British-born Najma Akhtar never intended to become a singer; she followed in the footsteps of her parents and graduated with a masters in Chemical Engineering from Aston University. It wasn’t until Najma visited distant relatives in Najibabad, India, and learned Urdu, that she picked up the vocal tradition of spiritual poems (or as their known in the Arab world, ghazals). As the liner notes for 1987’s Qareeb explain, “The ghazal occupies a unique place in the poetry and music of the Indian subcontinent.” The poetic form dates back to the 7th century, but remains popular among modern-day Middle-Eastern/Indian vocalists. Usually, these verses are deeply religious in nature, centering on one’s love for their creator and the feelings of fulfillment that love brings them. Back in the UK, and enjoying the tutelage of esteemed Indian vocal coach Ustad Naeem Solaria, Najma entered into Birmingham’s Asian Song Contest, won the top prize, and from their slowly built-up a fanbase. One of these fans was fusion artist Iain Scott, who asked Najma if she’d be interested in recording an album of only ghazals. Recorded at F2 Studios (famous for hosting The Cure and Anne Clark), with an eye on the international market, Qareeb became that album, and represented the first time that many outside of Asia had even heard of the the ethnic choral form of the ghazal.
Najma would continue to push boundaries with her voice over the next decade on some otherwise conventional, bhajan-inspired releases. But in some ways, much like her beginnings in music, Najma’s Qareeb represents a serendipitous occurrence.
Scott’s vision for Qareeb was as a grand mixture of musical traditions modern and traditional — a bridge between “old world” Indian music and a contemporary sound. To accomplish this, Hindustani melodies were paired with ’80s smooth jazz arrangements, and East Asian time signatures — all in service to Najma’s sweeping, Bollywood-esque soprano. Opening track “Neend Koyi” features Najma’s reverberating vocal accompanied by spare synths and lush violin playing (by Nawazish Ali Khan, who’s since gone on to work with the likes of Morrissey and Robert Plant). The dynamic range of Najma’s singing announces itself as an easygoing tabla rhythm saunters in, and the singer’s voice shifts from a bellowing lower register to a soaring, high-pitched cry, breathing new life into the song’s ancient lyrics. For the rest of Qareeb, an eclectically transnational blend of musical influences continue to evolve beyond the rigidity of the set’s retro foundations. But it’s really Najma’s heavenly rounded vocal tone that affords this project its magnetic allure; the singer supplies tracks like “Dil Laga Ya Tha” and “Zikar Hai Apna” with a grace and energy that invigorates and galvanizes the accompanying instrumentals. Najma would continue to push boundaries with her voice over the next decade on some otherwise conventional, bhajan-inspired releases. But in some ways, much like her beginnings in music, Najma’s Qareeb represents a serendipitous occurrence, conjuring a universally appealing sound from the transnational experience.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.