Review: Najma Akhtar at Colston Hall Foyer 7/10 (Tony Benjamin)
THERE was a point half way through this gig when the bloke next to me and I shared a glance. And I mean shared because we were both registering equal amazement: this really was Najma Akhtar, singing for us in the Colston Hall foyer for free. We were both old enough to remember when the then young Indian singer's name had been a buzzword in late 80s UK world music circles.
Now we were enthralled by this richer, more mature voice that nevertheless had kept the exquisite sinuousness of classical Asian singing.
In this all too brief appearance with David Wilkins' electric guitar and Mike Ford's percussion Najma Akhtar conjured both a fond remembrance of her past glories and a bristling sense of the potential a full band performance might have offered.
As it was those basic elements often coalesced into something simply ravishing thanks to the perfect musical and emotional control she exerted over her vocals.
The songs were an interesting selection of classic acoustic numbers ranging from Tim Hardin and Tim Buckley to delta blues and an Irish traditional ballad but in every case Akhtar's Indian reinterpretation morphed the tunes into something exotic. Notes swerved and flattened like a sitar, while Wilkins' droning guitar caught the rhythmic underpinning of sarod against Ford's plangent tabla.
It worked brilliantly on a Tim Hardin number that stretched out into a raga-like middle section rich in Indian classical references It worked less well on the Memphis Minnie song Crying Crazy where the slide guitar felt too exposed and the gaps in the sound too big – probably reflecting the lack of her full band. Happily the last number – Black Is The Colour – gave everybody a chance to shine, clipped and punchy guitar in the Richard Thompson style slowly working up with the full-bodied tablas to an elaborated climax while Akhtar's voice grew in strength without any sign of effort. When it suddenly pulled back the impact was shocking, like a building falling down around you. Then she herself was gone, leaving us still incredulous and hoping to see her again, with full band and a much, much longer set.