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Soothing Sounds From India

MUSIC INTERVIEW. When Najma Sings, Stereotypes Fall

THE sounds of world music are making more and more inroads into the United States. Latest arrival is Indian vocalist Najma, who debuted recently here at Town Hall. The singer, based in the in the United Kingdom, presented a soothing, dream-like m'elange of Urdu love poems (ghazals), and Western jazz-pop backgrounds - quite a departure from most of the rabble-rousing, dance-oriented music that's the stuff of most world beat or ethno-pop. Seated tailor-style on stage, playing a harmonium, encircled by her musicians, Najma spun smooth, soaring melodies of her own invention, backed only by traditional Indian percussion and violin in the early part of the program, later augmented by synthesized keyboards, saxophone, and electric bass.

Originally trained as a chemical engineer, Najma has left that behind for the time being to pursue her career as singer and composer. Raised in the Muslim religion, in which women are often not allowed to perform, Najma has had to make some choices of her own to find the right balance in her life.

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``I fast, I pray, I don't eat ham, pork, things like that - and I do keep strictly to the religion in that way,'' she said in an interview after her Town Hall debut. ``But then I'm not an extremist. There are so many interpretations on the Koran and how one thinks what a woman's role is. In the Koran it says a woman is equal to a man, but in society it's not like that. A woman is a second-class citizen.''

But Najma seems not to be troubled by these definitions, and forges ahead with music, which is itself often frowned upon in the Muslim religion.

``Music is not encouraged, because any form of intoxication in our religion is taboo, like drinking alcohol or taking drugs, where people lose their minds in the sense that your mind is not your normal mind. It's the same with music, because in some forms of music people get so engrossed that they lose their minds. But again, when the prophet Mohammed did come back to Mecca, the girls received him playing drums, clapping, and singing. So, it's how you interpret it.''

Najma has busied herself interpreting the beautiful poetry of the ghazals and fitting their words to melodies that she creates.

``When I get into it,'' she say, ``I sit down with my harmonium and I get someone to play the tabla [Indian tone drums], and we just sort of jam away.''

It was after she had already recorded her first album in India that she was approached to do an album of ghazals in England. At first she was hesitant, partly because of a language problem.

``In the ghazal, the lyrics are very important. It's very difficult to translate the Urdu language into English because it's so poetical, so mystical and romantic. My mother said, `How would these English people know about the language?' So we didn't take it seriously in the beginning.''

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But she finally decided to do it, and the result was ``Qareeb,'' her first album [available in the U.S. on Shanachie Records - an independent label specializing in world beat].

Najma says she wanted to make something that would be a departure from what Westerners usually think of as Indian music.

``People in the West think of Indian music as what you hear in an Indian restaurant - all these high, squeaky voices in the background, with sitar and tabla and flute.''

Another departure from traditional Indian music on ``Qareeb'' was the use of vocal harmonies, which was achieved by overdubbing Najma's own voice.

``In Indian music vocal harmonies are not used at all,'' she explains.

Najma has already completed a new album, titled ``Atish'' (``Fire'') that expands even further the boundaries of Indian music. It even includes a song in English, ``Faithless Love.'' The album has already been released in Japan and England and will appear in the U.S. early next year.

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