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Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Arooj Aftab On Her Latest Album 'Vulture Prince,' The Multiplicity Of Pakistani Musics And Why We Should Listen With Nuance & Care
Arooj Aftab

Photo: Vishesh Sharma

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Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Arooj Aftab On Her Latest Album 'Vulture Prince,' The Multiplicity Of Pakistani Musics And Why We Should Listen With Nuance & Care

Pakistan-raised singer/songwriter and composer Arooj Aftab is up for Best New Artist and Best Global Music Performance at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards. She welcomes a light shone on an underserved music community — and wants us to approach it more thoughtfully.

GRAMMYs/Mar 7, 2022 - 06:57 pm

When your breakout album deals with familial death in a largely non-Western musical style, your press cycle is bound to be… er, interesting. Arooj Aftab's certainly has been. As per the grief element — her 2021 album, Vulture Prince, is dedicated to her late brother — she's dealt with interviewers both compassionate and rude.

"There was a live radio interview where the interviewer was just like, 'How did he die?' And I was like, 'Oh my god. What the f<em></em><em>?'" Aftab recalls to GRAMMY.com. "That's not cool, and I feel like people should know that. But people don't know s</em><em></em>. There's a very 'getting the story' kind of attitude, which leaves you in a place that's very devoid of grace or care."

Then, there's the music itself — an enchanting and therapeutic intertwining of post-minimalism, chamber music and folk idioms, with some words drawn from Asian poets like Rumi, Mirza Ghalib and Hafeez Hoshiarpur. For overworked music writers, the complex nature of Aftab’s sourcing presents all kinds of opportunities for faceplants.

"It's very difficult to do this, it has taken a lot of time and energy as a musician, so it's not a f<em></em><em>ing cover," she told Pitchforkin 2021, referring to indelicate and/or inaccurate characterizations of her work. "I'm taking something that's really old and pulling it into the now."

Read More: Meet This Year's Best New Artist Nominees | 2022 GRAMMYs Awards Show

The craft and care she put into Vulture Prince paid off in ways she could have never suspected: For one, Aftab is nominated for Best New Artist and Best Global Music Performance ("Mohabbat") at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards show on April 3.

And while the intense attention has been somewhat challenging for the Pakistan-raised, Brooklyn-based artist, she's gratified that a light is being shone on her musical community.

Read on for an in-depth interview with Aftab about the multiplicity of Pakistani musics, the healing essence of her work, and why we should listen and write about music in a more nuanced way.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

I imagine this press cycle is a deluge — it dwarfs those of past years. 

It's been like this all year, which is a good problem to have. It's been kind of insane since the album came out, so by now, I'm so press-ready.

Is being a "different" kind of GRAMMY nominee a double-edged sword? Is there a potential to feel otherized?

This nomination for Best New Artist has made me feel very validated. I feel like people in post-minimalist or classical or jazz circles have been a little bit otherized by the GRAMMYs, which has always kind of nodded toward the mainstream, mostly — that whole listening audience. Being nominated as Best New Artist has shattered that — for me, at least — and I don't feel otherized anymore.

I feel like I'm next to these artists that are listened to quite widely — and rightfully so. But there are also a whole lot of people who listen to our style of music, so that's good.

Do you feel like it's a net positive — as though this exposure might get new people to go check out Vijay Iyer and the rest?

I just feel like there are so many people who check him out. It's competitive, and I feel like that representation isn't often there.

That said, what people might miss is that you're actually a big fan of pop music.

[Laughs.] Yeah, true.

Is there a certain artfulness in making something that appeals to as many people as humanly possible?

There is, yeah. There absolutely has to be. Pop is very intelligent, but it's also historically been very formulaic, and some people don't like it. But I think there's always a meeting in the middle of sorts that can happen, right?

What are you checking out from that sphere?

I used to work at Genius up until [last fall], so I was very, very in the know all the time. And now, I don't know anything! I'm like, "Who are the new TikTok rappers? No idea!"

I like Mariah the Scientist; I like Saweetie. I'm digging Alicia Keys' record that just came out. It's so good. It's like, "Thank god!" I haven't heard something that isn't a jingle from her in a while. It's like old Alicia, and it's super nice.

