The Human Gaza Strip

Drawing on the Maghrebi (spanning Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and Algeria) tradition of using vocal techniques to interpret a text, her version of "I Put a Spell on You" commands just the right balance of menacing sexuality and desperation. Ditto for her aching cover of "Ne Me Quitte Pas," another Nina Simone favorite. (There's something to be said for Middle Eastern covers of jazz standards, also evidenced by Amina's "My Man.") Still, too many Ayeshteni songs become indistinguishable, in a tangle of clumsy or overstated instrumental arrangements.

With the exception of the dull, dreamy trance of "Manbai," assembled by fellow cross-cultural songster Nitin Sawhney, the album isn't "dance music," at least not in the dub-rave sense of the term. (To hear Atlas freed of drum-machine shackles and draped over bass rumblings, check out the naked intonations of "Hope," her visit to Sawhney's aptly titled Migration.)

But Ayeshteni isn't completely undance-able, either; it's only that it whirls with a deliberate, serpentine swerve. Whatever the loss may be to the wide club world—and the way the soar and plunge of her voice slides over a digital pulse suggests it's no small one—Atlas's current sound appears to be what she's always had in mind. "I hate the term 'ethno-techno,' " she once fumed in a TGU-era interview, frustrated that the public, or at least the press, seemed to have momentarily tired of the "international angle." Moreover, she added, "I fucking hate techno music," claiming that Transglobal Underground's 1993 Dream of 100 Nations, which was what catapulted them into dance categorization in the first place, was "a means to an end—a stepping stone" to a renewed exploration of world music.

The proverbial other, in any adopted land
photo: Youssef Nabil
The proverbial other, in any adopted land


Natacha Atlas
Beggars Banquet

And she doggedly kept at her negotiation. Anyone who has ever grown up in a country not their own understands the pain of going back "home" and realizing you don't belong there either. That grief is implicit in Atlas's voice as she painstakingly relearns traditions. There's a delicate ferocity, a prolonged urgency, and these contradictions rise from that same conflict of identity: She cannot meld seamlessly into what she thinks of as her own people, yet knows she will never be anything but the proverbial Other in any adopted land. The momentary musical management of this contradiction could be mistaken for managing these opposing forces of ethnic allegiance: Look at her, she's doing fabulously, she's reconnecting with those ragged roots, she's bridging the gap.

The good news is, she isn't fooling herself. "I finally realized it wouldn't make any sense for me to go off and do classical Arabic music and do something that's been done before without bringing anything new into it," she said in a recent interview. Ayeshteni had just hit the shelves, but excitement about recording a new Sufi-influenced album and a possible collaboration with Missy Elliott had given Atlas new perspective. "As much as I wanted to be completely Arabic at one time, or as much as I wanted to completely reject that, it's always going to be inside of me. It's always going to be part of my day-to-day life, so I feel it's my duty to express that. [But] an artist's duty is to be free. It's like a river. It's got to flow how it wants to flow."

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