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Natacha at last

After an eight-year hiatus, Belgian/British singer Natacha Atlas made a triumphant return to Cairo on Friday, to the delight of those lucky enough to slip into her sold-out show at Azhar Park’s Geneina Theater. Born to a Sephardic Jew father of Moroccan descendent and a British mother, the Washington DC-based Atlas’ rise to fame began …


After an eight-year hiatus, Belgian/British singer Natacha Atlas made a triumphant return to Cairo on Friday, to the delight of those lucky enough to slip into her sold-out show at Azhar Park’s Geneina Theater.

Born to a Sephardic Jew father of Moroccan descendent and a British mother, the Washington DC-based Atlas’ rise to fame began with British techno-pop band Transglobal Underground. As the lead singer of the group, Atlas recorded two albums with Transglobal: “Dream of 100 Nations” and “International Times.”

Atlas began her successful solo career in 1995 with her debut LP “Diaspora.” The album, which featured collaborations with Egyptian composer and oud player Essam Rashad, pioneered the oriental/western fusion genre: a template numerous artists from across the Arab region subsequently took on.

Blending hip-hop, reggae and electronic beats with traditional Middle Eastern melodies, Atlas continued to hone her craft and delved into different directions with 1997’s “Halim” (named after legendary Egyptian singer Abdel-Halim Hafez), 1999’s “Gedida,” 2001’s “Ayeshteni,” 2003’s “Something Dangerous” and 2005’s “Mish Maoul.”

Her music constantly focused on her Arabic background, featuring occasionally verses from the Quran and exploring themes that express her dual identity.

Her music has been featured in several films, including Kim Ki-Duk’s “3-Iron,” “Kingdom of Heaven,” “Brick Lane” and, most recently, “Sex and the City 2.”

Expectations were high, and Atlas — accompanied by Samy Bishai (musical direction and violin), Alcyona Mick (piano), Aly Al-Minyani (percussion), Andy Hamill (bass, harmonica, melodica) and Louai Al-Henawi (ney) — didn’t disappoint. The group’s technical precision and thoughtful execution rendered Atlas’ gentle, honeyed vocals exquisite where lesser acts would’ve easily sounded saccharine.

The event’s opening pieces were soft and sweet, an energetic yet tranquil rhapsody that felt more like a fireside conversation — in which the entire overstuffed theater seemed to lean forward in rapt attention — than a stage performance.

Midway through the performance, this delicacy turned electric. With the flip of a switch from Beshai, amped up rock, drum and bass entered the fray, anchored by the more organic sounds of the darabuka (goblet drum) and nay (end-blown flute). Attention-grabbing instrumentals focused the mind in the same way as outstanding improvisational jazz: one never knew (but always cared) what would come next.

In an interview earlier that day, Atlas discussed her soon-to-be-released album, inspirations and recent influences, the evolution of her music and its message, and why playing in Egypt is special to her.

“For me, [playing in Egypt] is quite an occasion,” she explained. “Egypt is part of my roots… it’s like coming home. But it’s also scary. My Arabic is okay but it’s not that of an Arab. I’ve always been somewhat conscious of that.”

Atlas is scheduled to release a new album, “Mounqaliba” (In a State of Reversal), later this month. Besides being “probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she says that the album is “dangerously close to being politically controversial.” Many tracks draw ideas (as well as audio samples) from the film “Zeitgeist: Addendum” which, in the words of director Peter Joseph, identifies “the true source of the instability in our society.”

While some see Atlas’ recent work as a departure from her earlier sound, Atlas herself insists that her music has evolved organically, in keeping with her maturation as an artist.

“People ask me ‘where’s the cute, coquettish Natacha Atlas?’ I say, ‘well I’m not 25 anymore.’” As in previous albums, Mounqaliba blends Arabic and western music, she added, in keeping with her career-long aim to help Europeans to “get what I get out of Arabic music, and also see that Arab culture isn’t just about what you see on TV.”

In any case, given Atlas’ free-flowing style of experimentation, perpetual evolution is to be expected.

“That’s the thing about making fusion — it’s a permanent source of surprise,” says Bishai. “Everyone who’s heard it has something completely different to say about it.”

Atlas’ was the final performance in the event series Hay. Organized by Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy (Cultural Resource) the festival featured an all-female lineup, thereby exhibiting arts, culture, and folklore in a fashion deliberately different than typical Ramadan programs.

“The main aim [of the festival] was to celebrate the creativity of Arab women artists,” said Salma Said, press and communications officer at Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy. The festival, which kicked off on August 19, showcased performers from Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, and Tunisia in addition to Atlas, who considers herself Anglo-Arab.

Like many cultural events this Ramadan, the concert was put on with support from the Egyptian Tourist Authority. Said noted that this year’s plentiful cultural offerings — including Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy’s events in Geneina as well as events at other venues, such as Darb 1718 and Sawy Culture Wheel — were well-received and well-attended.

 

 

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