Grief plays a big role in Vulture Prince. Is it irritating or healing having to revisit traumatic events over and over in interviews with strangers?

It's good and bad because it's kind of cathartic. When you're forced to talk about things repeatedly, then you force yourself to process them more. 

But in the journalism world, there are so many different types. People are so rude, and then other people are really sensitive, you know what I mean? Being up and down on that spectrum this year with so much press around Vulture Prince has been a little bit challenging, but hopefully, I've been very graceful and very patient and very good. I think. [Laughs.]

What did people say that was rude?

There was a live radio interview where the interviewer was just like [Blithely] "How did he die?" And I was like, "Oh my god. What the f<em></em><em>?" That's not cool, and I feel like people should know that. But people don't know s</em><em></em>. There's a very "getting the story" kind of attitude, which leaves you in a place that's very devoid of grace or care.

Then, I imagine there are people who get you to open up, and then they act like they're your best friend.

Yeah, I appreciate that more, I feel, than the sort of blunt behavior.

I do some writing for MusiCares, so I'm preoccupied with how music can or can't help in a pragmatic sense. What's your take on all that?

I think music is very, very powerful in the sense that a lot of musicians started playing or exploring music to kind of self-help.

Even when you're a teen and listening to death metal, it's already all there. It's saved a lot of lives and helped carry a lot of emotions through. So, it does predominantly serve that purpose, I think. 

If you're a listener or creator of music, I think the underlying factor there is definitely the theme of healing. Or, if not healing, then processing. Music can really pull on whatever emotional string you're flowing with at the time.

Remember that Billie Holiday song "Gloomy Sunday," where they had to go back in and write in a hopeful last versebecause too many people were committing suicide to it the way it was? That s<em></em>* was wild. In the last verse, where she's like "I was only dreaming!" — they went back and wrote that because otherwise, it was too gloomy, I guess.

I'm interested in how certain languages can channel emotions others can't. What do you feel you can communicate with Urdu? 

I think a lot of the time, yes — the language itself is one, but also the syllables and vowels and stuff for vocalists is quite a geeky thing we consider. And that's what also stretches the musicality of your singing.

Portuguese is one of those languages that really sounds good to music, to me, because it already has that rhythmic and sing-songy vibe. But Urdu as a language is deeply poetic and has a lot of analogies. Things are said directly, but very indirectly, also, with beautiful references to things.

It's inherently poetic, and that's really fun for me, because I don't like to have a lot of lyrics. I don't like to have a lot of verses. I like a simple, minimalist approach to even words and the delivery of lines. I don't like showing off a lot of vocal agility or whatever. I enjoy a post-minimal space with vocals and music itself, and for them all to come together.

Urdu can say a lot without saying too much, and that's why I like it.

Another interview with you I read that cracked me up — regarding turning poetry into music — was along the lines of "I'm not doing f<em></em>*ing cover songs!"

I think it's changing now because I do yell at people quite often. I would like people to stop thinking so bluntly about music in this very black-or-white way. I encourage deeper listening of people, and that's where that falls.

These aren't renditions. These aren't covers. If you actually look at the music, the music that's surrounding this poetry hasn't existed before in any version or in anyone else's attempt of it. It strays a lot from the melodic compositions that anyone's made.

Just because the name's the same and you recognize the poetry doesn't mean that they have a strong kinship to what came before it. It has a lot of respect for those who came before those things and a lot of respect for the tradition it originates from, but it's not the same thing.

Can you talk about ghazals a bit? The same article defined it as an "art form [that] meditates on the intense longing caused by separation from God."

It's kind of hard to describe exactly what a ghazal is, because not a lot of people have thought about it. It's not really written or defined on the internet or in literature. It's very open in that sense — or, that's what I've seen from not really having studied Pakistani or South Asian classical music, so I don't really know.

I think a ghazal is actually the style in which a song is performed rather than its lyrical content. To me, a ghazal is a ballad, like "This song has been performed in the style of a ballad." And then, usually, what you're singing about is about love, breakups, loss, departure, or waiting for your lover — et cetera, et cetera. That's what my understanding is of that style in its entirety.

