What worlds are created when the mellifluous microtonal melodies of a singer-composer, the elegant chops of a jazz pianist, and the ethereal soundscapes of a multi-instrumentalist come together? Through meditative layers of keys, strings, and voice, last Friday’s release Love in Exile—a collaboration between acclaimed South Asian musicians Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer, and Shahzad Ismaily—serenades us into the possibilities.
As the songs on this genre-expansive record flow into each other, it feels as though the musical expertise of the artists are in a constant, generative conversation with each other. For Grammy-winning Arooj Aftab, lyrical prowess is not the emphasis here. Her voice revisits fragments of poetry from her previous albums, Vulture Prince and Bird Under Water—this time, words being mere vessels through which the instrumentality of her breath is conveyed.
The lyrics of Vulture Prince’s “Suroor,” for example—borrowed from Anwar Farrukhabadi’s “Yeh jo halka halka suroor hai” and popularized by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s titular recording—find new home in Love in Exile’s “Sharabi,” this time mutated into darker, less upbeat vowels accompanied by a distorted white noise and a distant whistling wind transpired by Shahzad. After traversing through these part haunting, part dreamy soundwaves, the song resolves into bright, sometimes tinkling keys by Vijay as Arooj spells out the last words of the verse. The unease, tension, surrender, and eventual ecstasy gripping a person intoxicated by love is sonically painted with intentionally sparse aid of words. There is no cutting off or speaking over each other, but a shared three-way understanding that knows where to elevate, complement, or be silent. Vijay, extensively experienced as a musical collaborator, described it to grammy.com as not an improvisation, but a “co-composition in real time.”
More than just a dispatch from some ambient sonic hinterland, this South Asian collaboration is a statement. Stripped down to intricate manipulations of strings, bass, electronics, and vocals in their most concrete capacity, the record compels a Western audience to recognize the musicians as ingeniously skilled craftspeople within their artistic practices: a call to characterize them beyond a South Asian identity. As for the desi audience, well, there is a tragic beauty in reckoning with the realization that such a collaboration, a meeting of Indian and Pakistani multiculturalisms, was only possible beyond our impermeable national borders—it was only possible in exile.
Cover Image Via Spotify