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World Village LLCD005, 47:50.,,,

by Steve Koenig

When Najma's album Qareeb came out on Shanachie in 1987, a good friend insisted I hear this voice. There was a big fuss in the Indian classical music community over the validity of her updatings of traditional ghazals. Plus, she was born in England. After hearing both sides of Qareeb straight through, I rushed out to buy it (vinyl, of course; I always meant to get the CD with the extra track), and then her next, and then in concert.

Ghazals are, after all, love songs. These modernizations were relatively mild: use of electric guitars and and synth no farther out than Fairport Convention was at the time. Then I lost track of her doings, during which time, in a reversal of pop trendinesss, she added her family name to the simpler Najma. In music, could there be another Najma? (To double-check, I browsed Amazon.) Her singing and her arrangements tug at your heart.

Gary Lucas is a rightfully well-known entity in both rock and jazz worlds, having worked with Captain Beefheart's band and Jeff Buckley, and for his solo guitar. Of the ones I know, I can especially recommend his albums, which may be hard to find, a deliciously goofy old-timey duo with Peter Stampfel called The Du-Tels (Shimmydisc), a sextet including Zorn and Greg Cohen, Busy Being Born (Tzadik), the solo Skeleton At The Feast (Enemy), and the compendium Improve The Shining Hour (Knitting Factory).

I'm a minority voice being let down by his other world music project, a tribute to two Chinese 1960s pop singers, The Edge Of Heaven (Label Bleu), not because of the instrumental music but because the two designated singers, to my thinking, don't in any way relate to their tributees.

Now to the disc at hand, Rishte. Najma's voice is beautiful as ever. Lucas has the skill and wisdom to appear simple when his playing is in truth quite intricate. They are accompanied by tabla, and two tracks add violin.

"Woh Din" is totally brilliant: Lucas' trembling blues is perfectly synchronous with the plaintiveness of Najma's singing about being on the shores of love, under the moon, thinking of drowning. Strangely, the refrain sounds as if it she were singing in English, "Johnny come home!"

Worth buying for that track alone, but next they do an actual blues number, Skip James' "Special Rider Blues." Lucas' country-poke steel guitar escorts Najma's blend of blues-style and arabesques, making this another perfect blend, and so it goes through the entire disc.

I mentioned Fairport Convention earlier. Najma tackles a British folk ballad, "Soul Taker," one of the more adventurous and perhaps less successful tracks. A story of a cruel, horse-riding woman, the multi-tracking and her phrasing remind me of Renaissance, but also of Steeleye Span. It's fascinating.

The booklet offers a translation or synopsis of each lyric in English and in French written by Najma. Lucas writes a fascinating few pages about his discovery of Najma's music, like mine, via Qareeb, and subsequent friendship with her, motivated by Najma's writings and volunteerism not only in South Asia but in Bosnia.

The cover and booket are colorful in a way that approaches psychedelia, but also Chagall: bright sari-like twists and butterflies. Complete with slipcase, this is the kind of album you'd expect Nonesuch to license, and I mean that in a good way. A definite Best Of 2009.


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