Natacha Atlas: Uncharted territory

Natacha Atlas makes a new kind of music for a multicultural society, and she wants everyone to hear it
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The Independent Culture

Natacha Atlas once remarked on a trip to Israel that she was a "human Gaza Strip" such was the conflict of cultural DNA making up her family gene pool. Nowadays the diminutive singer shies away from such contentious remarks, possibly because she's more at peace with her multicultural roots, and probably because she's a little older and a little wiser.

"I remember being 24 when the success of Transglobal Underground (her previous band) came to a head," she says. "We got on the cover of Melody Maker and I wanted it all to take off and be huge. I thought that multiculturalism was the next thing. Then some bastards created Britpop to sell to the Americans and they just obliterated the multicultural scene. Killed it dead. And I was so vexed!"

Once these words would have been uttered with venom, but these days she finishes off diatribes with a light laugh. Atlas seems happy in her skin, able to take knockbacks and give as good as she gets.

She's celebrating a year since a traumatic divorce from Syrian qanun player Abdullah Chhadeh, and is about to move to southern France. It will help that she's spoken French since the age of five, having grown up in the Moroccan suburbs of Brussels.

The other reason for cheer is the release of her new album, Mish Maoul, which marks a joyful, hip-shaking return to the classic Arabic fusion of her solo outings in the early Nineties. "Mish maoul is one of those common phrases like 'unbelievable' in English. The reason I called the album this was because it was unbelievable that we recorded the album for the budget that we were given. I had to [call in] a lot of favours."

These included hiring old band mates Tim Whelan and Hamid Mantu from Transglobal Underground, and Neil Sparkes and Nick Page from Temple of Sound. She also brought in Egyptian studio engineer Khaled Raouf who helped utilise sweeping string arrangements from the Golden Sound Studio Orchestra of Cairo. Raouf had worked on her 2001 album Ayeshteni and recently won an award for his work on Youssou N'Dour's devotional album Egypt.

Atlas's mother is English while her father is of Egyptian origin. She has Sephardic Jewish blood from her great, great grandfather. Her parents met in Brussels, where Atlas was born. When her parents divorced she moved with her mother, sister, and brother to Northampton, to be near her grandparents. However, she spent most of her childhood in Sussex at a Rudolf Steiner school. "It had quite a strong international student base, and they had very strong religious leanings," she says. "Even Muslims would feel comfortable. I'm technically Muslim... Dare I say that I'm a Sufi... but even Sufism is considered heretical to certain doctrines."

After leaving school she moved back to Belgium and worked in Arabic nightclubs where she learnt to belly dance. She also joined a Belgium salsa band and in 1991 recorded the track "Timbal" with the Balearic beat combo ¡Loca!. This led to work with Jah Wobble on his seminal album Rising Above Bedlam and with the London world beat collective Transglobal Underground, who had just scored their first Top 40 hit with "Templehead".

She recorded her solo album, Diaspora, in 1995. Her reputation as an engaging multilingual singer grew and by the time her third album, Gedida, arrived she was touring with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, and selling out the Shepherd's Bush Empire.

Her cover of Françoise Hardy's "Mon Amie la rose" made her a star in France. Work with David Arnold on Bond films, with Jean-Michel Jarre, and with Nitin Sawhney followed. She then moved to Cairo, where her fourth album, Ayeshteni took shape.

Her last album, Something Dangerous, marked a step towards the US market, and was a slick, big-budget affair. Atlas says the new album is "intimate, biographical". One track, "La Lil Khwof", Atlas describes as "saying no to fear". On Mish Maoul Atlas has done just that.

'Mish Maoul' is out on Monday on Mantra