Sunday, April 29, 2007

the universal natacha atlas

truth is that whether you know it or not you have probably heard the voice of natacha atlas. a genuinely international musician who has recorded music in arabic, french, spanish and english; she has accompanied a wide variety of singers on various albums. she joined sarah brightman on "arabian nights" from the album harem (on which a post is forthcoming), she appeared on the indigo girls come on now social, on the track "faye tucker", she was hired to provide the vocals on cirque de soleil's sound track for verekai, and also provided music for the sound track of the orlando bloom movie, the kingdom of heaven. these among many other international projects means that it would be hard for someone to avoid her.

given earlier posts it is natural to compare her work with that of arabian pop queens nancy ajram and elissa. but even a cursory glance reveals that despite very contemporary sounds from all the artists involved, atlas moves to a very different groove. while elissa, for instance, portrays herself and her music as extremely cosmopolitan despite her deep roots in the levant, atlas, who is nomadic (an egyptian muslim with some distant jewish roots, growing up in a moroccan suburb of brussels and then in the uk, etc.) emphasizes her north african identity both in her sound and in her appearance, even as she maps that identification on a variety of cultural forms. the rhythms of rai, salsa, north african folk music, etc. permeates everything she does, even when she does not perform in arabic.

we offer, as an introduction, three songs from the 1990s. the first two are a narrative pair (though, to be clear, atlas videos do not possess the narrative quality that we have come to associate with ajram's work): the first in english, the second in french. in "one brief moment", she mourns the man she has (not even yet) lost as she apathetically changes clothes in front of the taxi driver while they drive through london. in the second, having arrived at the location where she is to perform, she covers "mon amie la rose" as men look on with desire and as the dramas of love (and its lack) unfold among the dancers, only to leave as distant and unmoved as she arrived. "mon amie la rose" was an important hit for establishing her french audience.

Natacha Atlas, "One Brief Moment", Gedida (1999)

Natacha Atlas, "Mon Amie La Rose", Gedida (1999)

only yesterday you were admiring me
tomorrow i will be dust forever
[and then in arabic at the end...]
my friend the rose
told me something
during the night...

the final song, "leysh nat'arak" is a regal march from her first solo album that reveals her confidence and her embrace of her egyptian roots. she also makes clear that her musical choices have political consequences and motivations in a way that entirely sets her apart from elissa and nancy ajram. she has referred to herself as the "the human gaza strip", divided and torn between worlds, and she does not hold back on this powerful song.

Natacha Atlas, "Leysh Nat'Arak" ["Why Are You Fighting?"] (1995)

why are you fighting?
crossing borders in the desert heat
the stories in the rocks and stones
signatures of time written on every face
the syncopated heartbeat of arab and jew
a song that keeps saying remember
if you are cousins why are you fighting
listen to your hearts and the truth will be clear
it's written on your bones


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