Najma Akhtar

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Najma Akhtar, British born, vocalist, songwriter and actor has achieved a place in “World Music” history. Her music and work has been recognised and acknowledged as pioneering, as she has been the first person to create a new musical genre, using subtle jazz arrangements, vocal harmonies, vocal counterpoints and other nuances with the traditional South Asian vocal ‘Ghazal’ style (Urdu ballad).

Najma’s unique fusion and distinctive sound, has led to continuous new waves of inspired Asian artists, musicians and composers of Indian, Bengali and Pakistani decent following in her footsteps. She became, a role model, inspiration, a subject of curiosity as to ‘ was she come from India or Pakistan’, campaigner for various charities and much more. Along with the Indian semi-classical, Folk, Sufi, Bollywood, Indian underground and trance styles Najma’s ability allows her to perform not only in a multi-lingual capacity but also able to work and collaborate with artists from genres varying from the Rock world to Jazz, DJ’s and Western folk.

Apart from the new music, Najma was also ahead of the times e.g. in-terms of today’s criteria Najma ticked all the boxes, by having a very diverse multicultural, multiethnic and interfaith band. Jazz musicians such as saxophonist Ray Carless from Jazz Warriors, bassist John Deemer and other musicians that would either be of Gujarati or Punjabi origin from India and Pakistan and faiths crossing from Christianity, Islam, (Shia-Sunni), Hinduism and Judaism all working on one platform, creating, travelling and performing together. Unknowingly at the time and from the very onset via her creativity, Najma was also promoting, peace, harmony and community cohesion and it has been recorded in various testimonials that Najma’s unique voice, music and performance had huge impacts and made real positive influences in peoples lives at that time not only in the UK but all over the world. One incident would be noted ‘a person was stunned, shocked and very surprised when one evening, sitting in the middle of the jungle in Nigeria, with nothing but a small radio to listen to, Najma’s voice and interview came over the airwaves from the BBC World Service. This person was Najma’s late father.

Life and career[edit]

Najma grew up listening to all the talk of Bollywood i.e. the names of actors and actresses, singers, film distributors, latest directors, music directors, banners, movies politics and who was doing what, as her late father owned and ran a printing business in London that was connected with movie publicity. Fascinated by this huge gamut of music, colour and drama that Bollywood would offer, singing soon became a passionate hobby for her.

During the final years of her degree in Chemical Engineering, with support and encouragement from family and friends, Najma won a song competition in the UK. This led to her first solo album that was recorded in India, ‘Ghazals by Najma’, which was a mixture of soft Bollywood pop, the Ghazal and the Geeth (Indian light music) and the music was done by the renowned Bollywood music director, the late Ravi ji. After returning from India, Triple Earth Records, spotted Najma performing the ‘Ghazal’ on the BBC Asian programs that aired at the time. This chance viewing followed by many meetings; culminated in her first UK recording that was to catapult Najma into the seat of pioneering music and performance.

Her first solo release in the UK, Qareeb, was universally acclaimed as a groundbreaking recording in the World Music scene and the success of Qareeb allowed Najma to tour and perform extensively, including two major tours in Japan. Najma's follow up to "Qareeb", "Atish" (Fire), released in 1989, reached #4 on Billboard's World Music Chart and combines a number of musical styles, including Quawalli. Najma's third recording, "Pukar" (Calling You), was released in 1992 and includes a mix of Persian, Indian and African instruments. The title track was used in a Fuji Bank television commercial in Japan, where sales of "Pukar" reached upwards of 50,000 copies. In 1996, Najma released "Forbidden Kiss" which is a beautiful tribute to the Indian composer S.D. Burman, equivalent in South Asia to George Gershwin or Irving Berlin. On this tribute, Najma collaborates with Chris Rael from the New York City group Church of Betty. "Vivid", released in 2002, is described by Najma as "Indian Gothic." "Vivid" combines elements of Indian, Arabic and Western classical music. Fariyaad 2007 continued to cross over into the jazz world; this time she incorporates Mediterranean influences and instruments. Najma's soulful, classical, Indian voice acts as the centrepiece, surrounded by semi-acoustic songs. Consistent with her past recordings, Najma surrounds herself with some remarkable musicians, including Steve Coleman (saxophone), Olivier Louvel (guitarist and Saaz player) and Felix Sabaleco (drums). The result was a recording that Najma says, "is a bit more daring, in terms of opening the doors to a more modern and adventurous way, into the Indian way of world music".

Largely, a self-taught musician, Najma, is constantly being inspired by new sounds and musical genres that resonate with Indian classical, folk, Sufi, jazz, blues and semi-classical music. In 2009 Najma had pushed the sound barriers once again by introducing a psychedelic sound to her list of eclectic influences on her Rishte album, collaboration with Grammy nominated guitarist Gary Lucas. The reviews for Rishte were brilliant, including David Fricke’s review, which was Fricke’s Pick of the Month, in the November 26th, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone Magazine.