So it's not necessarily spiritual in intent?

It doesn't have to be. It's never explicitly said. To a regular person, it sounds like it's just about love and waiting for love, or this departure of a lover. I guess in more Muslim-leaning cultures, it takes on a spiritual connotation — it can very easily go that way.

The majority of Western listeners probably aren't familiar with the multiplicity of Pakistani musical forms. For someone in good faith who wants to learn about it, is there a way to summarize it and put yourself on the map with a "You are here" sticker?

There's super-traditional Hindustani classical… there's so much, it's insane. It's so hard. There's Northern classical music, and then there's all this folk music from different regions of the country. Then, there are these semi-classical categories, which are, like, ghazal, and maybe Thumri, which is a more free style that complements a certain dance form. 

And of course, with all these different forms, there is poetry that complements each one. So, it's kind of vast in that way. But, you know, it's all modal, and modal shares a lot with jazz.

If you think about that connection and then think of a post-jazz, post-modern, very post-everything, almost chamber, highly experimental but structured formation, with a lot of influence of American guitar folk like James Taylor or Crosby, Stills and Nash — if you add Terry Riley, or an American minimalist piano composer like John Cage or Julius Eastman — if you start entering that realm while thinking of modal music, then you land somewhere here where I am.

I also really enjoy and have an ear toward what's happening harmonically with pop structures. And then, here we are.

How did your background as a jazz student inform how your music comes out?

I didn't really study anything else, so my core is all jazz.

Really! How did you connect those poles?

I was like, "I have to go to Berklee. I'm going." And when you go to Berklee, you come out a jazz musician. That's just what happens!

How are you feeling with the GRAMMYs coming up? Is it a little surreal? 

It's all crazy. Is this what you guys do? Let everybody know a month and a half in advance, and then it's a madhouse? All the stylists, everyone's just crazy around this week that's about to happen so soon!

It's really surreal. I'm over the moon but also mortified. [Laughs.] It's very scary, but also very exciting. I'll cross my fingers and feel very grateful, keep doing what I'm doing and see what happens.

Vijay Iyer On His New Trio Album Uneasy, American Identity & Teaching Black American Music In The 21st Century

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GRAMMY SoundChecks With Gavin DeGraw

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

On Aug. 28 Nashville Chapter GRAMMY U members took part in GRAMMY SoundChecks with Gavin DeGraw. Approximately 30 students gathered at music venue City Hall and watched DeGraw play through some of the singles from earlier in his career along with "Cheated On Me" from his latest self-titled album.

In between songs, DeGraw conducted a question-and-answer session and inquired about the talents and goals of the students in attendance. He gave inside tips to the musicians present on how to make it in the industry and made sure that every question was answered before moving onto the next song.

 

Juan Gabriel named 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person Of The Year

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Juan Gabriel named 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person Of The Year

Annual star-studded gala slated for Nov. 4 in Las Vegas during 10th Annual Latin GRAMMY Week celebration

GRAMMYs/May 15, 2017 - 01:36 pm

 GRAMMY.com

 Internationally renowned singer/songwriter/performer Juan Gabriel will be celebrated as the 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year, it was announced today by The Latin Recording Academy. Juan Gabriel, chosen for his professional accomplishments as well as his commitment to philanthropic efforts, will be recognized at a star-studded concert and black tie dinner on Nov. 4 at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Nev. 

The "Celebration with Juan Gabriel" gala will be one of the most prestigious events held during Latin GRAMMY week, a celebration that culminates with the 10th Annual Latin GRAMMY Awards ceremony. The milestone telecast will be held at Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas on Nov. 5 and will be broadcast live on the Univision Television Network at 8 p.m. Eastern/7 p.m. Central. 

"As we celebrate this momentous decade of the Latin GRAMMYs, The Latin Recording Academy and its Board of Trustees take great pride in recognizing Juan Gabriel as an extraordinary entertainer who never has forgotten his roots, while at the same time having a global impact," said Latin Recording Academy President Gabriel Abaroa. "His influence on the music and culture of our era has been tremendous, and we welcome this opportunity to pay a fitting tribute to a voice that strongly resonates within our community.

