedging her bets on how she would be received in a city she’d never been to was a safe play. Though numbers bear out that this is an artist on the rise (her 2020 single “Stuck In The Sky” has racked up over 3 million plays on Spotify) and she had sold out shows in California to look forward to, Portland was unproven ground. And the fact that there were only around 60 bodies present for her debut performance might have left Isabel focusing on the empty space in the room. 

María Isabel @ Holocene, September 14, 2021. Photo by Robert Ham.
María Isabel @ Holocene, September 14, 2021. Photo by Robert Ham.

Whatever impression the experience ultimately left her with, while she was in the moment at Holocene, Isabel looked beatific and constantly surprised when the first notes of a song would draw out shouts of recognition from the audience. But just as quickly, she would downshift into pop professional mode, taking her body and voice back to the song and evoking the drama or joy or heartbreak that inspired it. 

The set was mostly downtempo and downcast. Backed by a live drummer and a guitarist who also worked a laptop, the song selection stuck to Isabel’s ballads and gently smoldering pop that spoke of sensuality or romantic dismay. It was a gear that she and her band stuck to until the closing moments of the night when the broken beat groove of “No Soy Para Ti” sent her body and her syrupy voice into a warm, fizzy bounce.

Shahzad Ismaily @ No Fun, September 14, 2021

Shahzad Ismaily is not one for wasting time. Visiting Portland for a stretch to work in the studio on a new Laura Veirs record, the New York-based multi-instrumentalist decided to fill his evening hours with gigs. With the assistance of Mike Gamble–guitarist and artistic director of Creative Music Guild–Ismaily wound up playing a series of shows around town at small venues and in different ensembles. 

This mini-residency landed last week at No Fun, a narrow space that has become a vital hub for experimental music in Portland. The perfect low-key, low-stakes location for a short set from a visiting artist. For this particular performance, Ismaily was joined by an ensemble that included Gamble on guitar, Matt Mayhall on drums, violinist Manami Mizumoto, and guitarist Indigo Street.

Shahzad Ismaily @ No Fun, September 14, 2021. Photo by Robert Ham.
Shahzad Ismaily @ No Fun, September 14, 2021. Photo by Robert Ham.

The improvised set shifted depending on what instrument Ismaily was using. When he slipped his bass guitar on, the music stayed in a rumbling, post-rock mode that let the guitarists tangle together in the vein of Sonic Youth. The sound became a haze of drones and occasional rhythmic spatters as soon as Ismaily slipped his modular synth into his lap.

It was the ideal experience of watching a group of musicians build and develop a sound out of nothing. They listened to each other closely, tugging the music in a new direction when they sensed an opening.

After the main set scrambled to a close, Ismaily shouted that he needed five more minutes and settled his bony body behind the drum kit. Some new players entered the game with one gent strapping on Ismaily’s bass and musician Maxx Katz—on hand as part of one of the support acts—grabbing a microphone. The three pounded out a quick number that was all punishing doom metal downstrokes and ugly vocal tones. It was a fun, if unnecessary addition to the night–but Ismaily had a few moments to spare and wasn’t about to let them slip away.

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About the author

Robert Ham is a critic and journalist living in Portland, Oregon’s outer reaches. During his time in the Rose City, he has contributed to The OregonianWillamette WeekPortland Mercury, and Portland Monthly, while also amassing a healthy amount of clips for print and online publications including PitchforkDownBeatBandcamp, and Village Voice. In 2019, he was the recipient of the SPJ Award for Best Sports Feature. In addition, Robert produces and hosts Double Bummer, a radio show focusing on new and newly reissued experimental music from around the world that airs every Tuesday night at 11pm PT on XRAY-FM. To read more of his work, visit his portfolio site or follow him on Twitter at @roberthamwriter.

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