Najma has collaborated with many of the world's most influential musical artists including, Jah Wobble, "Take me to God"; Andy Summers, "The Golden Wire"; Philip Glass, "Liquid Days"; Steve Coleman, "Black Science"; Jethro Tull, "Dot Com". Ian Anderson said, "Najma Akhtar is the premier lady Indian (Asian) singer on the planet." Najma has also recorded and toured with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. Najma appeared with Plant and Page on their MTV unplugged special which was recorded and released as a DVD and an album titled "No Quarter".

Robert Plant had this to say about Najma, "Najma Akhtar, who sang with us on the film, practices with this box which gives her like three notes in a different rag. And she just wails between these notes. I've spent time with her when she is just wandering around and this box is giving out these amazing tones. It's trippy like you've got the incense on, a picture of Leonard Cohen on the wall, her singing."

On the Rishte album Najma was continually singled out for her vocal arrangement (English) and performance of Skip James, Special Rider Blues and since then she has recorded a gorgeous version of Old Man, from Love's, Forever Changes album. As the band ‘Love’ was on Elektra Records they reached out to Elektra’s former owner, Jac Holzman for his blessing, Jac wrote a lovely note back to Najma; ended it with: 'Your take is original, understated and true to the spirit of the original. Most important—it works!'


She has also appeared as a performer on stage and in songs and videos of other international singers and songwriters, such as the MTV No Quarter/Unledded performance with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page on the Led Zeppelin "Battle of Evermore", jazz vocalist Nina Simone, recording with Basement Jaxx, guitarist Andy Summers, Jah Wobble, and jazz and rock saxophonist Stan Harrison.[1] saxophonist/flautist Michael J. Parlett

Najma has performed at many of the world’s most important music festivals, including Glastonbury, WOMAD, Las Palmas, Reading, The Harbour Front Canada, Brisbane Biennial Australia, WOMAD Barcelona headlining jazz stages at numerous festivals including Lille and The Palestinian Jazz Festival in Jerusalem and most recently in 2011 The Festival in the Desert, in Timbuktu, Mali. Najma has performed in every significant London venue – The Jazz Cafe, Royal Albert Hall, South Bank, Hammersmith Apollo, Wembley, Earls Court, Dominion Theatre and the Hackney Empire. Najma was also the first British-Asian to play Ronnie Scott’s. Najma has had many incredible highlights in her career, but one that is most special to her, is being asked by Nina Simone's management to perform with her at the London Dominion Theatre for a two-night engagement.


  • Rishte, 2009.
  • Fariyaad: A plea to the creator, 2008.
  • Vivid, 2002.
  • Forbidden Kiss: the Songs of S. D. Burman, 1996
  • Pukar, 1992
  • Atish, 1990
  • Qareeb, 1989
  • Ghazals, 1988

With Steve Coleman


TV and film[edit]

Najma's voice can be heard on numerous motion picture soundtracks:

  • Hollywood movie, "People I Know" starring Al Pacino and Kim Bassinger
  • Robert Altman's film, "Pret a Porter".
  • Hanif Kureishi's film, "Sammy and Rosie gets Laid",

Composed the music for a Japanese TV commercial for Fuji Bank Japan and invited to appear in the video.

French international Fashion show used Najma’s music to showcase French designer Azzedine Alaia’s summer collection and video was directed by Jean-Bapiste Mondino.

Composed and co-wrote songs with the Fratelli brothers for a short film titled ‘The Fat Plague’. {filmed in India} Screened on Channel 4 UK and The National Geographic TV Channel 2005

Co-presented a musical extravaganza with Jools Holland on the BBC 2 TV programme, ‘Later with Jools’, aired in August 2001.

Recorded vocal sound track for The National Geographic TV Channel 4 documentary on the ‘Kumbha Mela’.2001

Recorded vocals for a History Channel TV documentary, titled ‘The Ganges.’

Collaborated with composer and musician Steve Beresford to write 13 songs for the soundtrack of the full-length British-Bollywood film, "Bollywood Queen", directed by Jeremy Wooding.The music was released as a soundtrack album published with MCS MUSIC 2002.

Wrote the Urdu / Hindi lyric for the single titled ‘Butterfly’ - for the above film.

Co-wrote a song with Jocelyn Pook for the Soundtrack to the movie ‘Brick Lane’.

Performed vocals in a TV commercial for ‘Walkers Crisps’

Recorded vocals for a BBC 2 TV wild life programme titled, ‘The Tigers Of The Emerald Forest’

Played a key role in a UK-based TV serial titled ‘Kismet Road’ for channel 4. 2001

Played lead role in a UK Urdu TV Drama production, titled ‘Kishmet Road’ screened on Asian Channels in 2000.