Over the course of his 30-year career, Juan Gabriel has sold more than 100 million albums and has performed to sold-out audiences throughout the world. He has produced more than 100 albums for more than 50 artists including Paul Anka, Lola Beltran, Rocío Dúrcal, and Lucha Villa among many others. Additionally, Juan Gabriel has written more than 1,500 songs, which have been covered by such artists as Marc Anthony, Raúl Di Blasio, Ana Gabriel, Angelica María, Lucia Mendez, Estela Nuñez, and Son Del Son. In 1986, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley declared Oct. 5 "The Day of Juan Gabriel." The '90s saw his induction into Billboard's Latin Music Hall of Fame and he joined La Opinion's Tributo Nacional Lifetime Achievement Award recipients list. 

At the age of 13, Juan Gabriel was already writing his own songs and in 1971 recorded his first hit, "No Tengo Dinero," which landed him a recording contract with RCA. Over the next 14 years, he established himself as Mexico's leading singer/songwriter, composing in diverse styles such as rancheras, ballads, pop, disco, and mariachi, which resulted in an incredible list of hits ("Hasta Que Te Conocí," "Siempre En Mi Mente," "Querida," "Inocente Pobre Amigo," "Abrázame Muy Fuerte," "Amor Eterno," "El Noa Noa," and "Insensible") not only for himself  but for many leading Latin artists. In 1990, Juan Gabriel became the only non-classical singer/songwriter to perform at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and the album release of that concert, Juan Gabriel En Vivo Desde El Palacio De Bellas Artes, broke sales records and established his iconic status. 

After a hiatus from recording, Juan Gabriel released such albums as Gracias Por Esperar, Juntos Otra Vez, Abrázame Muy Fuerte, Los Gabriel…Para Ti, Juan Gabriel Con La Banda…El Recodo, and El Mexico Que Se Nos Fue, which were all certified gold and/or platinum by the RIAA. In 1996, to commemorate his 25th anniversary in the music industry, BMG released a retrospective set of CDs entitled 25 Aniversario, Solos, Duetos, y Versiones Especiales, comprised appropriately of 25 discs.   

In addition to his numerous accolades and career successes, Juan Gabriel has been a compassionate and generous philanthropist. He has donated all proceeds from approximately 10 performances a year to his favorite children's foster homes, and proceeds from fan photo-ops go to support Mexican orphans. In 1987, he founded Semjase, an orphanage for approximately 120 children, which also serves as a music school with music, recreation and video game rooms. Today, he continues to personally fund the school he opened more than 22 years ago.   

Juan Gabriel will have the distinction of becoming the 10th Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year honoree, and joins a list of artists such as Gloria Estefan, Gilberto Gil, Juan Luis Guerra, Julio Iglesias, Ricky Martin, and Carlos Santana among others who have been recognized. 

For information on purchasing tickets or tables to The Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year tribute to Juan Gabriel, please contact The Latin Recording Academy ticketing office at 310.314.8281 or ticketing@grammy.com.

Set List Bonus: Bumbershoot 2013
Grizzled Mighty perform at Bumbershoot on Sept. 1

Photo: The Recording Academy

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Set List Bonus: Bumbershoot 2013

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 04:22 am

Welcome to The Set List. Here you'll find the latest concert recaps for many of your favorite, or maybe not so favorite, artists. Our bloggers will do their best to provide you with every detail of the show, from which songs were on the set list to what the artist was wearing to which out-of-control fan made a scene. Hey, it'll be like you were there. And if you like what you read, we'll even let you know where you can catch the artist on tour. Feel free to drop us a comment and let us know your concert experience. Oh, and rock on.

By Alexa Zaske
Seattle

This past Labor Day weekend meant one thing for many folks in Seattle: Bumbershoot, a three-decade-old music and arts event that consumed the area surrounding the Space Needle from Aug. 31–Sept. 2. Amid attendees wandering around dressed as zombies and participating in festival-planned flash mobs to Michael Jackson's "Thriller," this year the focus was on music from the Pacific Northwest region — from the soulful sounds of Allen Stone and legendary female rockers Heart, to the highly-awaited return of Death Cab For Cutie performing their 2003 hit album Transatlanticism in its entirety.

