Wail Like an Egyptian


Natacha Atlas has a whale (and a wail) of a voice and an instinct for drama and emotion and sensuousness. She’s also able to make her music visual—my friend John calls it “cinematic” and finds himself, while listening, straining his inner eye to see the movie that the music could be a soundtrack to. Her new album Gedida is my favorite because her singing is louder and more dominating, some how (I’m not sure why, since it’s not physically louder unless you turn the volume up), and has her best melodies.

And that in essence is my re view—”sensuous,” “visual,” “melodic”—I mean, for a critic there isn’t much to do with “sensuous” other than to state it and wallow in it. But consumers usually want to know a record’s genre or at least what part of the store to find it in; and there are obvious biographical details that come up in every press kit or artist profile of Atlas that are fun to think about.

Where To Find It in the Store: Look in “International” or “Mideast Fusion” or “World Music” (dismally unpoetic category names, but I haven’t thought of an alternative).

Its Genre: Arab. That’s vague enough, but my point is that, though she pulls styles in from everywhere—reggae bass, British dance beats, European orchestrations—the music is held together by her singing, which is Arab to its core: Arab melodies, Arab pitch, Arab ways of connecting notes, Arab feeling.

In my ignorance I’m perfectly capable of hearing elements as “Western” that in fact are not. For in stance—it’s associations such as these that make me find her music so visual—she uses cheesy skating-rink organ seemingly from my youth (track 10), garage-rock organ seemingly from my adolescence (track four), and soap-opera organ seemingly from my mother’s adolescence (track one). But this is what Atlas told Peter Shapiro in The Wire for April: “I was in a band for a while, just mucking around, but it was more psychedelia—crap really. It was more Doors-influenced really with the organ sound, which you can also hear in Abdel Ha lim Hafez’s music, in the song ‘Mawood,’ which is where I got that influence from.”

Artist Profile: Natacha Atlas spent her childhood in a Moroccan suburb of Brussels—father Jewish, mother of Muslim and Christian de scent, ancestry Moroccan by way of Egypt and Palestine—then moved with her family to Britain as a teenager, then when school was done she went back to Brussels to belly-dance and sing in the Arab quarter, and after that went back to England where she became part of the pan-poly-everything dance-and-world-music bohemia.

So it’s obvious, since she’s such a mixture of experiences and influences, to say that the mixture in her music reflects the mixture in her psyche. But I think it is possible to overemphasize the importance of her mixed heritage, of her place (trans-poly-everything British dance bohemia), and of her time (the global electronic ’90s). Mixing styles is simply what musicians do, whatever their heritage (in The Wire she cites the Rahbani Brothers in ’60s Beirut for combining European film music with Lebanese music); the non bohemian Spice Girls play music that’s as much a mixture as hers, though no one makes a big deal of it (e.g., “Spice Up Your Life,” Bananarama-like unison ski-resort vocals accompanied by Caribbean chords and rhythms); in Indonesia, rock musicians play Arab-sounding melodies in order to proclaim their commitment to Islam. And may be more to the point, Arab music mixes into the heritage of non-Arab music. This dawned on me as I was listening to New York freestyle dance music; I realized that as the music began to sound more Hispanic in the late ’80s it was also sounding more “Middle Eastern”—sliding vocals, mournful melodies, and so on. I attribute this to the Arab-Jewish-Gypsy presence in Spain over a couple millennia.

And even more to the point, in listening to Natacha Atlas I don’t perceive her music as polyglot. If I want I can put on my analysis hat and have fun picking out the various styles—”Animals-like house-of-the-rising-sun organ, then a rap with the guitar doing reggae scratches, then psychedelic guitar (like coals to Newcastle in this Eastern context)…”—but I hear the music as a unity; I hear the songs as songs, in other words, not as amalgams. The range of styles is fundamentally a reflection of her musical instincts—she likes color in her music, and so she’ll use any color she has, from anywhere. On “The Righteous Path” you could say that the Euro-romantic strings return at the end as if they’d only been waiting for an Egyptian voice to call them. But ultimately the ethnic sources of the sounds don’t matter. Just the sounds.

Atlas has led a second life in the ’90s, recording with the dance band Transglobal Underground, which deliberately doesn’t pull its styles together but instead plays them for discontinuities. In this music the styles are on parade: here’s the dub beat, here’s the Arab vocal, here’s the laughing sample, here’s the reggae rap, here’s the giraffe, here’s the elephant, here the Macy’s float. The result is fun but rarely passionate, which ultimately makes the music less fun than Natacha Atlas’s more sober solo work.

Appropriately enough, the one song on Gedida where she attempts to be fun is the one that I don’t like: “Mahlabeya,” which she sings with godawful frenetic cheerfulness. But her other songs are intense cries, of joy and rebirth occasionally, of abandonment and confusion mostly, and as for the way she sings them the former may as well be the latter. Wailing vocals, crying words.

And she makes the passion of sadness very sexy. (Dreiser in Sister Carrie—”As she went on frowning, looking now at one principal and now at the other, the audience began to smile. The portly gentlemen in the front rows began to feel that she was a delicious little morsel. It was the kind of frown they would have loved to force away with kisses.”) I told my girlfriend that Atlas’s singing reminded me of someone having nails driven through her feet, and she replied (she’d lived in the Middle East for several years) that all the women singers sound like that. Let me hasten to add that people tend not to look, act, or feel very sexy when nails are being driven through their feet. At least not in my experience. But nonetheless in music the sound of anguish does it for me. Which says something about Atlas’s sensuousness after all.

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