Najma & The Ghazal
The vocal style of music that has given Najma Akhtar recognition and critical acclaim is known as the Ghazal, which is a form of lyrical poetry. Ghazal, in Arabic means a song addressed to women and in Persian a love poem. It is Persian in origin and deals with themes of unrequited love, longing and passion. It expresses the deepest sorrows of love lost and on the Indian Sub-Continent; it is the supreme mode of poetic expression for romantic love – its agony and ecstasy. Even though there are fine Ghazals that express the joys of wine, beauty of women, explore the mystery of God and Spiritualism there are those poets that write sonnets about the unknown territory of death, politics and the inequalities of life. But the Ghazal is essentially a song that tells ‘our saddest thought’ – with the sorrows of ‘love unsatisfied’ as the central theme.
As early as the 7th century, Suraka, an Arabic poet used the words in the phrase, “yala ila ghazal al-shabab” (he seeks his pleasure in the Ghazal of youth). During the Mughal rule (16th century), Indian poets, such as Nuri, Zafar, Kuli Khtub Shah, influenced by Persian masters like Sadi, wrote Ghazals in Urdu reaching perfection in 18th and 19th centuries with poets like Mir and Ghalib, leading the way to modern poets, Ashgar, Jigar and Hasrat. Also, less sung about contemporary poets, like Hali and Iqbal, added new dimensions by writing about society, equality and politics.
The poetry is strictly bound by a fixed rhyme and meter with couplets of a minimum of 2 to as many as 25. The first two lines rhyme, thereafter every alternate line rhyme (AA BA CA DA etc). Traditionally speaking, a poem or ‘Ghazal’ would be recited by poets at Mushairas (poetry readings), the poet sometimes would also mention his own name (takhallus) in the last couplet as a seal of recognition for his work. But the Ghazal comes alive when the singer and composer set it to melody and music of a traditional style. Each couplet is a poem within a poem, an entity, expressing a single thought or experience and so individual singers may choose which couplets they would like to perform depending on their own moods, feelings and melodic composition. Because of the compact nature, the Ghazal demands art and craft by both the poet and the singer and above all the emotion intensity characterises the form. It is therefore the singer’s sensuous style and creativity that ultimately unravels the subtleties of the poem by embodying it with sweetness and light and who in vocal improvisation enraptures the mehfil (gathering).
Jazz and the Ghazal
Najma has successfully made the transitional journey of this century old traditional style called the Ghazal even more accessible, by daring to introduce not only jazz nuances but also other world music elements. In creating a beautiful fusion of eastern and western styles, Najma always brings her own musical heritage into the spotlight while eliminating all musical boundaries, so when mixed with jazz a whole new genre emerges.
The alliance between Indian music and jazz is not new and has predominately existed as instrumental pieces. However, when lyrics of a complex nature become involved, the parameters shift as the balance between the importance and beauty of the lyric and music / arrangement must be taken into consideration. There has always been a link between Indian classical music and Jazz because of the free improvisational aspect, scales and modes. Thus, Jazz was the most appropriate genre to work / experiment with in this context.
Traditionally, the Ghazal is presented acoustically, seated at ground level on a podium accompanied by harmonium and other instruments such as the sarangi, santoor, tabla etc and the singer would composed a melody according to the mood and dynamic of the ghazal i.e. poem.
Triple Earth Records played a great part in encouraging Najma not only to compose the melodies of her songs but to also write the lyrics. Working with this label and Last Minute Productions, the albums 'Qareeb', 'Atish' and 'Pukar' are based mainly on the Ghazal theme but with a difference.
By abandoning the strict musical conventions followed by established Ghazal singers from the Indian Sub-continent, subtle jazz accompaniments such as the saxophone and bass were added to the traditional line up of instruments such as tabla, sarangi, santoor and dholak and also by changing the arrangements from the typical traditional chord structure, to using more emphasized bass lines and introducing vocal harmonies for the first time and jazz nuances, created a completely new and fresh sound in terms of Ghazal gayki (singing). This gentle diversion to a light, modern, simple version of the Ghazal set a new genre in motion that has since then been emulated by others.
Najma & Sufi Qalam
Najma Sings Har Lehza Hai Momin - Sufiana Kalam-e-Iqbal
Najma – Continuously discovering new sounds
Indian fusion music has been going through huge exciting changes over the last ten years, not only in the west but also on the Indian Sub-continent, constantly churning, turning and collaborating with many different genres. Najma’s recent work over the last few years has further incorporated a variety of music styles into the Ghazal, that would be both complimentary and adventurous yet suitable for the lyrics and dignity of the Ghazal. Once again, Najma gently treads where no one has gone before as these musical ideas have developed and moved in many other creative directions.
'Vivid’, was different not only because it was a more sampled and produced studio album but also because it used some western classical orchestral arrangements alongside Indian underground sounds and other western genres giving it a complex, magical graceful feel. This unique mystical sound created a genre called ‘Indian Gothic’.
Bearing the diaspora in mind the album ‘Fariyaad’, created a fresh sound that leant towards the more accessible. Lyrics all in Urdu/Hindi, the songs touch on Ghazal, Geet and Thumri styles. Steering away from heavy sampling, away from typical Indian rhythms and instrumentation and using subtle and not overpowering Mediterranean influences with the usual Jazz nuances i.e. keeping the core quite acoustic, a rustic psychedelic and earthy quality emerged.
‘Rishte’, Najma’s continued quest to find common ground between the Ghazal and other genres, leads back to Triple Earth’s and Najma’s carefully chosen interpretation of the JD Suther American Country and Western style song ‘Faithless Love’, from her album ‘Atish’. At the time, some people were surprised at this, whilst others thought that is where Najma's voice could go. Nevertheless, even then, the synergy between American Country and Western music had been established as the mood, lyrics, passion and romance of this style was akin to that of the Ghazal, especially in terms of poetic and vocal expression.
But Najma wanted to go further and this led to the blues influences. In ‘Rishte’ Najma’s interpretation of a Skip James classic ‘Special Rider Blues’, was critically acclaimed and so proved that the concept worked i.e. not only vocal styles, improvisations, expressions, but also the same fervour and passion exists between them. Using southern US blues style with the odd slide guitar or electric, shuffling rhythmic strums, bending, winding acoustic notes on guitar has an analogy and synergy with the naturally flowing Indian vocals of Najma.
By writing songs based on the Ghazal and using rock, blues and other eclectic influences the brilliant and dynamic Gary Lucas brings, takes the Ghazal on another musical path that is equally mesmerizing. The overtone of ‘Rishte’ is yet another superb collaboration of east and western ideas that open the doors to a new genre of Ghazal and Blues. Here is a perfect synergy, as this collaboration works brilliantly and is a magical journey from Memphis to Mumbai and back again.
It is this journey that has inspired ‘Five Rivers’.