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Country Egypt UK Genres band fusion pop Website Festival Sauti za Busara 2009 Recordings
Diaspora, 1995; Halim, 1997; Gedida, 1999; The Remix Collection, 2000; Ayeshteni, 2001; Foretold in the Language of Dreams, 2002; Something Dangerous, 2003; Mish Maoul, 2006; Ana Hina, 2008
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.
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 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."
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. 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 a Nina Simone cover, Black Is the Colour – along with a couple of James Bond themes.
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 delved deeply into her Egyptian roots. And always, collaborations. "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."