Born Najma Akhtar in 1964 in Chelmsford, England. Education: Bachelor's and master's degrees in chemical engineering from Aston University in Birmingham, England. Addresses: Record company--2nd Sight Records, 103 Melbourne Grove, London SE22 8RR, website: http://www.2ndsight.co.uk.
Najma Akhtar, whose stage name is simply Najma, began her music career in her early twenties with the release of Qareeb. Her success continued with the subsequent release of four additional albums, an appearance on MTV Unplugged with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, and her work on the film Bollywood Queen, for which she wrote and recorded the 12-song soundtrack. Najma began acting in the late 1990s, with roles in four theater productions and one television series, all in the United Kingdom.
Najma was born in 1964 in Chelmsford, England, and was raised primarily in London. She had a fairly typical childhood, participating in netball and choir while in school. She comes from a family of engineers; her father is a mechanical engineer, her sister is a civil engineer, and her brother is a chemical engineer. Najma followed this family tradition and earned her master's degree in chemical engineering from Aston University in Birmingham, England.
Najma's family is of Pakistani and Indian Muslim descent, and it was her affinity for Asian music that started her career. Her father worked as an Indian film distributor and Najma grew up listening to Indian film music. Her parents bought her a harmonium when she was young and she began to imitate her favorite film songs. While Najma was visiting family in Najibabad, India, near the Nepalese border, she learned the Urdu language, a variant of Hindi that is written with Arabic characters. She also learned the Indian vocal tradition of singing literary texts. In particular, Najma learned to sing ghazals, which are Urdu love poems dating from seventh-century Persia that contain elements of Sufi mysticism. These songs were traditionally sung by men when courting women. However, in contemporary India, ghazals are often used in filmi, which is soundtrack music for the Bombay film industry that combines both traditional and contemporary music.
Najma enlisted the help of Indian vocal teacher Ustad Naaem Solaria to teach her classical Indian singing. With Solaria's help, Najma mastered a large vocabulary of inflections, including slides, quavers, and microtonal pitch blends. Despite this sophisticated training, Najma's future as a singer was not yet certain. As Najma explained to Dave Gelly of the Observer in December of 1991, "In the Asian community, whether you are Muslim, Sikh, or Hindu, the acting or singing profession still isn't considered at all respectable, especially for girls, and not solid or lucrative enough for boys." While Najma's parents introduced her to music, they never expected her to pursue it as a career. "In a traditional Indian family, education is the most important thing. Arts are secondary," Najma explained to Contemporary Musicians.
Najma's music career began in 1984 when she won Birmingham's Asian Song Contest. The prize was a trip to India, where Najma thought she would become an overnight success. "It didn't happen," Najma told the Toronto Star in August of 1989, "and I came back to England with my parents and finished school. But, more and more, I gradually realized I wanted to be in music." Even after this initial success, Najma told Contemporary Musicians that she still though of music as "purely a hobby."
After a brief television appearance, Najma was approached by producer Iain Scott to record an album consisting solely of ghazals. In 1987 Najma released her first album, Qareeb, which means "closeness" or "nearness." She blended her Indian vocals with jazz instrumentation, as well as the Indian tabla and violin, to create a truly original style. "We added jazz to appeal to a Western audience because the lyrics were not understandable to them," Najma explained to Contemporary Musicians. The producers also overdubbed Najma's voice to create harmonies, which is unusual for Indian vocal music. Najma's unique sound fueled the ascent of her debut album to the top of the European world beat scene. In addition, one song from the album was featured on the soundtrack of a Stephen Frears film. The album received good critical reviews as well as popular success. For example, James Hunter of the New York Times wrote of Qareeb in April of 1989, "It's the work of a musician who senses that, these days, she can remember the ancient, honor the everyday--and sing to several continents at the same time."
Najma quickly followed up on the success of Qareeb with three other albums. In 1989 she released Atish, meaning "fire," which rose to number four on the Billboard world music chart. Three years later she released Pukar, which means "calling you." This album features unusual instruments, such as an Indian horn called the shenai, a Persian stringed instrument called the oud, and African marimba. The title track was used in a yearlong commercial for a Japanese bank. In 1996 Najma released Forbidden Kiss, an album of Indian film songs made for the American audience. Najma promoted all of her albums with live performances across the world. Her mother travels with her as her personal manager. Najma told Contemporary Musicians that performing is the most enjoyable aspect of her career: "I love to perform when the sound is right." However, this is often difficult to achieve because of the unusual instruments she uses onstage.
