Natacha Atlas & The Mazeeka Ensemble
with Support from Rebecca Hollweg
Musically and geographically, Natacha Atlas has always been an itinerant. The Anglo-Egyptian singer has spent more than a decade fusing electronic beats with North African and Arabic music, finding links between seemingly disparate musical genres, exploring new and different sonic settings and working with a wealth of like-minded collaborators from across the world along the way. The resulting body of work is both a triumph of true multiculturalism and a testament to the richness and accessibility of Arabic culture. It is, indeed, an oeuvre unlike any other.
Presiding over it all, of course, is Atlas’s extraordinary voice. Meltingly sensuous and gloriously passionate, delicate with melisma and microtones, it bridges Middle Eastern and Western styles with instinctive ease. Ana Hina, then, is the album we’ve been waiting for: a contemporary classical affair that places this god-given instrument centre stage. A throwback to Arabic music’s Golden Era of the late 1950s and 60s, to the sounds and idols that shaped Atlas’s youth. An album that looks to the past while imagining the future, buoyed by some of the best classical and traditional musicians working today.
The daughter of a neurology lecturer of Egyptian descent and an English (occasional) costume designer, Atlas was born in Belgium and grew up in a Moroccan suburb of Brussels, becoming (semi) fluent in French, Arabic, Spanish and English and studying singing and the raq sharki (belly dancing) techniques she uses to dramatic effect today. Her paternal grandfather had shortened the family name, El Atlasi, on arriving in Europe: “I have ancestry in Morocco further back than Egypt,” she says in her clipped London vowels. “But that name is also found in Syria and Lebanon.”
Her father’s large LP collection ranged from Middle Eastern sounds to occidental classical (“My mum was more into Led Zeppelin”). The house she shared with her brother and sister swayed to the unmistakeable voices of Egyptian diva Oum Kalsoum, the Lebanese tenor Wadi El Safi and Lebanon’s beloved Fairuz, the latter interpreting material written for her by the Rahbani Brothers. “I just loved the Fairuz/Rahbani style of music because it was a fusion. The Rahbanis had studied both Western and Arabic music and were fusing them way before I was born. It just made sense to me.”
Later, when at boarding school in Sussex, England after her parents’ divorce Atlas nurtured an early teenage crush on Abdel Haleem Hafiz, the hugely popular Egyptian singer, actor and heartthrob who died, aged 47, in 1977. Aged 16 she moved with her mother to Northampton for two years – becoming the city’s first Arabic rock star – then started travelling to countries including Greece, Turkey and across the Middle East, looking up relatives and soaking up inspiration. For a while she shuttled between the UK and Brussels, singing in a range of Arabic and Turkish nightclubs and even a Belgian salsa band.
That voice couldn’t help but attract attention. In 1991 she guested with two very different artists – Balearic beat crew ¡Loca! and the now mythic Jah Wobble, who was assembling his new band, Invaders of the Heart – that would cement her reputation. Timbal by ¡Loca!, a track on a Nation Records compilation, became a massive club hit, Wobble’s album Rising Above Bedlam – five tracks which Natacha co-wrote – got a Mercury award nomination. The progressive Nation Label introduced her to TransGlobal Underground, the London-based multicultural collective who signed her up as lead singer then, in tandem, pushed her to embark on a solo career.
TGU’s Tim Whelan, Hamid Mantu and Nick Page (aka Count Dubulah) were key in co-creating Atlas’s 1995 debut, Diaspora. Combining TGU’s dubby, beats-driven dance hybrid with traditional Arabic fair, its songs of love and loss signalled the arrival of a major new talent. Halim followed in 1997 and her breakthrough disc, Gedida, in 1999. Gedida’s Arabic-style version of Mon Amie La Rose, the song made famous by French icon Francoise Hardy, hit the Top Ten in France and won her Best Female Singer at the Victoire de la Musique awards. 2000’s The Remix Collection saw tracks from her previous three reworked by the likes of Talvin Singh and Youth.
Her fourth album, 2001’s Ayeshteni, boasted a belting rendition of Screaming Jay Hawkins’ I Put A Spell On You (made famous by Nina Simone) that remains a live favourite. There have been other English language covers – James Brown’s It’s A (Man’s Man’s) Man’s World and now, on Ana Hina, a gorgeous interpretation of another Nina Simone cover, Black Is the Colour – along with a couple of James Bond themes. Her songs have appeared on soap operas in Egypt; though based largely in the UK (in a house in Ongar, Essex she’s customised with Egyptian friezes) she has a room in her best girlfriend’s home in Cairo and visits whenever she can.
“I shapeshift as soon as I arrive,” she says with a smile. “My personality almost does a 180 degree turn. I get up late, lie around watching black-and-white films on the Rotana TV channel, go out to shisha bars with friends.”
Determined to push herself in new and different directions, in 2002 Atlas released the shimmering, ambient Foretold in the Language of Dreams with the composer Marc Eagleton and qanun master Abdullah Chadeh. “I don’t like to be constricted or told what to do. And anyway, you can’t keep doing the same old thing.” She changed direction again with 2003’s urgent, upbeat Something Dangerous – an album that embraced everything from rap, drum ‘n’ bass and dance music to R&B, Hindi pop and French chanson – which saw her singing in Arabic, English, Hindi and French. 2006’s rumbling, rootsy Mish Maoul, which delved deeply into her Egyptian roots.
And always, collaborations. Atlas’s list of allies include artists as varied as singers Sinead O’Connor and Sarah Brightman, the avante garde classical composer Jocelyn Pook, the prolific British Asian visionary Nitin Sawhney and the multi instrumentalist and musical director of Ana Hina, Harvey Brough. Along with stalwarts such as Transglobal Underground (whose albums have never resisted the lure of her siren-like vocals), Jah Wobble and her old TGU mockers Neil Sparks and Count Dubulah. All of whom are part of a loose cadre of largely UK-based collaborators who turn up not just on Atlas’s albums, but on each other’s. “That’s the great thing about being based in the UK. There are all these invisible threads connecting people.”
Atlas tends to think in projects. After the remarkable Ana Hina – “Which shows the Western public that actually, Arabic composers have been fusing music, East and West, a lot longer than I have” – will come another, as yet-untitled electric album (which sees her singing in Arabic, English French, Hindi, Spanish) in cahoots with TGU and Birmingham/Bollywood outfit Flavasia. There’ll be a Latin-tinged album with Marc Eagleton and Congolese singer/songwriter Lokua Kanza and further down the track, a contemporary/classical album with Jocelyn Pook.
“I love that contemporary/classical area,” says Atlas, a long time fan of Debussy, Satie and in particular, Rimsky Korsakov’s Shehezerade. “It’s something I’ve always been drawn to. But then I love my stompy dance music too. Arabic music is such a flexible genre. It really lets me do what I want.”
With support from Rebecca Hollweg