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- Posted on Jul 28th 2009 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
Najma Akhtar answered a knock on the door of her London flat one day in 2006 to find a mysterious man standing there, cowboy hat on his head, guitar case in his hand.
"He walked in with his cowboy hat, whipped his guitar out and said, 'OK, let's do something.' " she recalls by phone from that same locale.
The result was less gruesome than what might have happened with one of those directors involved, though just as artistically satisfying. In fact, the results would fit nicely in a Tarantino soundtrack:
Najma Akhtar and Gary Lucas, 'Special Rider Blues'
Yes, that's Skip James' 'Special Rider Blues,' a song the blues legend originally recorded in the 1920s and one of the essential, haunted entries of the Delta blues canon. But it's a good bet you've never heard it like this, performed by singer Akhtar and Gary Lucas, that hat-topped guitar man. It's one of the many highlights of their new collaborative album, 'Rishte.'
Actually, Akhtar hadn't ever heard of Skip James, let alone that song, when Lucas showed up at her door. She hadn't even had much awareness of blues music at all at that point. But she was intrigued by a suggestion from her music-loving friend Gary Nesbitt that the two of them see if they could find a common ground between England-born Akhtar's ghazal singing and Lucas' wide-ranging guitar aesthetics.
Both had long shown streaks for boundary-breaking and unconventional approaches. Akhtar was among the pioneers of modern jazz-pop-Indian crossovers with her landmark 1989 album 'Qareeb' and presaged the West's recent Bollywood fascination with her 1996 album, 'Forbidden Kiss,' featuring music by Indian film composer S.D. Burman. Lucas is perhaps best-known for his partnerships with innovators Captain Beefheart and Jeff Buckley. Akhtar had even bumped up against blues while working in the Jimmy Page/Robert Plant 'UnLedded' project (that's her doing the Sandy Denny part on 'Battle of Evermore'), while Lucas grew up loving and influenced by Indian music and had explored other Asian sounds with 'The Edge of Heaven,' a 2001 album sporting his interpretations of Chinese pop songs from the 1930s.
Still, Nesbitt's notion seemed to have a certain odd-couple element to it, something Lucas purposefully relished in that London meeting as a way to set the tone for the project.
"She liked it -- I was the brash American!" says Lucas, who had been a fan of Akhtar since hearing her 1990 album 'Atish' and seeing the 'UnLedded' MTV telecast. "And she is Muslim, very devout. As a Jewish artist -- I'm not a professional Jewish musician but have been doing Jewish music -- I'm trying to break down the barriers of religious groups and cultures. Best way the world has a chance of hanging together is celebrating the differences, and there is no better way to do it as a musician than collaborate with other musicians."
Akhtar had just spent six months in Pakistan, a trip initiated due to her father's death and extended to do relief work following the devastating October 2005 earthquake that occurred during her visit. The experience was profound and intense. A building collapsed pretty much right in front of her during the temblor, and as the rescue efforts got going she made herself available in whatever way she could, flying with American humanitarian forces on Chinook helicopters to deliver supplies to destroyed villages, sending out international pleas for assistance via her fan base.
On her return, she was in a frame of mind for new artistic expression and was intrigued by various things Nesbitt proposed. It was Lucas who suggested a look at the blues when Nesbitt contacted him.
"I'm steeped in spiritual music and I would define the root of it as blues," Lucas says, calling from Spain where he was doing some solo shows. "There's a commonality in qawwali that's similar to Jewish music. On that Chinese album, there were notes I was hitting on the pentatonic scale, which is the same. The commonality is the sense of sensuality. To me, it wasn't so different. I hear the blues in Indian music. I hear the ecstatic wailing. Strikes me deep in my soul. Gospel music, Appalachian gospel like Roscoe Holcomb, same thing. African music like Fela Kuti, that's the blues. People like [South African-born jazz pianist] Abdullah Ibrahim. It's all one."
Akhtar understood what he meant but had to approach it from a different direction.
"My knowledge of blues is not that much," she says. "Jut a few names and the structure: 6-bar, 8-bar, 10-bar blues. Then again, I never count bars."
From the start, though, neither one of them really treated it as an India-meets-the-blues project, or with any contrived concept.
"That was nice about what Gary and I did," she says. "I had gone into this as an Indian singer coming from my background. I didn't force anything to make it 'bluesy.' I didn't say I wanted to sing these Indian lyrics in a blues style. That set it apart."
The approach proved intuitive for both of them. That first session at Akhtar's flat yielded the foundations for four tracks that wound up on the album, including the title song:
Najma Akhtar and Gary Lucas, 'Rishte'
"I thought originally I would write songs in the format and take it the way I wanted to take it," Akhtar says. "But in our first meeting, I didn't express that because whatever we did in that one meeting was so magical and so spontaneous."
Lucas then returned to New York, put the ideas in a more formal structure and sent the instrumental tracks back to Akhtar. He also sent her some pre-existing instrumentals for her to compose vocal parts.
"One that I like particularly is 'Behaal,' " Lucas says. "It's almost sort of an aggressive rock track. I play some psychedelic raga guitar, kind of raga-ish wah-wah, but the changes on it are so lovely that Najma did with the harmonies of her voice."
And he confesses that even some of the things he played for her in their first meeting were ideas that had been kicking around for a while, one a true treasure for which he'd been waiting to find the a perfect setting.
"I'll tell you a secret," he says. "That was an instrumental I originally called 'Dream of the Wild Horses,' something I'd written in the mid-'90s and had Jeff Buckley in mind to sing it. When he was working on the follow-up to the 'Grace' album he said, 'Remember how we used to work on songs? Do you have anything like that?' I sent that to him and then he said, 'That's great! Do you have any more?' I sent him more. And then he died. So I gave this to Najma and she did the best damn thing on it. I wish Jeff could have heard that. He could have done a great job, as well, but I've collaborated with a lot of singers since Jeff and she's right up there with the vanguard as someone who could handle these instrumentals. It's not easy."
The biggest challenge may have come when Lucas suggested they do a cover song.
"I didn't want to do a cover," Akhtar says. "They sent me some things and I didn't like them. But then Gary sent me Skip James' 'Special Rider Blues' and when I heard it it seemed so natural, so right. First I tried to do it exactly like Skip James would do. Came back to London after we had recorded it in New York quite disheartened about this. I had a conversation with Gary Nesbitt and my mom and others. They said, 'Don't try to copy Skip James.' There were words I was unfamiliar with. I tried to use each word in different ways and express what I was trying to say. Very challenging for me to do. It took me out of my comfort zone; I worked very hard."
It paid off: "I went back to New York and we recorded it and the first or second take was what we used," she says.
Ultimately that was the case with nearly everything on the album -- a lot of work to craft the elements, but when they put it all together everything just fell in place.
"It's something that sounds very natural," Akhtar says. "Very earthy. Not really forced, not conjured up. Just grown. Our two art forms have kind of melted together in a very natural way. Gary didn't try to be Indian and I didn't try to be bluesy.
"Someone said it's a new genre, and I said, 'Wow! I hadn't thought of that.' But maybe the sound is so different."
Think of it as the Music With No Name.