Natacha Atlas is a diva—volatile, demanding, delirious—worthy of reclaiming that sullied appellation from VH1 and scrawny, everduring it-girls. The mostly male voices that form the undercurrent of songs like “Shubra,” on her latest release, Ayeshteni, sound as if they’ve willingly, even eagerly, knelt at the altar of her glory.
She’s part of a cadre of voice-walloping Middle Eastern divas accorded spots on U.S. dancefloors and funneled into film soundtracks. Her better-known precursor, tragically departed Yemenite-Israeli chanteuse Ofra Haza, came to fame after “Im Nin’ Alu” climbed the dance charts and was sampled by Eric B. and Rakim, and popped up in animation in The Prince of Egypt to mourn as Moses’s momma. Tunisian-born Amina recently amassed enough highlights from her career as an overtly political French dance scenestress to fill a Best Of compilation released in the States; look for her on the soundtrack of Dead Man Walking. And Atlas herself, after earning her dance stripes singing for the planetary pop outfit Transglobal Underground, lent wails to the unlikely likes of Judge Dredd and Tomorrow Never Dies.
Haza dabbled in gothdom at the invitation of the Sisters of Mercy; Amina’s work with Lenny Kravitz is exceeded only by her rapping on a Grandmaster Flash track; Natacha once moaned wordlessly on an Indigo Girls death-row lament. The women all continue in a tradition that arguably began with controversial-in-their-time artists like Cheikha Remitti, nicknamed the “Piaf of rai,” who began recording popularized Algerian music in the 1930s and persists to this day. Cheikhas were North African singers carrying the faint whiff of disgrace for violating local dictates; they performed publicly and were openly sensual. In 1999, French-Moroccan vocalist Sapho channeled the legend and modernized it with Digital Sheikha.
Another spiritual, if not musical, heir might be Dana International, the transsexual dance-fluffer who in 1998 caught worldwide attention with a song celebrating—what else?—divas, and won first prize at the annual Eurovision song competition (where both Amina and Ofra Haza took top honors before her), much to the chagrin of the ultra-orthodox in her native Israel.
Dance devotees on the prowl for the spiky, self-conscious worldbeat of Transglobal Underground and of some of Atlas’s previous solo work (Diaspora comes to mind) will find that in Ayeshteni, Atlas marshals more traditional trappings on her eastward musical trek. If TGU was a global gallimaufry, Atlas’s solo work doesn’t tamper with orthodoxy; it courts it. Having set up camp in Cairo to work on her own albums, she reportedly undertook a meticulous study of Arabic linguistic nuance and of shaabi, the indigenous pop that continues to surface in her work at escalating intensities.
For Atlas, born to Sephardic Jewish and Muslim parents 37 years ago, raised among Moroccans in Brussels and transplanted to England in her teens, cultural eclecticism is not only a vernacular; it’s an immutable fact of life. Go ahead and make a pun on her name—her pilgrimages are sky miles away from donning a bindhi and working a darbuka so as to add “radically multiculti” to press release embroidery.
But here, intercession has real consequences; namely, alienation. It isn’t so much that her borrowing of musical flavors is much of a novelty in a polyglot universe—it isn’t—it’s that her creative juices gush straight from the wounds of conflict. Often quoted calling herself a “human Gaza Strip,” she emerged from exiled or embattled peoples, only to live as one similarly exiled or embattled.
Atlas sings primarily in Arabic, but dips into French and English; in France, where a swell of Muslim immigrants has launched decades of racial conflict, she is a superstar. As such, she has weathered criticism that she and other crossover queens exploit and reinforce the exoticized stereotype of the Middle Eastern woman as being a hijab away from the harem. (My electronic dictionary, seemingly aware of this facet of the fascination, is itching to change “exoticized” to “eroticized.”) Her previous album, Gedida, reputedly had to be released in the Arab world under another name, with more “political” and “sexy” songs expunged.
Throughout the Mediterranean, Muslim customs of restricting decent women singers to audiences of other women chimed in with Talmudic prohibitions on hearing the seductive feminine voice. Whether nourished in that seclusion of sisterhood or created rebelliously, under ill repute, the women’s music developed almost independently of the religious and folk music of men. (It was not, however, immune from the cultural ambivalence concerning music, which vacillated between regarding it as divine and as devilish.) Watching the music videos broadcast on Arab television is an education in this contrast, not to mention in the paradox of societies not exactly known for according rights to women unleashing a tradition of passionate and pained female singers on the Western world. In the clips, thinly mustached men appear rigidly fixed to their microphones, meticulously immobile in three-piece suits. Though women’s bodies are mostly covered out of obligatory modesty, they glitter nonetheless, the vivacity of their voices nearly outmatched by their cascading hair and heavy makeup.
Translated loosely, “ayeshteni” means “you gave me life.” The title track contains a tortured repetition over a gleaming ascent: “ayeshteni, ayeshteni, ayeshteni . . . ” (dimly echoing Job 10:12: “Thou hast granted me life and steadfast love; and thy care has preserved my spirit”). Percussion holds vigil beneath the flickering of Atlas’s voice, parallel to it, lending a restless quality to the otherwise uncomplicated vocal structures. There’s a note amid the ecstasy there, not of gratitude, but of agony, as if she’s begging for relief. (Job 10:20-22: “Let me alone, that I may find a little comfort/before I go whence I shall not return, to the land of gloom and deep darkness/the land of gloom and chaos, where light is as darkness.”)
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.
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 Splendidezine.com. 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.”