By Asjad Nazir
From being a pioneer in fusion music to delivering acclaimed albums and mesmerising live performances, Najma Akhtar is a true hero of British Asian music and is still going strong decades after embarking on her magical journey.
She is one of the headline acts at this year’s Croydon Mela and will add to her countless audience-delighting live performances.
The super singer has had an internal drive that has pushed her forward to deliver something new for listeners on a regular basis and has had an unbreakable passion for her craft.
Eastern Eye caught up with Najma to talk about music, live performance and plans ahead.
You are perhaps at your best on stage. How much does live performance mean to you?
There is nothing quite like the buzz one gets after performing a great live gig. When the sound and PA are right, the voice is in perfect condition, the musicians are amazing and most important, the audiences are tuned into your wavelength; that magic just cannot be described in words. When one performs live with musicians, there is an immediate on-stage chemistry and the support that we all get from each other is amazing, and such fun to be part of. Also, as a performer, the visual experience of satisfaction and encouragement one gets when looking out into the audiences where you can see, feel and hear, the pleasure is very rewarding.
Tell us about that special relationship with your audiences…
It’s like a transfer of energy or bond that comes out of nowhere. Every single performance is unique; the timing of songs, ambience, setlist and especially, when musicians have their solos. I am truly in awe to the point of getting swept away by their skill, improvisational abilities and talent because it’s always different.
You have delivered countless live performances; what has been the most memorable?
I’ve been blessed to have done many memorable gigs from cosy intimate spaces to mega-venues, but choosing the most memorable is very difficult. However, there are a few I could point out that have struck a chord with me. I remember the Vancouver jazz festival, the Palestinian jazz festival and performing at the renowned London jazz club Ronnie Scott’s on two separate occasions.
You have also performed with big names…
Performing as a support act for Nina Simone, performing with Robert Plant-Jimmy Page for the Unledded album, performing with Jah Wobble and, of course, many tours with WOMAD. All these and more have been diverse experiences in different venues and each one, including my solo performances, were so unique and outstanding.
How much are you looking forward to performing at Croydon Mela?
I am hugely looking forward to the Croydon Mela 2019, as it will be uniquely different this year. It’s a special opportunity to see and hear a huge cross-section of music, extraordinary dance talent and other art forms from a diverse Asian community. This time around, my performance is based on the spiritual tradition of Sufi Kalam and ghazal, and accompanying me will be three musicians.
What is the secret of a great live performance?
I don’t think there is any clear cut secret about a live performance, but if all is good – meaning the musicians and sound-PA are in the right place as I explained earlier – and that the audiences are tuned in, then those secret ingredients create a magic performance.
Tell us, how much of a performance do you plan beforehand?
Whether contemporary or traditional, each gig is planned out according to the style of performance required. In each case, the length of performance determines the setlist and approximate length of each song, which will vary according to the ambience.
What has been the most memorable performance you have seen as an audience member?
I’ve been very lucky to see a wide cross-section of performances. Through my travelling and working with WOMAD, I have seen eye-opening world music performances ranging from African to western blues, Indian-Pakistani qawwali to classical and world folk music from Bulgaria, Rajasthan and China, and more.
You have ventured into the unknown and experimented musically; are there areas of music left that you wish to explore?
One can never have enough of exploring new areas of music because it is like the universe; endless, timeless and infinite. I love the challenges that new musical ideas bring to me. I’m lucky to be in such a position where I am able to connect not only with new music, but also with musicians whom I have never worked with before and together are able to explore, experiment and execute into a final recording. For example, all the many collaborations I’ve done are in musical areas that I could never have dreamt of working in. All these artists have left inspiring impressions on my creativity.
Can you give us an example…
Working on the Page and Plant project with Gary Lucas and with good wise friends far and wide sending me songs that I should listen to have exposed me to the world of folk-rock and blues artists of old and new. Having received brilliant reviews of my rendition-interpretation of Special Rider Blues by Skip James was an eye-opener for me. It gave me the courage and impetus to take a bold step of trying to experiment even further in this area, hence my new project album Five Rivers.
What can we expect next from you, musically?
My new album Five Rivers, in which I am exploring the synergies that exist between western and eastern poetic art forms, is finally mixed and mastered.
You have an amazing back catalogue of songs; what is your personal favourite?
I have many favourites in my catalogue songs. I have favourites not only from each of my albums, but also from unreleased material.
What music dominates your playlist?
Traditional ghazal and Indian classical music to African and folk music, and more recently, western blues. (Laughs) My playlist is in continuous reflux, updating mode.
Today, what inspires you?
Love of music and god.
Why do you love music?
The very essence of music is spirituality, peace, harmony, joy and fulfilment.
najmaakhtar.com & croydonmela.com