Arooj Aftab: Crossing boundaries with guitar

Two years ago Arooj Aftab was a middle-class Pakistani teenager living her life according to plan: She was working studiously under the watchful gaze of her parents to finish a two-year advanced-level degree in math and economics, and planning a sensible career in accounting.

At the same time, Aftab was pursuing an interest that was not at all part of the well-established cultural framework. She was teaching herself to play the guitar. As if this weren’t radical enough, Aftab began writing her own songs. Forbidden by her father to enter a professional recording studio, Aftab did what any self-respecting Muslim girl determined to liberate herself from thousands of years of gender inequality would do: She learned how to use computer software to record and mix her own music.

“We’re very conservative, culturally, and our society has assigned roles to women,” says Aftab, now 19, on the phone from her home in the northern Pakistani city of Lahore. “Women sing, but they can’t play guitar or compose on their own. You just don’t see it. A girl with a guitar is a big deal here.”

It’s an even bigger deal now that Aftab has been named the winner of Berklee College of Music’s first Steve Vai online scholarship, one of five online scholarships awarded this year. Aftab, who begins taking classes via computer this week, was the ideal candidate, according to Debbie Cavalier, dean of continuing education at Berklee, who helped shape the program’s vision of providing a world-class education to gifted musicians regardless of their geographic location or economic status.

“Her life circumstances combined with her motivation were really inspiring,” says Cavalier, who was on the committee that selected the scholarship winners from more than 150 applications. “Arooj’s opportunities in Pakistan were so limited, and she’s been able to work past all the hurdles in her way. She wants to develop her skills but she also wants to change the way female musicians are perceived in her country.”

Happily, there were no limits on what Aftab could listen to as a voracious young music fan, and her nascent repertoire — she’s only written five songs — are shaping up to be a heady fusion of East and West. “Walking,” the song Aftab submitted to Berklee with her scholarship application, is a ballad. The tune’s melancholy chord changes, strummed and picked on a beautifully resonant six-string, is firmly rooted in the singer-songwriter tradition. But Aftab’s ethereal voice swirls and dives in the delicate, complicated motions of her country’s long musical heritage, and the young musician merges sonic palettes with natural grace.

“It’s easy to grow up here and blank out your own culture unless your parents are aware,” Aftab says. “My mom is into a lot of Eastern classical instrumentals — Zakir Hussain, India’s greatest, and Ravi and Anoushka Shankar. My dad is really into Pearl Jam. I love Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson and Steve Vai. Oh my God, I died when I saw my name written next to his! I’ve been listening to lots of Jeff Buckley. I listen to the Corrs, in terms of girlie music.”

After completing her advanced degree last May, Aftab decided she would take a year off to ponder her choices: follow the path of least resistance or follow her heart. The world of numbers, she says, was looking less attractive. Her dream of becoming a professional musician was deepening, but formal training at home wasn’t an option.

Aftab had learned about an esteemed music school in Boston from Berklee alumnus Mekaal Hasan, an engineer/producer who returned to Lahore to open Digital Fidelity, one of Pakistan’s premier recording studios. So she buffed up her best song (a snippet of “Walking” can be heard at on her home computer and sent it off with an impassioned essay about music, politics, gender, and the prospect of changing the world one tune at a time.

“We tend to think that in order to make a difference you have to make big, sweeping changes in the world, but in reality it’s a domino affect,” says Vai, the guitar virtuoso and Berklee alum who endowed Aftab’s scholarship. “I remember reading her essay and listening to her song and thinking that a girl like this, with drive and ability and goals, she’s going to inspire a lot of people. That’s how you get evolution.”

Aftab wanted to take all six of the courses the scholarship provides simultaneously but was persuaded to start with a more manageable load of three: Music Theory 101, Songwriting Melody, and Desktop Production. She’s already applied for admission to Berklee in the fall as an undergraduate student in Songwriting and Production — with the blessing of her parents, who now wholeheartedly support their daughter’s musical aspirations. An explosion of local media coverage about her in Pakistan and an original song in rotation on Pakistani radio has, Aftab says, gone a long way toward legitimizing her goals.

“We’re progressing really quickly now, and five years down the road it will be a different ballgame,” Aftab predicts. “We were really closed up before; there was no freedom of expression. Now we can write about what’s going on in the world. We have a Pakistani music and fashion channel on the television. This transition I’ve made from accountant to musician has been hard, and there are still friends and family who think it’s not a good thing to do. People who take first steps get backlash. But I really am going to be that one.”

Joan Anderman can be reached at [email protected]

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