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Arooj Aftab Dreams Bigger Than Ever on ‘Night Reign’

Listening to Pakistani musician Arooj Aftab sing can feel a little like those first few drifting moments after you pop a bedtime melatonin. The edges of the world bleed like watercolors, and your mind weaves new tales from the frayed memories of your day. That makes sense, given that Aftab herself calls nighttime her “biggest source of inspiration.”

A vocalist, composer, and producer who has taken influence from artists as diverse as Billie Holiday, Abida Parveen, and Jeff Buckley, the 39-year-old Aftab has spent her career dreamily eliding the boundaries between jazz, pop, and classical music. A track on her 2021 album, Vulture Prince, won a Grammy for Best Global Music Performance, a distinction that limits the scope of what she does. Last year, she collaborated with pianist Vijay Iyer and multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily for the beautifully experimental Love in Exile, one of 2023’s best albums.

Aftab’s new LP, Night Reign, finds her getting even more range-y than usual. Iyer returns to layer delicate, almost Disney-eque keys into the cool-water flow of “Saaqi.” Poet and experimental musician Moor Mother spits bars about the tenuous nature of reality in a fucked-up world on the doomy “Bola Na,” and Cautious Clay (flute), Kaki King (guitar), and Elvis Costello (Wurlitzer) revamp a Rumi-inspired track from Vulture Prince into the gorgeously hectic “Last Night Reprise.” 

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Aftab also goes to the well of tradition more than once on this record — turning the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves” into an almost foreboding nocturnal landscape, or shaping the words of 18th-century Urdu musician and poet Mah Laqa Bai into a crystalline yet triumphant track that sounds like falling asleep next to your lover on “Na Gul.” This thread of poetic love is sewn in throughout the LP — sliding in like silk on album opener “Aey Nehin,” floating like an intoxicating perfume on “Raat Ki Rani,” and curling up like a cat on the lush “Zameen,” featuring multi-instrumentalist Marc Anthony Thompson.

“Whiskey,” though — one of the only English-language tracks — feels the most personal, like a dream that’s more easily evoked than described. Mingling strings and the hushed sounds of tides coming to shore, the track sees Aftab giving in to infatuation, as her lover drunkenly drowses on her shoulder, and she discovers that she’s “ready to give in to your beauty and let you fall in love with me.” It’s a singular moment of individual bliss, but anyone in the throes of new love will relate. Such is the power of Aftab’s one-of-a-kind sonic vision. She has worlds in her voice, as intimate and expansive as her own imagination.

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