Another 'last minute dot com' gig that proved absolutely irresistible came my way this week in the shape of the Women Of The World Festival's A Celebration Of South Asia & Women From The South Asian Continent. With artists such as ghazal/Indo-Jazz pioneer Najma Akhtar, whose voice alone could seduce angels let alone lesser mortals, Carnatic violinist extraordinaire and superb Indo-Jazz exponent Jyotsna Srikanth, something of an Indian Paganini who leaves one wondering if she, too, might perhaps formed an association with dark forces to acquire such virtuosity and seductive playing, and of course the most fabulous pioneering DJ and radio broadcaster, DJ Ritu (of A World in London), plus experimental Indo-Jazz band ShivaNova and controversial author Tahmima Anam constituting the evening's line-up, who could possibly resist! Certainly not yours truly.
The Rich Mix is an easily accessible venue near Shoreditch High Street, modern but pleasant inside. Thursday night's A Celebration Of South Asia & Women From The South Asian Continent took place in the Main Room, a pleasant, open-spaced room with an excellent bar. I was rather shocked that, with an outstanding event such as this, this venue did not quite fill up. Still, it was a reasonable and, importantly, appreciative crowd.
Procedings began at 7.30 sharp with the one and only DJ Ritu and her set of excellent Asian Underground/Dance tracks, that would briefly re-appear as a bridge between the other acts. There is no crowd that Ritu could not keep happy with her superb vibes, be it Underground/Dance, Bollywood, world music, or whatever, and thus it was last night of course. A real pioneer of the Asian club scene and a successful and popular broadcaster especially in world music, Ritu is always a real crowd-pleaser and huge attraction.
The first of the live acts followed in the shape of the amazing Jyotsna Srikanth & Interlaced, Ms. Srikanth's super-exciting Indo-Jazz band. The versatile Jyotsna Srikanth is a Carnatic violinist of the highest standing who doesn't shirk from trying her hand at anything - from the South Indian or Carnatic classical music to Jazz Fusion and beyond. She is also an accomplished Western classical musician and is writing a double violin concerto featuring contemporary violin music for both the Indian and Western tradition. Dr. Srikanth (she is also a medical doctor in clinical pathology, but the pull of music proved stronger) has also collaborated in classical guitarist Simon Thacker's Nava Rasa Ensemble and is currently also one of the two real stars, the other being Thacker himself, of his current Svara-Kanti project.
However, Interlaced is her Indo-Jazz project that we are concerned with here and that is perhaps Ms. Srikanth's leading project. In this, she is joined by well known Celtic folk fiddler and jazz violinist Chris Haigh, one of the most innovative players from this scene, and Freddie on guitar, Victor Obsust on double bass, and Nishanth Rajakumar on percussion. Together, they form a very tight band with superb empathy among the players, and both ensemble playing and soloing were nothing short of breathtakingly spectacular.
Even if the electronic percussion might have been less than the perfect choice, Rajakumar handled it superbly and the choice, one suspects, might have been dictated by circumstances, not the least perhaps being that he had to provide the percussion for the other two live acts as well.
This was Indo-Jazz of the highest order, always innovative, intuitive, and exciting to the extent that it not merely had one on the edge of one's seat but constantly at
risk of dropping off it! The interplay especially between Ms. Srikanth and Haigh was pure joy and often almost duel-like. Ms. Srikanth proved never less than inventive, imaginative and as inspired as she was inspiring, with Haigh following in the same vein. Jyotsna Srikanth & Interlaced often swung exquisitely, and sometimes exquisitely hard. Especially so in the final piece, which sometimes veered between 'Hot Club' swing and a bluegrassy feel to superb effect.
A sheer delight that was as fresh as it was refreshing and exiting, one could have listened to Jyotsna Srikanth & Interlaced all night and wished this magnificent set did not have to end. I want to hear a whole lot more of this incredible band and their superb organic fusion in London's jazz venues, and the sooner the better!
