|Najma Akhtar's 1988 Shanachie debut Qareeb  was a stunning hybrid of Indian popular ghazal with subtle Western influences, followed by 1990's Atish in a similar vein [Shanachie 64026]. There's also her Ghazals by Najma on the UK label Nivako [NLL CD 001], more traditional again but a further example of elastically serpentine soprano vocals with harmonic progressions shifting unexpectedly from major to minor modes and back again, all in the span of a single phrase. 1992's Pukar on the Mondo Melodia label [61868 50000 26] sported an absolutely haunting title track, in versions with and without tabla accompaniment. By every indication of vocal talent and solid artistic choices, Najma seemed bound for WorldBeat diva status like Natasha Atlas.
Alas, her latest, Vivid once again on Mondo Melodia [186 850 075-2], is the kind of ill-considered misstep that, with established actors, would generate quips along the lines of "What was she thinking? Well, perhaps she needed to make money. It's a job after all." Dubbed Indian Gothic in Neil Spencer's liner notes, it would have made a very promising project - if left in the masterful hands of dub sensation Cheb i Sabbah, or Frenchman Hector Zazou who arranged Sevara Nazarkhan's astounding debut. We'd have gotten a female version of Shafqat Ali Khan's eponymous and masterful debut on the WorldClass label, perhaps. However, Richard Grassby-Lewis responsible for arranging Najma's self-penned melodies and lyrics concocts a strangely messy assemblage of synthetic soundscapes completely at odds with the innate magic of the vocalist's considerable chops. What's worse, Najma sings half the lyrics in English, netting a distressing Barbie doll effect when typically Indian vocalizing -- little vibrato, high lithe voice full of melismatic embellishments -- becomes the vehicle for lines reflecting on inner emptiness. Quite a self-fulfilling prophecy if you consider the grotesque results.
While our WorldMusic feature is dedicated to introducing you to worthwhile entries for your expanding library, an unexpected faux pas by a musician of Najma's standing deserves mention to save you from picking up a complete dud on the strength of a prior winning track record. On his latest album of remixes, Cheb i Sabbah gives Vivid's short "Miskatonic" a workover that hints at what the entire album could have been. It's admirable to see Najma flex her creative muscles and broaden her repertoire - but Vivid is clearly not where her future lies. Though there are a few tracks of promise, on balance, those are barely enough for committed Najma devotees, certainly not reason for newcomers to bother with. Call Vivid a concept album gone bad. Let's hope Najma returns to her very considerable strengths on the next one.
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