Saturday, September 8, 2007

A Polyglot Songstress: Bridging East & West with her genre bending music

The Old Town School of Folk Music, nestled in Chicago’s leafy neighborhood of Lincoln Square, may not be the first place you’d expect to find an Anglo-Egyptian, multi-lingual singer/songwriter performing. But Natacha Atlas has become adept at challenging assumptions since embarking on her solo career over more than a decade ago. From the start, breaking down barriers has always been her manifesto. "I'm a person of the world," Atlas confides.

The tour she launched in the summer of 2006, to promote her latest album Mish Maoul-which translates into Unbelievable, also testifies to her broad range. Not only in its choice of venues to best capture her extraordinary voice, but also to showcase the music on her album which masterfully melds sources as diverse as trip-hop, bossa nova, and Egyptian pop. Like much of her previous work, it brings to the surface contradictions that define Atlas herself - traditionalism and modernism, Middle Eastern and Western heritage, human voice and computer rhythm – which combine to form a unique sound.

Characterizing Natacha Atlas’ body of work has never been an easy task, especially since it crosses so many genres. Live, Atlas is a masterful soprano, whose sultry voice often swoops and soars, shifting easily between songs in Arabic, French and English, that are both immediate and evocative. Like the legendary jazz singers of the past, her shows never appear to be overly rehearsed but rather spontaneous and intuitive.

Previously, Atlas’ live performances of her boundary-breaking music featured her singing and masterful belly dancing in front of an electric band that combined traditional Middle Eastern interments with synthesizers. But on that hazy September night in Chicago her fans were in for a surprising shift in both presentation and content. As Atlas made her entrance onto the stage in a glittering chiffon caftan, she was accompanied by the Golden Sound Studio Orchestra of Cairo. The nine-piece acoustic ensemble she had assembled for her tour included several strings, bass, piano, guitars, a smattering of Middle Eastern instruments, and the accordionist Gamal Awad, who had once played with the singer Abdel Halim Hafiz, the 1930s "Nightingale of the Nile", when he was 15.

While this may have been a completely traditional way of presenting her music, it was unmistakably new to both Atlas and her fans. "I've put together this acoustic ensemble, which is more kind of ethnic and pure, kind of serious and a bit more intellectual," Atlas explained. "It's more of a sit-down, genteel thing." "I'm still developing this," she went on. "We just had a Scandinavian tour. We've done it in London as well. It's gone down very, very well, but I didn't expect for the Americans to want that. It's just not my regular setup." Instead of belly-dancing during her sets, she mostly kept to a stool, consulting lyric sheets, translating the meaning of the songs to the audience, and managing to insert a prayer for peace between Arabs and Jews. For Atlas this manner of touring became a kind of diplomacy.

Even more remarkable is the fact that she is in such high demand for tours across North America and the UK. Considering the current political climate and heightened airport security, where shampoo bottles are routinely confiscated and men with Islamic-sounding names are frequently questioned, Atlas refuses to hide, making it clear that she is a proud Muslim. "I was surprised that we got a tour here this year," she says of Chicago. "But it's nice that, with the bad side of what's already happening politically over here, with all the misunderstandings around Muslim and Arab cultures, it seems people want to actually know the truth." Atlas has frequently said that educating people about Middle Eastern culture is one reason she draws on her Egyptian roots to create her hypnotic blend of music.

"I'll be doing some Fayrouz songs in support of Lebanon and just in support of the Arab world in general," she announced to the mostly western crowd, in reference to the heavy bombardments of Beirut and its suburbs by Israel at the time. Atlas has never been one to shy away from politics and social commentary, believing that both her music and live performances can serve as a platform to shed light on topics effecting the world and the Middle East in particular. In her hands, Atlas’ version of James Brown’s "It’s a Man’s World" becomes a searing manifesto of a woman’s right to exist. The song is not only a less than subtle allusion to the preference for males in many Arab cultures, but also takes the lyrics and transforms their meaning into a declaration of a woman’s worth in society.

There were also the more personal moments when she dedicated her adaptation of Françoise Hardy’s "Mon Amie la Rose" to her mother, who "is dying of cancer as we speak." Confiding to the audience that she had considered canceling the show but that her mother insisted she make the trip. "She says I have a message that needs to be heard, a lesson that East and West can really learn to understand each other," Atlas said.

