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Music Review: Najma Akhtar and Gary Lucas – Rishte

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Najma Akhtar is an Anglo-Indian singer who has been recording since the late '80s, when her album of ghazals (a poetic form of Arabic love song), Qareeb, was released to critical claim. She has subsequently carved an interesting and wide-ranging musical path, including work with Led Zeppelin’s Page and Plant, and artists as diverse as Basement Jaxx and Nina Simone.

American guitarist Gary Lucas has applied his bluesy, often dizzyingly psychedelic fretwork to works by artists including Captain Beefheart, Iggy Pop and Nick Cave, as well as famously contributing to Jeff Buckley's acclaimed album Grace.

And on Rishte, the pair has drawn on this depth of experience to produce an elegant and entrancing set of subtly melodic tunes.

Indo-blues would be an easy term on which to fall back, but aside from a flighty cover of blues legend Skip James's "Special Rider Blues," the southern US blues influence is restricted to the occasional application of Lucas's slide guitar or utilization of his trademark bending, winding acoustic guitar notes. Instead, Lucas mostly provides shuffling rhythmic strums in counterpoint to babbling tabla drum over which Najma carves out swooping, honey-toned vocals.

She really does possess the most gorgeous tonal range, full of color, playfulness and fluidity, and Lucas must take considerable praise for underpinning it all with restraint, plucking out encouragement or driving songs on with brisk economy (save for the odd electric wig-out). A word too for violinist Alicia Svigals, who gilds two tracks with some plangent, expressive melody.

The songs are mostly self-written, Lucas providing the guitar parts and Najma the melodies and lyrics, usually in Urdu. The two songs in English expose it as a language that does not manage to accommodate the full fluent diction of the singer, the more drawn out language of her South Asian ancestry being a better fit for the full sweep of her voice.

These are songs that possess an almost timeless ethereal quality and ability to sweetly seduce over and over again. Neither Indian nor American, and more natural than many clumsy East-West fusions out there, Rishte is a wholly satisfying and rewarding CD.

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