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Encore: Arooj Aftab considers her Grammy nods a triumph. But they won't define her

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Composer and singer Arooj Aftab took home her first Grammy ever last night. Her rendition of "Mohabbat" won the prize for best global music performance. When we spoke earlier, Aftab had just gotten back from a trip to Pakistan.

AROOJ AFTAB: This is kind of the (unintelligible) that was next door.

CHANG: The living room of her Brooklyn brownstone was littered with confetti and these slightly deflated balloons.

AFTAB: I got back from Karachi, and then the next day, everybody was like, well, we're coming over, and we're going to celebrate. So, you know, there were balloons. My friend brought this banner that says, two-time Grammy nominee lives here. I did not get this myself.

CHANG: Aftab had just learned about her Grammy nominations for best new artist and best global music performance. Her music - it's melancholy at times...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LULLABY")

AFTAB: (Vocalizing).

CHANG: ...Playful at others.

(SOUNDBITE OF AROOJ AFTAB SONG, "LULLABY")

CHANG: And it's always bold.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LULLABY")

AFTAB: (Singing in non-English language).

CHANG: That last quality seems like a key part of her personality, too. Like, she told us about a time when she was performing at a Sufi music festival. One of the stars on the bill was Abida Parveen, among the greatest Sufi singers alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAN KUNTO MAULA")

ABIDA PARVEEN: (Singing in non-English language).

CHANG: Aftab tracked her down.

AFTAB: I kind of took the elevator up to her suite and then was just kind of outside her door.

CHANG: She was nervous. She hesitated before knocking. But once she did, Parveen welcomed her in.

AFTAB: And she's just, like, wearing this sort of, like, maroon, long silk thing and is just sort of, like, floating down the hallway. You know, she brought out her harmonium, and then we sang "Man Kunto Maula" together...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAN KUNTO MAULA")

PARVEEN: (Singing in non-English language).

AFTAB: ...Which, like, I really shouldn't have done because I was so young and probably really bad.

CHANG: It was a classic Sufi song, which Aftab eventually released on her first album some years later.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAN KUNTO MAULA")

AFTAB: (Singing in non-English language).

CHANG: Today, almost 12 years since that day in Abida Parveen's hotel room, Aftab's music continues to draw from ancient tradition, like the poetry of the 13th-century Sufi mystic poet Rumi.

AFTAB: In college, I started reading Rumi, and that felt really great. And I kind of liked Rumi's playfulness, you know, how he's like, you know, I'm drunk. You're insane. How are we going to get home? You know - or like, last night, my beloved was like the moon, so beautiful, even brighter than the sun, grace far beyond my grasp. The rest is silence.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST NIGHT")

AFTAB: (Singing) So beautiful like the moon, even brighter than the sun.

And so that was just all sitting there on a page for, like, a bunch of years. And then at some point, there was, like, a jam with a friend of mine, and he was just playing some, like, reggae. And I just started singing that, you know? And it flew off the pages and into a melody and into my voice. And it was just, like, whoo (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST NIGHT")

AFTAB: (Singing) Was even brighter than the sun, was even brighter than the sun.

CHANG: How do you make these songs your own or how do you make them feel accessible to listeners today when these lyrics, in some cases, are centuries old?

AFTAB: A lot of these poems are poems that I've been sitting with for, like, 10 years, you know? And it takes that long, really, to kind of sit with poetry that is that old and understand it and kind of absorb it - like, proper osmosis - and, like, really feel it in your own body as if it's yours. And it's like - relates to the things that have happened to you in your life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIYA HAI")

AFTAB: (Singing in non-English language).

CHANG: I want to talk about how you found Pakistani music growing up. I mean, were you surrounded by this kind of music your whole life? Or how did you stumble into it?

AFTAB: I mean, I think Pakistanis, just on a cultural level, are, like, never without music, you know what I mean? Like, it's just - you know, it's, like, part of the tapestry. It's part of just - it's just everywhere, actually, you know? I'm extremely proud for our heritage and from where I come from. Pakistan is incredible, and, like, it's a city of gardens and dance and poetry and literature and architecture and horse riding and, like, emeralds. It's, like, this culturally rich civilization that has been on for, like, centuries.

CHANG: Well, "Mohabbat" is maybe the song that you've been recognized for the most.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOHABBAT")

AFTAB: (Singing in non-English language).

CHANG: You know, you've gotten all this recognition for that song, despite the fact that this song has been covered by many Pakistani singers in the past. Can you talk about what drew you to making your own rendition of this song?

AFTAB: I have always really loved the poetry of it, which is kind of like, you know, you have so many lovers. You always will. But, you know, I'm just not going to be one of them. It's so - it has this, like, really sad and depressing but also, like, really comedic aspect to it. That's always something that's resonated with me, and I've never really seen it in any version that anyone else has sang. And there's never really any innovation in the music of it. But for me, I just - I brought this energy of kind of, like, stupidity to the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF AROOJ AFTAB SONG, "MOHABBAT")

AFTAB: But then there's also, like, this really dark synth crazy moment that happens where I've seen people's faces when they're listening to it for the first time, and they're just like, I have been dismantled by this part.

(SOUNDBITE OF AROOJ AFTAB SONG, "MOHABBAT")

AFTAB: It actually just hits you and reminds you that, oh, my God, no, actually, this is a really sad thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF AROOJ AFTAB SONG, "MOHABBAT")

CHANG: As we mentioned, you're being nominated now in the best new artist category, which is sort of funny because you've been at this for quite some time. And I'm just wondering, what does it feel like to be introduced to the world by the Grammys as new? How does that sit with you?

AFTAB: I'm like, hey; look. I'll take it. I mean...

(LAUGHTER)

AFTAB: I mean, this is normal. This is not unusual in the musician world that you're at it for so long. Like, look at Julius Eastman, like, Jeff Buckley, Eva Cassidy. Like, look at these people who became so well-known after they had to go and die, you know?

CHANG: Right.

AFTAB: Like, this is not that. This is like - this is, you know, I'm still alive, and I'm just glad that it's happening, like, while I'm still in my 30s. So that's...

(LAUGHTER)

AFTAB: Like, I think I should just say that it was definitely a very pleasant and romantic surprise, and I'm really grateful for it. And I'm really excited for what's to come next.

(SOUNDBITE OF AROOJ AFTAB SONG, "INAYAAT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.