At her concerts, as in her music, Atlas brings people of Eastern and Western backgrounds together. "I did a show in Helsinki," she says. "I was doing a lot of signings afterwards and one young Finnish man came up and spoke to me in fluent, classical Arabic. His Arabic was way better than mine. It was beautiful" she continued. "It was a pleasure talking to a European who spoke this amazing Arabic, so I was curious. He said, "Ten years ago I discovered your music and that made me want to learn Arabic and discover more about your culture." "I was ecstatic," she went on. "If I can make people get closer to Arabic culture and make them understand the real side instead of just stereotypes, then I've succeeded."

Most of the material she sang that night was also composed by the Lebanese brothers Asi and Mansour Rahbani, a not so surprising choice for this cross-cultural artist. The Rahbanis "were schooled in both classical Arabic music and classical Western music, so therefore you have this real fusion there," Atlas explains. "I wanted to show the Western public that actually Arabic composers have been fusing music, East and West, a lot longer than I have".

The many faces of Natacha Atlas

Like her own music, Natacha is hard to place, often describing herself as a "human Gaza Strip." She once explained that "conflicts between my European and Arabic sides will continue, my genetic code almost inevitably made me a nomad."

This nomadic existence began in 1964 when Natacha Atlas was born in Belgium, to an Egyptian father and an English mother. She spent her early childhood growing up in the Moroccan suburbs of Brussels, becoming fluent in French, Spanish, Arabic and English. It was also during that period that she immersed herself in Arabic culture, Egyptian "shaabi" pop and learning the raks sharki, or belly dancing techniques that she uses today to devastating effect on stage. She remains a Belgian citizen and travels on a Belgian passport.

When she was eight, her parents divorced and she moved with her mother to England and attended boarding school south of London, in Sussex. At 16, she moved with her mother to Northampton in central England for a couple of years, then started travelling. "I went off mainly to countries like Greece, Turkey, and the Middle East," she says. "I wanted to meet some of my relatives and branch out a bit." What she discovered was a rich past that stretched as far as Morocco’s Altas Mountains, from which her family’s name originated. "My grand-grand-grandfather was Jewish. But Jews have always been part of Arab society, so it’s not so unusual for someone to find out that they have Jewish blood. At the end of the day, we really are so connected," she explained. That connection to her past has continued to serve as a fertile source of inspiration for her work as well.
When Atlas started to break into the global music scene on her return to England, it was virtually an empty canvas. She quickly gained attention as the lead singer and belly dancer with Transglobal Underground, a collective known for their multicultural albums that focused on mixing occidental dance music with Arabic, Indian and African musical forms.

Given the fickleness of national radio at the time, which was not inclined to give airplay to bands that didn't sing in English, Transglobal Underground had to creep into the UK music scene by playing to large audiences at music festivals such as Womad. Eventually minds were broadened, and it became suddenly hip to sing in an array of different languages, giving Atlas confidence to take on even bigger challenges.

By the 1990’s Natacha Atlas had become one of the icons of multicultural pop, launching a solo career and producing albums that showcased her experiments in mixing north African and Middle Eastern styles with western beats. Today the blending of drum'n'bass, keyboards and rap with swirling Arabic styles is no longer a novelty, thanks in large part to Atlas herself.

Natacha’s research not only extends to her songs but also her album covers; something that her fans anticipate with each new release. It is a little know fact that Atlas is also an artist as well as a singer and songwriter. She produced much of the artwork for her first solo album Diaspora. But over the years she has also discovered and worked with a number of artists and designers. From Left: For her album Something Dangerous, Atlas worked with the Swiss artist, fashion photographer and illustrator René Habermacher, best known for his "fantastic realism" images; For her album Ayeshteni, Atlas collaborated with the photographer Youssef Nabil, who transformed her into an Egyptian starlet from the 1940’s; Her latest album Mishmaoul, Atlas employed the talents of the Lebanese, London based, graphic designer Rana Salam.

Natacha Atlas approaches each new album as an opportunity to research, push new boundaries and grow as an artist. In 2000 she moved to Cairo, the center of Arabic pop music, for a lengthy period of time to work on her album Ayeshteni. The decision to record the album in Cairo was driven by Atlas’ desire to reconnect with her musical roots, immersing herself in shaabi, Egypt's indigenous bluesy pop music, and writing songs in Arabic. "It is a kind of Arabian protest music, more philosophical than political. Anything beyond this would have been banned. Shaabi also walks the sharp borderline between classical Arabian music, traditional music and other Mediterranean influences that entered Egypt about a hundred years ago. It’s this Shaabi developed as a kind of pop music that has been the most widespread form of music in Egypt for about twenty years," explained Atlas.

