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Spice Rack: the modern spiritual jazz of Pakistan's Jaubi

In this first instalment of Spice Rack, a new bi-monthly column on underground music from South Asia and its diaspora, Dhruva Balram looks at the new album from Pakistani quartet, Jaubi

For decades, Pakistan has been misrepresented by the media. A country rich in natural beauty, historical importance and possessing an abundance of modern and historical culture, the perception of Pakistan in the Global North is skewed. This falsification of the country inspired Lahore-based instrumental group Jaubi — based around Ali Riaz Baqar, Zohaib Hassan Khan and Kashif Ali Dhani — to create their latest album, ‘Nafs At Peace’.

Across seven tracks, the album weaves in elements of hip-hop, downtempo and electronica all underpinned by a fulcrum of spiritual jazz. With themes of death, divorce, unemployment, drug addiction and religion entwined through the grooves of the record, ‘Nafs At Peace’ attempts to demystify Islam, the Quran and Pakistan through spiritual melodies which feel doubly like an ode to past and modern jazz greats. Much like Nafs, the Arabic word meaning self and described in the Quran as having three parts — the soul inclined to evil, the self-reproaching soul, and the tranquil soul — ‘Nafs At Peace’ is split evenly into three parts.

Opening track ‘Seek Refuge’ floats on a bed of ethereal mist composed of a sarangi and soft guitar strums, before ‘Insia’ succumbs to heavy drum patterns, allowing overlapping melodies to be anchored to something weighted. London-based artist Tenderlonious’ flute flits in and out here, ably assisting when called upon. ‘Raga Gurji Todi’ brings forth the spirituality teased at the beginning with its rendition of an Indian classical tune. Here, Jaubi show what they are capable of, reinterpreting a song in their singular way.

The instruments on ‘Straight Path’ take a more muted, pared- back approach with the fast-paced tabla a viscous and dense presence. ‘Mosty’ and ‘Zari’ are two of the more upbeat songs on the record, ending the album with a sense of uplifting joy before the nearly eight-minute ‘Nafs At Peace’ track closes the project in the most traditional jazz song the quartet has to offer.

After making their name by reinterpreting hip-hop artists like J Dilla and Nas, Pakistani ensemble Jaubi have added to their distinct mode of expression by going back to their roots. Their usual offering of crafting beats with bravado has been replaced with an introspective, almost ambient-like album, which cleanses the surrounding energy, ridding the atmosphere of any nearby djinn. The album’s creation stems from Tenderlonious and Latarnik, a Polish pianist, visiting Jaubi in April 2019 and creating music for the sole purpose of reaching higher spirits. With ‘Nafs At Peace’, Jaubi have created an album that functions as a balm for souls in need of calming.