Ghazal, Gratitude and Glasto: Najma Akhtar and the poetry of pain

Najma WP ghazal

The fourth act of the 2019-20 SOAS Concert Series is a lady of many talents. Najma Akhtar is a world-renowned singer, known for her remarkable and powerful voice; for blazing a trail for Asian music in the Western world before supercharging the results with global influences; and for her creative collaborations. But more than that, our interviewee is a trained chemical engineer – and, possibly unbeknownst to her, a remarkable storyteller.

Because, en route to her performance at SOAS this Friday, Najma has enjoyed a frankly remarkable career, having shared stages with the likes of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin, and Nina Simone; and it’s a genuine pleasure to listen to her experiences, as well as her take on music. Perhaps surprisingly for someone born in Chelmsford, however, Najma is known primarily for ghazals, musical and often intense love poems originating from India, Pakistan, and the Middle East. 

To be honest, that description doesn’t do the ghazal justice, so let’s let Najma try.

“The first thing about the ghazal is the poetry,” Najma starts. “That’s the main thing. You don’t hear the tabla, or the harmonium; you hear the words, the painful expression of love. Then you add colour with the melody…and only then the instruments add depth. And then it’s about the delivery.” 

The delivery, of course, depends on the voice. Hearing Najma’s singing voice is quite something; there’s a powerful, traditional feel to her sound, which brings to mind the legendary Lata Mangeshkar. “If my voice can give someone peace and happiness; if I can touch someone’s heart through my voice, it’s a blessing. I’ve burst out crying – it’s all worth it when someone tells you at the end of a concert that you’ve touched their heart.”

Najma 2 WP ghazal

It’s always been about the ghazal for Najma. Following more traditional beginnings, she’s innovated with the ghazal, following the example of the world-famous Jagjit and Chitra Singh, who revolutionised the genre by presenting and performing poetry in a simple style and about more relatable subjects. To that end, Najma has infused the ghazal with jazz, blues, folk, and psychedelic vibes – and sung them mainly in Urdu, leading to other dialects such as Saraki and Punjabi, and onto her latest work of singing them in English.

She attributes this to the two producers she worked with at the time, Iain Scott and Bunt Stafford-Clark from Triple Earth Records, who took Najma’s music and envisioned something new. “They were intrigued by the ghazal – it was the ‘in’ word at the time. They wanted to record an album with me, and my parents were supportive, but horrified at first; they had doubts about Westerners’ ability to understand the ghazal.

“My parents explained that Bollywood was the more popular music in India, that we’d have a lot of competition, but Triple Earth were determined. They wanted to record twelve songs; they wanted to use different musical influences – ‘we’re going to use jazz’. So, we got in a violinist, a saxophonist, a tabla player, a bass player, a keyboard player. We put them all together, and Qareeb [Najma’s first album] was born.”

Unconventional though it may have been, the message of her music remained the same. Najma says: “I was always interested in the sadness of ghazal; the melancholy, the pain, unrequited love, alcoholism.” 

The last two points strike a chord. Everyone’s experienced some form of unrequited love; many others have fallen into a bottle to cope with heartbreak. It is, perhaps, the identifiable heart of ghazal which forged the path to Najma’s success – one that took her to unexpected places.

“Once the album was done, I was asked to sing at Glastonbury,” Najma smiles. “That was huge. But for a standard Indian family to go to a festival like that – all the red flags were up for my parents. WOMAD were having their first stage there, Peter Gabriel was playing. And amongst all of this, I sang – and we were asked for an encore.

“After Glasto, I sang at Ronnie Scott’s – and the red flags went up again. A place like that would have come with a reputation – when you say “bar” or “club” in a traditional family…” Najma puffs her cheeks. “Triple Earth had a bit of job trying to convince my parents. And in the end, the queue was so long – someone from Talking Heads was in the audience. Boy George was there!”

There is a sense of marvel throughout the entire interview with Najma, almost as though her experiences are some sort of dream. It’s clear that her career has been a learning experience – for her and her parents – about the unexpected heights one person can scale if they’ve been blessed with a gift.

“I was invited to do three shows in Tokyo. I didn’t know what to expect – but as soon as I got off the plane, I saw Japanese people with banners for me! I remember thinking, I’m singing ghazals – how can Japanese people be into my music?? I saw them singing my lyrics – it had all been repackaged to make it accessible for this audience.” She concludes excitedly, “The guy from The Last Emperor was there!!”

It’s clear, then, that Najma’s music is the real deal, and culturally inclusive. Her upcoming album, Five Rivers, promises to explore the fusion within her music even further. Najma considers herself to have a mixed heritage – across the Indian sub-continent as well as British. Ghazals, for Najma, are a way to express Indian soul through music.

“There is real beauty in Indian culture. A girl wearing a sari, a tikka, and flowers – that’s the epitome of Indian beauty. I remember in Japan, a translator was completely taken by a set of Indian earrings I was wearing. I always try to bring this beauty into my music – it’s always about my culture, peace, and spirituality.”

To end our conversation, it’s Najma’s turn to listen to a story. This writer has often debated with his mother about whether English or Indian songs are better at expressing love. Surprisingly, the boy born in London feels that the music of true love comes from India – as a ghazal singer, does Najma agree? 

“I can’t answer that!” Najma laughs. “There are indeed some beautiful Indian love songs. But, listen to some of Ed Sheeran’s music, George Michael – as long as the voice has the emotion, the pain, it can be Eastern or Western. And if you can understand the lyrics, then that’s the icing on the cake.”

You can get tickets for Najma’s performance in the Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre on Fri 6th December here.

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