Recorded ‘Bollywood Style’ songs for an English short film titled, ‘Sari’s and Trainers’1999

A guest appearance in a Granada TV Production called ‘Family Pride’ 1998

Modeled a specially designed outfit on the catwalk for the BBC1 programme ‘The Clothes Show’. 1998

Images of Najma used in TV commercials i.e. the USA telephone Company AT&T,screened for Canada and the States.

French international Fashion show used Najma’s music to showcase French designer Azzedine Alaia’s summer collection and video was directed by Jean-Bapiste Mondino.

Najma played a lead role in a United Kingdom Urdu TV drama production, "Apne Begane" seen on Asian television in 2000.


  • Worked as a vocalist, composer & actor, Najma made her debut at the London's prestigious National Theatre in their production of "Haroon and The Sea of Stories" written by Salman Rushdie and directed by Tim Supple.
  • Tara Arts Theatre company as actor and vocalist / composer. Production - "Journey to the West” at the Haymarket Theatre in Leicester, England.
  • Theatre Melange as actor and vocalist / composer on their production titled 'Cinnamon Veil'
  • Given workshops for Indian Vocal singing and invited to coach the cast of Bombay Dreams (Andrew Lloyd west End musical) in pronunciation and Indian singing.
  • Contributions to the song writing development for the West End musical 'The Far Pavilions’.

Charity work[edit]

As a performer, Najma is always willing to lend her talent to humanitarian benefit concerts and events. As a compassionate world citizen, Najma becomes an active participant, such as when Najma went to Bosnia in 1996 after the war to fill in for one of the many teachers lost during the war. When word spread that Najma Akhtar was going to Bosnia during Ramadan, a time of compulsory charitable donations, Muslims around the world sent her donations. Surprised, but delighted, that this money was being sent to her, Najma felt the enormous responsibility to distribute it fairly. Najma personally delivered the funds to the desperate citizens in various refugee camps throughout the country, despite the hardships of difficult travel conditions and sub-zero temperatures. In Najma's words, "The devastation and confusion was rife, nevertheless it was a memorable experience." Most recently, Najma was in Pakistan during the 2005 earthquake. After the earthquake, Najma remained in Pakistan for six months. During this time, she worked closely with the UN and the U.S. government in organizing the delivery of supplies to the earthquake victims. Najma documented the Pakistani peoples' struggle in great detail with her writings. Najma's writings were either full of pain or promise but were always sincere. Because of these writings, benefit concerts were held around the world for the victims. The proceeds from these concerts enabled Najma to purchase necessities for the victims, including blankets, clothing, and food. Najma personally monitored the distribution to guarantee delivery to the victims.


When Najma is not singing or acting, she can be found teaching or lecturing on music at the University of Westminster or conducting workshops at The Trinity College of Music. Najma's talent for teaching vocal technique is always in high demand for theatre groups throughout England, including Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group. In 2002 Najma was brought in by the Group to help coach the London cast of "Bombay Dreams

The Optimist[edit]

Najma joined rock/jazz saxophonist Stan Harrison at a video shoot for the title track of Harrison's album, The Optimist.

Harrison has performed with and/or appeared on albums by bands and singers (including David Bowie, Talking Heads, Radiohead, Duran Duran, Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, They Might Be Giants). The title song of this album, The Optimist, was co-written by Stan and Najma. The video directed by Justin Adler, features trippy, retro visual effects, and was shot in and around the Zipper Theater in New York City, Manhattan. Some musician’s also feature in the video clip, DJ Harley Wertheimer, Yayoi Ikawa on Keyboard, Brad Albetta on Bass and Sterling Campbell from Duran Duran and B-52’s on Drums. Harrison's commanding, muscular solos are complemented by Akhtar's haunting vocals ‘her singing is also a highlight of the CD.’ The ten original songs on The Optimist showcase Harrison's sax, as well as the vocal talents of artists including Philip Bailey, Phoebe Snow and Andy Vargas.[2]

"Naina Lage Re"[edit]

This song is from the album Atish.[3]

"In My Mind"[edit]

The song titled "In My Mind" was co-written by Urdu speaking Najma Akhtar and Andy Madadian. It was recorded and mixed in South France in less than three hours at a song writing retreat hosted by Miles Copeland. Madadian puts himself to the challenge by singing the Urdu lyrics even though it was not his language. The video was then filmed in London at Hammersmith Palais with a live audience.


  1. ^ [1][dead link]
  2. ^ "The Optimist". YouTube. 2008-03-17. Retrieved 2014-07-15. 
  3. ^ "Najma Akhtar - Naina". YouTube. 2009-05-24. Retrieved 2014-07-15. 

External links[edit]