FOREWORD: If there’s one so-called World Music Artist I truly admire, it’s multi-ethnic Belgium-reared England-based lass, Natacha Atlas. She ably incorporates her Arabic heritage into British techno and trance styles, gaining initial attention as lead singer/ belly dancer for vibrant troupe, Transglobal Underground, before breaking out on her own. Since this ’99 interview, Atlas has released ‘03s Something Dangerous, ‘06s Mish Maoul, and ‘08s acoustic-based knockout, Ana Hina. This article originally ran in Washington DC’s Brutarian.
Arabic vocalist, exotic dancer, and Transglobal Underground member, Natacha Atlas, explores her Egyptian heritage through indigenous shaabi music, which she effortlessly flavors with Western music influences. Her latest disc, Gedida (Beggars Banquet), is an easier to grasp, natural progression from its predecessors, Daispora and Halim.
Full of heartache, sorrow, and paranoia, Gedida’s elaborately arranged operatic laments like the yearning “Bilaadi” and the harrowing “Bastet” offer ominous introspection and bewitching imagery. These chilling moments get countered by the softhearted scamper “Mahlabeya,” which crosses Lene Lovich with Eastern mysticism in a ticklishly seductive manner, and the elegantly breezy “One Brief Moment,” a collaboration with soundtrack composer David Arnold. Atlas previously contributed the spellbinding “From Russia With Love” to Arnold’s James Bond compilation Shaken Not Stirred.
Currently living in London, I spoke to the beautiful and talented Atlas over the phone in April.
AW: How does Gedida differ from the previous two solo albums?
NATACHA ATLAS: Musically, I wanted to get more traditional without losing the Western touch. It naturally evolved and progressed. I’m trying to work on my Arabic grammar as well.
Why did you interpret both “One Brief Moment” and “The Righteous Path” in English instead of Arabic?
Because the English Record Company (Mantra Recordings) wanted me to. They’re trying to get me a larger audience.
I read somewhere you’re half-Jewish, half-Muslim. Don’t the beliefs conflict?
I’m actually Muslim, but inherited the Jewish religion through my father. It’s a bit complicated. My great grandmother was Muslim.
Are most of your vocal arrangements spontaneous or pre-planned?
Most are planned out. There are some improvisations, but otherwise things are quite arranged. But there are areas within most songs for improvisation. That’s how most Arabic music goes.
Does your belly dancing inspire some of your songs? A few seem perfectly suited for belly dancing.
It happens naturally since most Arabic music is danceable by nature. It’s rhythmic. I try to incorporate belly dancing into the live shows, but it’s not always easy since I have to do costume changes while the band does something instrumentally.
How has the experience with Transglobal Underground affected your solo work?
We’ve always had a good band. On Gedida, they follow my direction but have just as much to do with arrangements. We write music together and throw ideas around. Many of my songs place me on the outside looking in, though “One Brief Moment” was about an encounter I had at a hotel. Principally, they have more to do with “The Righteous Path” than the other compositions.
You’ve worked with soundtrack composer David Arnold before. Would you consider doing movie scores?
Yes. I’d like to. But it’s a closed market sewn up. You need for someone to offer you something first. Both myself and Transglobal Underground would like to do scores.
What was it like touring with Page & Plant in ‘96?
They were very encouraging. We did the tour with them because they respected our music. It’s weird touring with them since they’re so huge. They like Arabic music and tried to get a rock and roll audience convinced that we were worthy, which takes a lot of courage.
Would you consider your music avant-garde?
I make rai shaabi with a Western technical edge. I’d never say it’s avant-garde. No way am I Diamanda Galas. It’s not my scene. It’s great to be weird, but you have to be weird naturally. She is. I’m not. I’m quite simple by the end of the day. I grew up with the duality of Oriental and Occidental. All the scales and melodies are there for an African audience so that the Oriental elements and funked up rhythms seem more natural.
Who are some of your favorite artists?
Faye Ruth. She’s Lebanese and in the ‘60s she did modern, open-minded music. It was very impressive. Let’s see, I like Sinead O’Connor, Bjork, Portishead. I even enjoy Will Smith. I’d like to meet him. He’s such a cheery fellow. But Marilyn Manson seems scary and I wouldn’t want to come across him.
What will your next project be?
I’m going to do my next album in Egypt with Mika Sabet, who’s half Egyptian, half English. He does the same kind of music as I do. An Egyptian engineer, Sameh, will record it.