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At the tail end of the 1980s, audiences were given the treat of seeing Najma Akhtar singing ghazals (Urdu love and spiritual songs) so beautifully that people stopped in their tracks. Since those youthful beginnings, Akhtar has been much in demand across the board. The transition between musical forms is a journey she makes effortlessly, aided by a disciplined and translucent voice. Indeed, it’s this very control that allows her to inhabit whatever sound-world she visits as if her own.

The combination of blues guitar – courtesy of the peerless Gary Lucas – and Indian/ Pakistani harmonics is not as curious as might seem. There has long been an interest amongst musicians, guitarists especially, of working out microtonal tunings that can link the basic elements of blues and folk with a larger world of music and Rishte’s 11 songs are the latest manifestation.

Billed as an ‘Indo-blues fusion’ recording, Rishte is actually a comet of a CD that blazes an experimental tail. Listen to the atmospheric glissandi of the languid ‘Who Dhin’ and you find the range of references stretch from a lazy Delta blues to the yearnings of Urdu devotionals.

The album has its intuitive leaps and some real risks are taken. ‘Special Rider Blues’ – an interpretation of Skip James’s 1930s classic – sees Akhtar and Lucas tackle a song of lolloping rhythms and riffs without getting bogged down. ‘Soul Taker’– inspired by supernatural femmes fatales – takes its cue from English folklore. But both work strangely well and open up new lines of inquiry.


New Internationalist issue 426 magazine cover This article is from the October 2009 issue of New Internationalist.
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