It was also in Cairo that she met and began collaborating with the young Egyptian artist Youssef Nabil, whose meticulously hand painted photographs often recall the heyday of Egyptian cinema from the 40’s and 50’s. Today he considers Atlas his muse and has photographed many of her album covers.

Although she enjoys a huge following in Europe, Lebanon and Morocco, her music is not that well know in most parts of the Middle East. Part of the reason may be that her work tends to push the limits of what's acceptable in Middle Eastern music, although Atlas is quick to point out that she maintains a strong respect for tradition. For Ayeshteni, she re-recorded three songs where the grammar wasn't good enough to make them acceptable to the Gulf States, and other countries where there's also some restriction on the freedom of expression. "My Arabic grammar's really not very good," she admits. "So we changed a couple of lines, and I think we've remixed it, so there's a version of the same album with another title, and some of the track listing is reordered. But I don't know if it was actually released there or not."

In the United States Atlas is slowly gaining a foothold, where her last four albums Gedida, Ayeshteni, Something Dangerous (a reaction to September 11th), and Mish Maoul have all sold respectably well. While in France, where she has become a star, she achieved a top ten hit with her Arabesque version of Françoise Hardy's Mon Amie La Rose. The single earned her the award for Best Female Singer in 2000 at the Victoire de la Musique, the French equivalent of the Grammys.

The multilingual singer has also worked with artists as diverse as her own background. Over the years her list of collaborators and admirers have included Peter Gabriel, Sinéad O’Connor, the Indigo Girls, Belinda Carlisle, Jean-Michael Jarre, and Nitin Sawhney amongst others. She has also collaborated on films working on Jonathan Demme's The Truth About Charlie, as well as David Arnold's film scores for Stargate and the James Bond movie Die Another Day.

Clockwise: Natacha Atlas as Cleopatra on the cover of her first solo album; Atlas at the beginning of her musical career with the group Trans-global Underground. She regularly collaborates with them on different projects; Atlas performing on stage.

Atlas has often been called a one-woman campaign for cultural diversity in music. Yet she still isn't quite sure why, in 2001, Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and then United Nations high commissioner for human rights, appointed her as goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Conference Against Racism. "I don't know, because I'm the most undiplomatic person you could meet," said Atlas, "But Robinson felt with my background and my experience, I would be a good spokesman for a bunch of programs and interviews to do with intercultural relations. So I accompanied her and met a lot of intelligent people."

At the time Robinson noted, "Natacha’s music is an exciting mix of influences from East and West. She embodies the message that there is strength in diversity, that our differences -be they ethnic, racial, or religious -are a source of riches to be embraced rather than feared." Although she is Muslim, Atlas’ commitment to considering philosophies and backgrounds other than her own is reflected in her outlook on religion. "I think there are many roads to spiritual aspects, and it’s important to be tolerant. I also feel it’s time we evolved further than killing people over land or belief systems."

2006 was a year of changes for Atlas. She not only produced a new album and a new band, but also decided to move to the south of France. She sold her home in Walthamstow, East London, a few streets from the house where British police had arrested suspects on charges of making liquid bombs intended to blow up airliners. But she stresses that it wasn’t out of fear of would-be bombers, but because she is "a bit sick" and "very disgruntled" and "very, very unhappy" at Britain's current foreign policy. Despite this she will continue rehearsing and recording in that city, keeping her musicians and management there. "I just wanted to move my base out of London for awhile," she says. "Hopefully I'll be between France and Egypt a lot more."

Although Atlas has no predictions on how her future albums will sound or what influences will inspire her, a couple of projects remain on her plate. Under consideration is an album of lullabies with Jocelyn Pook, well known for composing the score for Stanley Kubrick’s film, Eyes Wide Shut. There is also the question of an autobiography, though Natacha has repeatedly turned down offers to write one.

What is certain is that Natacha Atlas will continue making Middle Eastern music relevant for a new generation. Furthermore there's plenty to be gained from her music. Even for those of her fans who may not understand the words, her message of bridging the cultural chasm between East and West still manages to communicate itself perfectly.
© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

1 comment:

Luca Maiolino said...

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