For a rising star in the Arab-Euro pop scene, Natacha Atlas has an unexpected accent: It’s British. But Atlas has confounded expectations all her life. Born in Belgium to a father with roots in Egypt and Morocco, she was raised in her mother’s England. "In the early part of my life, it was a bit confusing," she recalls. "What’s my identity? But as I got older, I realized there’d always be these two identities living within me."
In music as in life, she’s nimbly crossed back and forth between the eastern and western shores of her identity, pulling in fans from Cairo to California. This summer she widened her audience in the US and Canada by headlining the 10-city, eclectic world-music "Vive La World!" tour.
Since her 1995 solo debut Diaspora , where she mixed synthesized Arab strings with club beats, she’s traveled a peripatetic path across six more solo albums. Now, as she digs deeper into her roots in Egyptian music, she continues to layer it with influences from trance, soul and dancehall reggae "to make westerners more sympathetic to my culture—and when I say ‘my culture,’ I mean the Arab-Egyptian side of my culture," she says.
This puts her, says Alecia Cohen, publisher of Global Rhythm magazine, among the few artists able to "bridge a unique gap in the music market to engage adult world-music fans and young hipsters who prefer fusion."
By her own admission, Atlas’s career began as "an accident of fate." In 1990, she returned to England after visiting her father’s family in Egypt and got together with some old music friends she had known when she was the first Arab female rock singer in Northampton.
"I wanted to do something that involved my Mediterranean roots. We compromised by doing something that was a little Balearic and Andalusian. Arab was a little too strange for them," she recalls. "Timbal," the song that resulted from that compromise, became a hit in UK dance clubs. It wound up on Nation Records, where Atlas was introduced to a pair of emerging acts, Invaders of the Heart, led by bassist Jah Wobble, and Transglobal Underground, a group pioneering in the dance–world-music mix they were calling "ethno-techno."
She sang with both of them while also pursuing her own career. After three albums with Jah Wobble, she became a member of Transglobal Underground in 1995. At the same time, her solo work was beginning to blossom with the record Halim (1997) and then Gedida (1999), with its hit single in French, "Mon Amie La Rose." That same year she decided to leave Transglobal Underground and become an entirely solo performer. To effect a complete break, she moved to Cairo, where her albums had sold reasonably well and her musical peers, she says, "know me, and they’re very respectful, which always surprises me."
Although she thought she’d just record one more disc and then return to England, she ended up staying two years, falling in love with the city and taking an apartment in a building where the doorman fussed over her.
"Because I spoke a bit of Arabic, and look half-Arabic, he used to always call me ‘the daughter of my country.’ He saw me as connected to Egypt, if not Egyptian."
Ayeshteni, the record that resulted from her Egyptian immersion, was saturated in the sound of Cairo’s sha’bi street music and the spirits of Atlas’s vocal idols: Um Kulthum, Fayrouz and Abdul Halim Hafez. Surprisingly to many listeners—but in her characteristically eclectic style—the disc contained a version of the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins R&B classic "I Put a Spell on You," rearranged with Arab strings and percussion, offering an approach to fusion from the western direction. She included it, she says, because "westerners can immediately identify with that, because it’s in a language they understand, which is important. Otherwise it’s, ‘What’s she singing about?’ It can help to get it to more people."
Her 2003 disc, Something Dangerous , is even more ambitious. Produced back in London, it is a mix ’n’ match of Middle Eastern sounds, programmed beats, strings, dancehall, hip-hop, R&B and vocals not only from herself but also from Princess Julianna and Sinead O’Connor. It was "made for the western market," she admits, a brash, extroverted outing right down to its cover of James Brown’s "Man’s World."
It’s the antithesis of her small, quiet, un-hyped Foretold in the Language of Dreams, which Atlas sneaked out in 2002 as a labor of love. She says she was inspired by Peter Brook’s film Meetings with Remarkable Men , about the life of mystic G. I. Gurdjieff.
"It’s probably the easiest album I’ve ever made in my life, and I also think it’s one of the best pieces of work I’ve done," she says. "It’s a concept album and its function is to calm the mind and bring you down to earth when you’re becoming a neurotic mess—which can happen often in the music business!" Satisfying as that was, it seems like a sidetrack in a career that’s seen her steadily rise to become an important figure in world music, a respected headlining act in Europe, the Middle East and North America. She’s been named a United Nations Cultural Ambassador, a title that has led to a few speaking engagements as well as musical performances. And Hollywood is taking notice of her: She sang on the soundtracks of The Truth about Charlie and The Hulk.
Atlas is currently preparing to return to Cairo, "probably for six months," to write and record another album. It’s now the place, she says, where she finds an equilibrium between the two sides of her head. "The more I’ve acquired of my roots, the more I’ve been able to pull those things into what I’m doing. I’ve learned so much from going back to Egypt."
Chris Nickson (email@example.com) is a free-lance journalist based in Seattle. He is the author of the forthcoming NPR Curious Listener’s Guide to World Music.
Annu P. Matthew (www.annumatthew.com) is assistant professor of art at the University of Rhode Island. Her work has been shown and collected by the Victoria and Albert and other museums, and publishing house Phaidon included her in BLINK, a 2002 compilation from 100 photographers.