Thums Up and Arooj Aftab at the Kaufman Music Center

On March 4th I once again attended the 2017 Ecstatic Music Festival presented by the Kaufman Music Center. The concert featured Thums Up, a collaboration from modern jazz pianist Vijay Iyer, along with the pedal board effects of guitarist Rafiq Bhatia, drummer Kassa Overall, and rap lyrics by Himanshu Suri also known as “Heems.” The concert also featured the hypnotic vocals of Arooj Aftab, who uses classical Pakistani and North Indian vocal melodies combined with Sufi poetry. Aftab also freely incorporates various other instrumentalists into her sonic landscape such as musician Yusuke Yamamoto who played a bass amp-driven synthesizer, drummer Nathan Ellaman-Bell, and Argentinian pianist Leonardo Genovese.

The night’s performance began with Arooj Aftab’s blend of ethereal and international sounds. This is the second time I have witnessed a live performance of Aftab, whose music has the ability to accommodate the improvisation and participation of varies instruments. The first time I saw her was on August 11, 2016 at the David Rubenstein Auditorium at Lincoln Center. In that performance, her ensemble consisted of a saxophone, harp, cajon drumming, piano, and bass synthesizer effects. I remember being impressed by how easily jazz, classical, and ethnic elements fused together in her presentation. This performance just as well embraced varies genres and sonic textures. Her lyrics are sung in free time following the tradition of classical Pakistani and North Indian songs, and being such, they float above the modern pulsing and droning synthesizer effects of Yusuke Yamamoto. Together they create a modern hypnotic ambience from the timbre combination of an ethereal voice, which is soaked with a reverb effect on the microphone and the heavy low pulsing synth grooves coming out of a Hartke Bass amplifier.

In contrast to the more free form of Aftab, the drummer, Nathan Ellman-Bell, incorporated Latin rhythms with compound meters of 3/4 and 6/8. I suspect he did this in collaboration with Argentinian pianist Leonardo Genovese. Both drummer and pianist showed great chemistry with one another and frequently exchanged smiles as they grooved together. Genovese also displayed chromatic and dissonant sections in his playing, which did not feel over saturated as the tension dissolved easily in the ambience of Aftab and Yamamoto. In fact, the dissonance employed by Genovese served as a nice counterpoint to the mellow and hypnotic lyrics. The dissonance did not become overbearing, but actually enhanced the return to the ethereal realm of Aftab’s long and sustained vocals. This collaboration was a well-balanced allegiance between dissonance and fluid lyrical poetry.

The second performance of the night featured Hip Hop lyrics pertaining to the South Asian American experience and political commentary by Queens’s rapper Heems, along with rhythmic piano, beats and effects by Vijay Iyer. The guitar player Rafiq Bhatia offered different sustained drone and wash effects through an intricate pedal board, which he controlled by an expression/volume pedal. He replicated and created various guitar effects that were labeled as “shoegazing” within the early indie rock movement due to guitar players constantly staring at their effect pedals that they controlled with their feet. The drummer Kassa Overall also had an interesting drum kit as he included bongos and other smaller drums, which he would occasionally play with a padded percussion mallet. The overall sound of the ensemble incorporated Rap lyrics criticizing the over usage of combat drones, the appropriation of Hindu culture by the modern yoga culture, and the South Asian experience of growing up in Queens.

The concert ended with the Thumbs Up ensemble inviting Arooj Aftab to join them for the closing number. Once again Aftab provided a hypnotic ambience with her vocals while Heems delivered a higher energy rhythmic rap chorus. The guitar effects along with the piano effects and drumming also culminated in the climax of the night with much of the audience standing in applause.   It was nice to experience a concert with so many South Asian American artists. It stands as a testament to the rich diversity and affluent global culture within the arts of New York City.


  1. The contrast between the styles of the two vocalists was really spectacular in this concert–the long, languid lines of Arooj Aftab paired so well with the more punchy rapping of Heems.

    This concert raised an important question for me and one I’d like to ask the whole class: what is the place of politics and especially the politics of resistance in music today? During this concert, several rows of the audience cleared out after Heems made some remarks about his general state of anxiety in the current political environment. Should they have left? What message does their walking out on the concert send to the performers / audience members? Would you leave if you heard an artist express a political viewpoint different form your own? To be clear, he wasn’t being inflammatory, just stating that, as an Indian and Muslim American, he feels ill at ease since January 20.
    I’m curious what the class think about mixing politics and arts. This is a topic we’ll take up in class, but please do share your thoughts in the blog.

  2. James Nitis says:

    We have not [yet] gone into much depth on this subject in class and I had hoped to add a different perspective. While I am ignorant of the exact nature of Heems’ comments (although they seem innocuous), I can personally attest to the fact that it gets tiring for patrons with political views outside the mainstream to simply enjoy art. I’ve attended more than a few concerts in which a musician/band derided my religion or political views. Granted, art is quite often philosophical and political, and activism for the right causes can and should be taken up by those who have a voice. But many of these artists do not engage in anything remotely close to intellectual curiosity, and rather just disparage and ostracize people with different opinions. Does this mean I am opposed to artists expressing their views? No, as a strong believer in the first amendment, I wholeheartedly support an artist’s right to [verbally] attack me personally. Such is the price of liberty. But how can one support an artist who espouses his displeasure with the state of affairs, and not support the patrons who voice their displeasure by walking out of a show?

    Now the question of which party deserves praise is much more subjective. Is it the artist who makes a statement that will be met with applause from his colleagues in the NYC music scene, or is it the rigid plebeians who sacrificed their pleasure on the altar of principle? Is it really counter-culture if all the artists are saying the same thing? In fact, I’m truly shocked that anyone in this city at this type of concert was upset by Heems’ comments. I digress. My point is, if I were to go into a vegan restaurant and loudly declare that meat is immoral, would that make me brave? But if I were to take a stance that resulted in hate mail and denigration…well that seems bold to me.

    An aside: this is not a political stance or a defense of President Trump (like many in this class I’m sure, I can’t stand him either), but rather a broad critique of groupthink and self-important artists who have convinced themselves of their own heroism.

    • I can see what your saying James and I agree 100% that sometimes you want to hear or see visual art or a performance and just enjoy it at the moment without feeling forced to see a political point of view. Unfortunately because of the condition this country is in (with Trump being president) politics and music are going to crash more than ever whether is Democrats vs. Republicans, white vs black, and song they can come up with with two sides fighting is going to cause uproar to whoever oppose. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to here something where these two sides can work together to make something more than break down the people around them even more.

      Daniel, what was your favorite song that night if you had one?

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