The next 'live act' was of a non-musical nature. A reading from her novel The Good Muslim by controversial Bangladeshi born author Tahmima Anam. The reading, although sometimes a little hesitant, proved highly interesting and seemed to reveal an uncommonly well-written work, giving hope that good writing in modern English literature by new, or relatively new authors is not entirely dead after all. Not having read the full book, I would not presume to comment on this further except to say, Ms. Anam certainly impressed.
This reading was followed by something very special indeed again - the legendary great pioneer of Brit Ghazal/Indo-Jazz Fusion, Najma Akhtar. Here, she was accompanied by David on guitar and Nishanth Rajakumar on percussion. With a career now spanning more than an almost unimaginable and certainly unbelievable three decades, Ms. Akhtar's first recordings go back to the 1980s. While her first outstanding album, Ghazals By Najma, goes back to 1986 and still holds up as one of the most original ghazal recordings with its full Bollywood orchestration, it is her second, Qareeb, recorded the following year, that is usually best remembered from that early period. It was here that Ms. Akhtar for the first time introduced jazz arrangements to the ghazal form, with a mix of Western and North Indian instruments and full-on vocal harmonies. Qareeb brought Ms. Akhtar into the full limelight of international audiences and the Western main stream press. And she hasn't looked back since! Besides becoming the inspiration for a new generation of composers and musicians to move into fusion, Ms. Akhtar's performance and recording credits include such greats as Nina Simone, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) and many more. Ever thirsting to experiment with new styles, Ms. Akhtar also incorporates Northern sub-continental semi-classical and folk music, sufi music, Bollywood, Asian Underground and even trance in her repertoire. The most recent adventurous and innovative additions are blues and English folk song - still the pioneer she has always been. The first of these also found expression on Najma Akhtar's collaborative album with Gary Lucas, Rishte, released in 2009 and her latest to date. This seems to have been shamefully underrated - it is a real class act and as innovative as anything.
Last night's utterly enchanting, mesmerising performance by Ms. Akhtar started with a ghazal, accompanying herself on harmonium and with Nishanth Rajakumar providing electronic tabla. This was followed by blues and folk songs, joined by guitarist David.
With her voice as crystal clear as ever and as sweet as to seduce angels, Najma Akhtar certainly seduced and enchanted completely. This was a performance that mesmerised utterly and just plain blew one's mind! What a delight and privilege it was to witness such a legend as Ms. Akhtar in such an intimate setting. One must await her next recording with baited breath! It is not going to be easy.
A Celebration Of South Asia & Women From The South Asian Continent concluded with what might perhaps best be described as experimental Indo-jazz fusion, although it is a little unkind to restrict ShivaNova thus.
Unfortunately, ShivaNova founder/leader Priti Paintal was unable to be present due to the recent loss of her husband, for which we extend our sincere condolences and sympathy.
Consequently, the line-up consisted of regulars Yogeswaram, vocals, and flautist/bansuri player Teymour Housego, renowned in his own right also and with his own leader album under his belt (Haunting Bazaar), with Nishanth Rajakumar providing percussion. There were also special - and especially delightful - guest appearances from Najma Akhtar and Jyotsna Srikanth, lending a wonderful spontaneity to the performance.
Both the vocals of Yogeswaram, which often were almost countertenor-like, and the bansuris and concert flute of Housego were nothing short of sensational, as indeed was the innovative, imaginative music. Having so far heard very little of ShivaNova, I would love to hear a lot more! This was extremely exciting, inventive music, always full of interest and indeed surprises.
Sadly, this all too soon brought last night's A Celebration Of South Asia & Women From The South Asian Continent to an end. The only way this event could have been bettered would have been by much longer sets from all the musical performers, but that would have taken us into morning.
A Celebration Of South Asia & Women From The South Asian Continent can only be summed up as spectacular and magnificent, and as an unqualified success. A sensation that was an experience more than a mere event, that will remain in the memory with both awe and great fondness.
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