The festival started off on day one with performances by synth-pop group the Flavr Blue, hip-hop artist Grynch, rapper Nacho Picasso, psychedelic pop group Beat Connection, lively rapper/writer George Watsky, hip-hop group the Physics, and (my personal favorite), punk/dance band !!! (Chk Chk Chk). Also performing on day one was Seattle folk singer/songwriter Kris Orlowski, who was accompanied by the Passenger String Quartet. As always, Orlowski's songs were catchy and endearing yet brilliant and honest.

Day one came to a scorching finale with a full set from GRAMMY-nominated rock group Heart. Kicking off with their Top 20 hit "Barracuda," the set spanned three decades of songs, including "Heartless," "Magic Man" and "What About Love?" It became a gathering of Seattle rock greats when, during Heart's final song, Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready joined for 1976's "Crazy On You."

Day two got off to an early start with performances from eccentric Seattle group Kithkin and Seattle ladies Mary Lambert and Shelby Earl, who were accompanied by the band Le Wrens. My highlight of the day was the Grizzled Mighty — a duo with a bigger sound than most family sized bands. Drummer Whitney Petty, whose stage presence and skills make for an exciting performance, was balanced out by the easy listening of guitarist and lead singer Ryan Granger.

Then the long-awaited moment finally fell upon Seattle when, after wrapping a long-awaited tour with the Postal Service, singer/songwriter Ben Gibbard returned to Seattle to represent another great success of the Pacific Northwest — Death Cab For Cutie. The band celebrated the 10-year anniversary of their album Transatlanticism by performing it from front to back. While a majority of attendees opted to watch the set from an air-conditioned arena, some of us recognized the uniqueness of this experience and enjoyed the entire set lying in the grass where the entire performance was streamed. 

Monday was the day for soul and folk. Local blues/R&B group Hot Bodies In Motion have been making their way through the Seattle scene with songs such as "Old Habits," "That Darkness" and "The Pulse." Their set was lively and enticing to people who have seen them multiple times or never at all.

My other highlights of the festival included the Maldives, who delivered a fun performance with the perfect amount of satirical humor and folk. They represent the increasing number of Pacific Northwest bands who consist of many members playing different sounds while still managing to stay cohesive and simple. I embraced the return of folk/pop duo Ivan & Alyosha with open arms and later closed my festival experience with local favorite Stone.

For music fans in Seattle and beyond, the annual Bumbershoot festival is a must-attend.

(Alexa Zaske is the Chapter Assistant for The Recording Academy Pacific Northwest Chapter. She's a music enthusiast and obsessed with the local Seattle scene.)

Neil Portnow Addresses Diversity & Inclusion, Looks Ahead During Speech At 2019 GRAMMYs

Neil Portnow and Jimmy Jam

Photo: Michael Kovac/Getty Images

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Neil Portnow Addresses Diversity & Inclusion, Looks Ahead During Speech At 2019 GRAMMYs

Jimmy Jam helps celebrate the outgoing President/CEO of the Recording Academy on the 61st GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Feb 11, 2019 - 10:58 am

As Neil Portnow's tenure as Recording Academy President/CEO draws to its end, five-time GRAMMY winner Jimmy Jam paid tribute to his friend and walked us through a brief overview of some of the Academy's major recent achievements, including the invaluable work of MusiCares, the GRAMMY Museum, Advocacy and more.

Portnow delivered a brief speech, acknowledging the need to continue to focus on issues of diversity and inclusion in the music industry. He also seized the golden opportunity to say the words he's always wanted to say on the GRAMMY stage, saying, "I'd like to thank the Academy," showing his gratitude and respect for the staff, elected leaders and music community he's worked with during his career at the Recording Academy. "We can be so proud of what we’ve all accomplished together," Portnow added.

"As I finish out my term leading this great organization, my heart and soul are filled with gratitude, pride, for the opportunity and unequal experience," he continued. "Please know that my commitment to all the good that we do will carry on as we turn the page on the next chapter of the storied history of this phenomenal institution."

Full Winners List: 61st GRAMMY Awards