On certain streets of Northern India it is not the classical sitar of Ravi Shankar that spills from markets and open air restaurants: it's the music of Najma Akhtar. For those who want more juice than the old-school Shankar offers, Akhtar... [more]
On certain streets of Northern India it is not the classical sitar of Ravi Shankar that spills from markets and open air restaurants: it's the music of Najma Akhtar.
For those who want more juice than the old-school Shankar offers, Akhtar represents the next generation. She backs up classic ghazal songs with infectious instrumentation, adapting raag rhythms for the pop market. Her vocals make the fusion completely unique, while her general sound garners notice from pop fans and pop stars alike. In 1994 she even appeared on MTV's 'œUnplugged' series to back up Led Zepplin in the song, 'œThe Battle of Evermore.'
Born in Britain, Najma Akhtar was prepared for a career as a chemical engineer. The performance bug bit her when she unexpectedly won the 1984 Asian Song Contest in Birmingham. Akhtar decided to capitalize on this success, despite parental objections that singers were not quite respectable citizens. Her timing was perfect: she filled a niche in the world music craze that swept across Europe in the late 1980s.
Her first album, 1987's 'œQuareeb,' shocked traditionalists with its use of vocal harmonies (alien to the ghazal form) and new instruments. Saxophone, slap bass, and synthesizers transformed the classic tabla and violin background. Though the Indian community reacted initally with consternation, Akhtar stuck to her guns, proclaiming, "We were making a new sound."
"Qareeb" showed Akhtar's crossover capabilities early on. Beyond the world music scene, the album gained a new sheen of hipness when fashion designer Azzedine Alaia used it in his Summer Collection show. As couture models walked down the runway, they moved to Ahktar's sensual ghazal rhythms and exotic arrangements. An even wider audience got a taste when the songs appeared in the film, 'œSammy and Rosie Get Laid.' Ahktar followed her debut up with 'œAtish' in 1991, which reached number four on the Billboard World Music charts.
'œPukar,' Akhtar's first American release, shared its name with a song she created for a Japanese bank commercial. The album proved Ahktar was truly eclectic, as she incorporated instruments from African, Arabic, and Indian origin. Though the album received positive reviews in the United States, its real fan base was in Japan, where the commercial's visibility stoked brisk sales and a country-wide tour.