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Atlas of the World

How does this Belgian singer manage to cover the globe in one single album?

March 27, 2004

How does this Belgian singer manage to cover the globe in one single album?

The music of Natacha Atlas is most closely associated with the sounds of the Middle East. In part, this is because she lived and made records in Cairo for a number of years.

She became immersed in the sounds of Egypt’s traditional music and its “al-jil” scene — which blended pop melodies, indigenous music and electronic beats.

Atlas had family roots in the Middle East, but her musical background was deeply rooted in the explosion of world music in the early 1980s. She played in a salsa band in Belgium before her family moved to England.

There, she became involved with British bassist Jah Wobble’s group, Invaders of the Heart, as a vocalist and songwriter.

Wobble’s own roots were a mish-mash of punk, reggae and avant-garde music, but his turn to Eastern and Middle Eastern music fortuitously overlapped with Atlas’ strengths.

During this period, she also fell in with another world music dance combo — Transglobal Underground. She toured with this group as a singer and belly dancer, gaining international prominence for her talents.

Members of Transglobal Underground helped Atlas record her first solo record, Diaspora, in 1995. This record placed the Middle Eastern roots of Atlas’ music firmly in the foreground.

Many of the songs were sung in Arabic, and the album anchored the often trance-like sounds of Transglobal Underground’s music with the hard, melodic buzz of Egyptian pop.

More solo records — steeped in the sounds of Egypt and its capital, Cairo — followed Diaspora. The next record, 1997’s Halim, was dedicated to the great Egyptian singer, Abd el-Halim Hafez, known as the “Nightingale of the Nile.”

Another record, Gedida, followed in 1999 – and produced a hit single in France with Atlas’ reworked version of the Edith Piaf classic, “Ma Vie en Rose.”

That hit also led to Atlas being awarded the title “Best Female Vocalist” in France in the year 2000. But the singer took a different path with her 2001 release, Ayeshteni.

On this record, Atlas mostly put away the dance beats that had characterized her earlier work, and took a more traditional approach to Arab music.

Atlas also released a solo “project” in 2002 called Foretold in the Language of Dreams, mixing spoken word and Sufi influences with a more relaxed music.

It is an album of spiritual quest and profound silences that once again proved to be a departure from her usual style.

If listeners believed that Ayeshteni and Foretold in the Language of Dreams were new territory for Natacha Atlas, little could have prepared them for her next record, Something Dangerous.

The new release saw Atlas explore a multiplicity of new sounds – ranging from Bollywood beats to dancehall reggae to hip hop to traditional French songs. She even covers U.S. soul singer James Brown’s classic “It’s a Man’s World.”

Something Dangerous is literally “all over the map,” and an international blend of guest musicians (including Wobble and Irish singer Sinead O’Connor).

There is a strong reggae element underscoring the track “Eye of the Duck,” and a classical feel (with accompaniment by the Prague Symphony Orchestra) on “Adam’s Lullaby.”

Songs such as “Janamaan” and “Like the Last Drop” place Atlas’ flag in India, just as surely as “When I Close My Eyes” (sung with Myra Boyle) is drenched in the ambient Irish pop of Enya.

Yet, Atlas also keeps at last some of Something Dangerous on the familiar ground of Arab dance pop – as she proves on the title song and “Layali.”

It is Atlas’ willingness to stray from the well-trod territory that is the strength of Something Dangerous. Her Middle Eastern dance music has proven widely influential and popular in other genres of world music.

But her decision to take her own sound to Jamaica, India, Ireland and the United States marks her as a globe-trotter in her own style, and a true “world” music artist.