In addition to writing and recording her own music, Najma has also collaborated with a wide range of musicians. In particular, Najma has worked with Apache Indians, Ken Morioka, Steve Coleman, Jah Wobble, and Andy Summers, a former member of the Police. In 1994 Najma joined Robert Plant and Jimmy Page for their MTV Unplugged special, and their performance together was included on their album No Quarter. In the same year Najma worked with the New York band Church of Betty to record renditions of pop songs from Hindi movies. "The music Najma and Church of Betty have recorded so far is truly multicultural, with arrangements effortlessly blending sitar and western drums, guitars, vibes, flute, and even what sounds like a kazoo," wrote Wayne Robins and Gene Seymour for Newsday.
Najma also began an acting career in the late 1990s, when her record company introduced her to a theater production company that was looking for an Asian singer and actress. In 1998 she debuted in a production titled Haroon and the Sea of Stories, based on a Salman Rushdie book, at the National Theatre in London. A year later she played the lead role in a United Kingdom Urdu drama called Aprie Begane. In 2001 Najma appeared in a United Kingdom television serial called Kismet Road. Najma also took part in the Tara Arts production of Journey to the West. In 2002 she accepted a role for the West End musical The Far Pavilions.
While developing her acting career, Najma did not ignore her singing career. She recorded songs for movies and television programs, such as the History Channel and National Geographic. She also continued to collaborate with various artists, such as Steve Copeland, Ian Anderson, and Philip Glass. In 2001 Najma wrote and recorded 12 new songs for a film called Bollywood Queen, in which she also made a guest appearance. In March of 2002 Najma released her fifth album, Vivid, which resulted from a collaboration with television and film music composer Richard Grassby-Lewis. "It is a funky and trendy combination with some sample sounds like Indian gothic," Najma told Meirul Din of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Asian Network. "The genre is gothic because when you think of gothic it is something dark and mysterious and moody." At the same time, the music is very melodic because of the Indian influence. Najma told Contemporary Musicians that she is like an Indian version of Enya because her music is "ethereal and spiritual."
by Janet P. Stamatel
Released debut album Qareeb with Triple Earth Records, 1987; released Atish, 1989; released Pukar, 1992; performed and recorded with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page on No Quarter album, 1994; released Forbidden Kiss on Shanachie Records, 1996; debut performance as actress and vocalist in the play Haroon and the Sea of Stories, National Theatre, London, 1998; singing and acting collaboration with Tara Arts Theatre company, 1999; played lead role in U.K. television production Aprie Begane, 1999; singing and acting collaboration with Theatre Melange Company, 2000; part-time lecturer for the degree course in music, University of Westminster, 2000-01; wrote, composed, and recorded 13 songs for film Bollywood Queen, 2001; released Vivid on 2nd Sight Records, 2002; began singing and acting collaboration in London's West End musical The Far Pavilions, 2002.
- Selected discography
- Qareeb , Triple Earth, 1987.
- Atish , Triple Earth, 1989.
- Pukar , Triple Earth, 1992; reissued, Mon Melodia, 1998.
- Forbidden Kiss , Shanachie, 1996.
- Vivid , 2nd Sight, 2002.
- Newsday, June 17, 1994, p. B21.
- New York Times, April 2, 1989, p. 27; November 7, 1989, p. C19.
- Observer (London, England), December 1, 1991, p. 65.
- Times (London, England), August 3, 1992.
- Toronto Star, August 4, 1989, p. E4.
- "Najma," BBC Radio 4-Woman's Hour, http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/womanshour/25_03_02/monday/info3.shtml (June 29, 2002).
- "Najma Akhtar," BBC Asian Network, http://www.bbc.co.uk/england/asiannetwork/starlite_najma.shtml (June 29, 2002).
- "Najma: Biography," 2nd Sight Records, http://www.2ndsight.co.uk/najbio.html (June 29, 2002).
- "When Indian Pop Goes Gothic...," clickwalla.com, http://www.clickwalla.com/article.php?cid=28&aid=1174. (June 29, 2002).
- Additional information was obtained from publicity materials provided by Richard Grassby-Lewis, 2nd Sight Records, 2002, and from an interview with Najma Akhtar on July 16, 2002.