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All That Jazz

Celebrating two legendary vocalists who would have turned 100 this year

Sunil Sampat Aug 05, 2015
Portrait of Billie Holiday, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Feb. 1947. Photo courtesy PF-bygone1/Alamy

Portrait of Billie Holiday, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Feb. 1947. Photo courtesy PF-bygone1/Alamy

This is confession time:  There are two women I love dearly. They have given me immense joy. Actually, there are several more but let me concentrate particularly on this pair of amazing ladies.  [Somehow I know my wife is going to read all of this  column!]

These two delightful ladies are a world apart. Literally.  One is American and the other an Indian and neither has traveled much beyond the shores of their lands. The American lady in question is Billie Holiday, a truly great jazz singer and the Indian diva is Akhtaribai Faizabadi, better known as Begum Akhtar, the fabulous ghazal singer, and in fact, the creator of the contemporary style of ghazal. You would be right in wondering what possible connection exists between these two divas of song. Amazingly, they have lived lives in parallel…at least musically.

For one, the world is celebrating the 100th birth anniversary of both Billie Holiday and Begum Akhtar this year. But that is just a happy coincidence. Billie and the Begum have some basic, fundamental similarities. They both battled large adversities just to be able to sing. While Begum Akhtar was able to conquer these and sing on her own terms, Billie Holiday could never shed the yoke of oppression and suspicion till her dying day. She was handcuffed to her hospital bed by the New York police when she died; she had a previous drug record, which was the reason why this inhuman treatment was meted out to her. In fact the cops in NY always treated her with suspicion in those days (1940s and 50s) before the American Civil Rights movement of Dr.Martin Luther King.

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In the case of Begum Akhtar, she was strongly discouraged from singing, first by her husband and later by such prominent artists as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Amir Khan – both masters of Hindustani classical vocal music. They were vehement in wanting to disallow Akhtar from singing as they said it was contrary to the tenets of their religion for a woman to sing publicly. But our lady was not easily bullied. “Ghazal ek dil ki awaaz hai. Ye toh zaroor bahar ayega,” she said. (The ghazal is a voice from the heart – and it cannot be supressed). We are incredibly fortunate that she was able to prevail and has created a large body of recorded music.

 Begum Akhtar. Photo: Courtesy Begum Akhtar: Love’s Own Voice by S. Kalidas

Begum Akhtar. Photo: Courtesy Begum Akhtar: Love’s Own Voice by S. Kalidas

Long before the “centenary” connection, I would often listen to either Billie Holiday or Begum Akhtar and somehow be reminded of the other! The expressions were emanating from somewhere in the soul, the rendition of the song would be unique.

I have often felt that Billie Holiday was telling you a story, relating an emotion, a sentiment through song. There is no doubt that she and her singing were unique. “Sing  like somebody else? Why would I want to do that? I’d rather not sing at all if I had to do that”  – Billie had once remarked. Each time Billie sang a song it was like never before or since. She once said in an interview, “No two days in my life are the same. Why should I sing a song twice the same way?” In many ways this exemplifies the core of jazz music; playing or singing it the way you feel at that particular moment, but it requires an extraordinary talent to accomplish this uniqueness.

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Billie Holiday may not have possessed the melodic classiness of say, Ella Fitzgerald or Carmen MacRae, but she could scorch you with the delivery; you were never left in doubt about the message of the song. She would (and does) scythe straight to the listeners heart and soul.

Ditto with Begum Akhtar.

Happy 100th birthday, you mighty ladies. And thanks.