Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
To say that Arooj Aftab has enjoyed a "crazy year" as she told the crowd early on would be an understatement. Thanks to her song "Mohabbat," she became the first Pakistani win a Grammy, taking home the honor last year for Best Global Music Performance.
That, of course, led to an increased musical presence and touring, including the prestigious Newport Folk Festival this past summer, behind her album, "Vulcan Prince." The release deals with the death of her 32-year-old brother Maher. In fact, this was the final U.S. concert of the year for Aftab.
Aftab, who is based in Brooklyn, created moods with her vocals, singing primarily in Urdu although one song was in English (the lyrically simple "Last Night," translated from a poem by the 13th century poet Rumi). The music occupies space somewhere between jazz (Aftab's smokey vocals surely matched that style) and folk.
While there may have been a good amount in the crowd who understood Urdu, it would have been nice to hear from Aftab about what the songs were about. Songs tended to blend one into the other without a lot of musical differentiation. Each song in and of itself worked, but this wasn't a concert of ups and downs or much of a sense of build either.
An exception was the closing song, "Mohabbat," which was a lot faster in tempo and had more of a pop sound than anything else played during the 70-minute show.
Aftab handled the vocals with Maeve Gilchrist on Celtic harp and Darian Donovan Thomas on violin. Gilchrist was simply lyrical on the harp, sometimes aggressive, sometimes soft. Always gorgeous.
Thomas seemed, more often than not, to be picking his fiddle, instead of using his bow. And he also wrung a bunch of sounds from his violin seemingly through the use of pedals. Aftab often gave both plenty of space to ply their prodigious skills.
The lighting on Aftab barely ever went beyond dark shades of blue for some reason. Gilchrist tended to be better lit, but why the darkness? It didn't help that Aftab was decked out in a fancy black outfit with black arm sleeves. Maybe this all matched the music.
Aftab certainly had a sense of humor, bordering on the snarky side. Sufficiently humorous and engaged with the crowd, although not necessarily everyone's cup of tea.
Aftab may seem like an unlikely candidate to reach wider audiences. This wasn't a perfect night of music by any stretch, but for Aftab, "crazy" worked out okay.