Pop: The belly of a transglobal artist

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The Independent Culture
SINCE SPREADING out from the early Nineties dance collective Transglobal Underground, Natacha Atlas has been pushing down roots where they fit: in Egypt, where she's tailored her vocal style to strict Arabic requirements, and in France, where, as in half the Arab world, her star is rising. Only Britain, which she once called home, is resistant to the driving, romantic, modernist sweep of her techno-Franco-Arab third album, Gedida, a sound that doesn't fit the post-Britpop fallout. The most entrenched British allergies to "world music" and foreign-language pop, though, would have crumbled, faced with this all-singing, all-belly-dancing, charismatic wonder of a show.

Atlas is unfortunately a little short for the Empire stage, so all most of the packed crowd had to go on at first was the music she and her eight- piece band created. Taking only fragments from the British pop landscape which partly gave birth to them, they were symphonic in their polyrhythmic perversions. Arabic scales threw up shards from strange ports, which sounded to British ears like bagpipes, church and Indian music, even as technology translated everything to a danceable present. Natacha sang words we couldn't understand in a voice that could slip from seductive command into girlish pleading and back to adult knowing. In the French-language "Mon Amie la Rose" it was almost throaty, caressing; in "Ezzay", inward-turning, mournful. Elsewhere it faded in and out like breathing or conversationally implored, as she held her arms out, beseeching.

Her defining moment, though, was less conciliatory. She threw out a wail that hit the audience in a way even an amplified voice shouldn't have been capable of. Then the rest of her body joined in. Changed into a silvery, skirted bikini, pulling some sort of boa behind her, she thrust, rotated and undulated across the stage, grinning as the music pounded her home, the crowd craning to see. It was unashamedly, unreservedly sexual: the strip-show burlesques of Britain pulled back into a far more confrontational, female shape, everyone's emotions heightened by the display. Before the end, women in the crowd were trying timid variations.

It took collaborators to show what else she could do. The composer of the current Bond theme, David Arnold, accompanied her on "You Only Live Twice", a precise invocation of the feminine mystique John Barry once gave to James Bond; singing more softly than in Arabic, it showed what we miss by not sharing Atlas's language elsewhere. Then, for a final encore, she was joined by her partner in Transglobal Underground, Coleridge, an extrovert, easeful Rasta as tall as she is short. To would-be Arabic wails from the crowd, they pulled thoughts back to the specifically British, "positive" multi-culture of the early Nineties, the bigger thing indie- dance briefly became, let down then only by vapid music. Not any more. These were sights and sounds to make pop fans sigh with pleasure.