Natacha Atlas: Global embrace

The pop music of Natacha Atlas is a wonderfully dizzying blend of musics from East and West. She tells Glyn Brown what goes into its making
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The Independent Culture

I'm sitting opposite Natacha Atlas, a woman whose fluttering Arabic vocals could turn a wet city street into a shimmering souk. Atlas is tiny, possibly less than five feet tall, and startlingly good-looking, her natural charms - jet hair, pale green eyes, ludicrous bone structure - helped along with half a ton of kohl and false lashes that seem independently active. In a raincoat tied at the waist and lots of tinkling bangles, she looks mysterious, in a Casablanca kind of way, which fits our current topic: spies. We've been discussing Atlas's inspirations - who include the renowned Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum - when Atlas, 37, sits forward.

"But," she says, in conspiratorial tones, "I really preferred Asmahan El Atrache. Umm Kulthum had an amazing voice, but rather masculine. Asmahan died quite young, so she didn't develop that timbre. Incredible personality. Syrian background, fled to Egypt along with her brother Farid, who was a famous oud-player - this thing like a lute, you know? Asmahan was a film actress, very glamorous; they say the family was deposed royalty, so she's a princess - it's a real fairy story. She's the only one who could have rivalled Umm Kulthum - and the rumour is that Umm Kulthum had her killed. Car was rigged, the guy driving it jumped out before it went into the Nile. She drowned. But she was certainly also a spy, working for two or three different sides - really playing a game - at the time of Suez."

Interesting start, considering that in a world where East and West do not currently make beautiful music together, Atlas, chanteuse and belly-dancer nonpareil, is attempting not to play off sides but to broker a kind of understanding, if only, at this point, in song. She's been doing it, in her own way, for about 15 years, producing work of occasionally lethal beauty, blending swooning Middle Eastern rhythms or Egypt's strange bluesy pop, shaabi, with machine-driven dub, trance and drum'n'bass. The sound reflects her own components: born in Belgium to an English mother and Sephardic Jewish father, her roots are Arab, with links not just to Palestine but to Morocco and Egypt, the place she feels is home. Kicking around the North African community in Brussels, she heard Arab music, watched Hindi movies and got her belly-dancing groove on - not some ineffectual wiggle but the real hip-twister, which she now uses in shows "because I can't do rock dancing". After her parents' divorce, she tipped up in Northampton, worked with the Brit-Asian agit-rappers FunDaMental, then met the London-based fusion overlords Transglobal Underground and swiftly became a band member, her ululating vocals an integral part of their mix.

Her debut solo outing, Diaspora, in 1995, was a psychic return to Egypt, a step toward that old quest of "finding yourself". Difficult for anyone; far more complex for a woman whose background is so diverse. And even harder, as our conversation eventually starts to show, when the country you champion has morals and values that would make your own life, were you to live it there, almost impossible.

Diaspora, then. Amid the oud arpeggios, flutes and sonorous drones, Atlas's voice whispers and hums words she wrote in traditional mode. "May your love rise in air, she is the day, he is the night..." This is all very lovely and delicate. Is she a romantic?

Atlas brushes hair back behind a mammoth earring, a golden ancient Egyptian eye. "I think Arabic is just basically really flowery. For instance, on a very ordinary level if, y'know, two engineers are working together, one of them will say, instead of 'Oi, Jack, can you pass me the spanner?', he'll say, 'O prince of all engineers, could you partake of sharing a spanner with me?'

"I mean, instead of blokes saying, 'Hey, girly girl!' when they call at you in the street, it would be, 'O, you moon.' "

A couple of albums further in from Diaspora, Atlas achieved breakthrough with Gedida, on which she covered "Mon Amie La Rose", previously a hit for Françoise Hardy. French sales went through the roof. It was a forceful album, including tracks such as "The Righteous Path", in which Atlas spoke about her belief in God. She says, "I am a Muslim, but I believe there are many roads to God. This fighting about religion - to me, I would think it would make God most angry; most angry."

Something that made the Saudi authorities most angry was the fact that Atlas did not pronounce a few words on Gedida correctly; and that one track, "Mahlabeya", suggested she might have sexual feelings ("Give it to me now, give it to me now"); and that another number, the splendid "Bastet", hinted at corruption. The album was swiftly mutilated, tracks sawn off, words redubbed.

Reminded of that, she sits up, furrows her brow and clears her throat. "In the Middle East, we don't have the same freedom of expression. Though you might be able to refer - mmm, slightly - to the idea of corruption in government, you cannot suggest there is corruption in religion." Not an easy place to be, making the music you make. She shrugs. "Possibly they'd accept the melodies I use. Some of them."

Atlas has spent time living in Cairo, a place she loves. Yet she admits that the Arab states are moving back toward fundamentalism. It could be for any number of reasons, from fear to ignorance; but it's definitely not enlightened. Ah, well. Time, perhaps, to address the other side of the equation: Atlas's new album, Something Dangerous, a veritable UN sideshow. Roll up for guest vocalists, for songs in Hindi, English, Jamaican patois, French, for R&B, ragga, classical European pastoral. "I was trying not to leave anyone out," she says.

That it works (for the most part) is astounding; and if any album by Natacha Atlas has a chance of getting real attention in - and bringing Eastern rhythms to - the United States, this is it. Several things stand out. Two unspeakably lovely tracks reminiscent of Satie or Vaughan Williams indicate a new direction. Then there's a cover of James Brown's "It's a Man's World", with a not wholly expected back-story.

"Having lived in Egypt, I know what it's like to be a woman in a male environment. I can leave, but I have a cousin who is greatly restricted and there is nothing I can do. She's in an arranged marriage. When I saw her last, she said, 'You're living my life for me.' She said, 'Be happy, because if you're happy and free, in a way I'll be free through you.' " Which puts being called "moon" into perspective. Atlas blinks coolly. "Most women there are still passed from father to husband. They're completely owned."

That may explain Atlas's career urgency and why, in the track "Daymalhum", she repeats a line - "They think that this will last for ever, but it doesn't last for anyone" - from an earlier album. "I'm talking about life," she says now, with a steeliness you'd be a fool to underestimate. "One must take advantage of the fact that one is here. One must really live."

'Something Dangerous' is out on Mantra. Natacha Atlas plays the Union Chapel, London N1 (0871-220 0260) on 4 June