Natacha Atlas is busy. The Anglo-Egyptian singer is about to launch her first acoustic album, there's a set of Bollywood and Hindi songs in the pipeline, and she has two electric bands to keep on the road.
Atlas has been a headlining fixture of the world fusion and global club scene for more than 15 years. She made her name as lead singer and dancer with Trans-Global Underground, while her solo albums – from 1995's Diaspora to 2006's Mish Maoul – have ranged through pop and electronica forms, often with Arabic-Egyptian foundations.
She has described herself as "a human Gaza Strip" – her blood includes doses of Moroccan, Egyptian, Palestinian, British, and Sephardic Jewish – and that push and pull between her East-West heritage is the bedrock of her career. She's widely travelled – her languages include English, Arabic, Spanish and French. She's sung in them all, and her collaborators have included Jah Wobble, Bond composer David Arnold and the Moroccan film-maker Nabil Ayouch.
The new album, Ana Hina ("I'm Here"), is an all-acoustic set combining Western strings with Arabic instruments and a repertoire that goes back to the golden age of Arabic popular music. Her musicians include a string quintet, Egyptian accordion player Gamal Al Kordy, Aly el Minyawi on Arabic percussion, Catalan singer Clara Sanabras, and British composer Harvey Brough, her arranger and co-composer, who she met when working on the soundtrack for the film of Brick Lane in 2006. "I'd been asked about putting together an acoustic set by a festival agent and this was the chance for me to do what I'd been dreaming of for years – to perform my favourite songs from the Forties and Fifties."
Brough's background in early music made him perfect for Ana Hina's marriage of oriental and occidental, of past and present. "I'd only come across medieval music a couple of years ago," Atlas admits, "but I'm fascinated by the thread to Sephardic and Arabic music. Before the tempered scale we've got all these connections between Celtic, Moorish, and medieval European music."
The repertoire featured songs by Hafez, Egypt's pop idol from the Fifties onwards, the Lebanese singer Fairuz, and the Rahbani brothers, whose music dominated Arabic popular culture for decades.
One of the strongest musical threads running through the heart of the ensemble is Al Kordy's accordion. "He's the link from that era to this," says Atlas. "He played with Hafez when he was 14, and with a lot of the stars in the Middle East."
The Rahbani brothers, more than anyone else, are the inspiration behind the album. They came out of the suburbs of Beirut in the 1940s, writing radio jingles before meeting Fairuz, then a rising star.
"They'd studied both Arabic classical and Western classical music," explains Atlas. "They'd found a way to make this beautiful Arabic music with this lush harmonisation. Because of them it's possible for Western musicians to play the music without losing their place. And I'm just trying to bridge the gap."
Sure, there is a strong element of nostalgia in revisiting a repertoire embedded in classic Egyptian cinema. But it's also a chance to put the dystopian present of rising fundamentalism, and cultural division into relief.
"The big, big difference between East and West songs is that in the West, you can play it cool, whereas in the East – everyone loses their heads over love."
'Ana Hina' is out now on World VillageReuse content