Natacha Atlas arrives onstage this weekend at Istanbul’s Babylon with a worldwide audience and collaborations far and wide. Long defying the categories that dominate the music industry, Atlas pulls global groove out of the elevator. Her fans old and new say the latest album and tour are simply transformative. The Daily News has heard it too: With vocals that lift one’s consciousness skyward, the compositions are grounded in a tribute to musical forbearers everywhere.
In a departure from the electronic elements that have dominated her delicate sound in the past, this dbut acoustic project puts her at home in the traditional roots world. Joining forces with "The Mazeeka Ensemble," her album is a throwback to a time when collaboration across cultures wasn’t called "world music" or "fusion"; it was simply music.
The Arabic form doesn’t need any alteration, Atlas said in an interview "World Music Central". "You don’t need to f*** about with the Arabic scales, they’re beautiful as they are," she said a few years ago. "If you just mix them together with modern European sounds and dub sounds, you’ve got a great blend." Atlas says her 2008 outing and tour "shows the Western public that, actually, Arabic composers have been fusing music, East and West, a lot longer than I have."
"Turkish music has definitely had an influence on my music," she told the Daily News. "My keyboard player in my other band is Turkish, and I enjoy the musical influence he adds to my sound." When she performs in Istanbul, Atlas says, she goes to concerts whenever she can. When she was in Istanbul playing in the Istanbul Jazz Festival she saw her good friend Peter Murphy live at Babylon. "He has some amazing Turkish musicians on stage with him."
Her latest album "Ana Hina" has received rave reviews even from recalcitrant critics numb to the global fusion hype. The title track "Ana Hina" and "He Hesitated" drift into the consciousness, down side streets of classic sounds believed to be buried in songbooks gone by. Not the stuff of bistros and hair salons, the whole album lilts and sways, each song placing listeners inside a specific memory that they probably haven’t even experienced. And it continues long after it ends, not unlike the ineffable scent that lingers after a mysterious woman has left the table.
Golden age of Arabic music
Working with top British musical director and arranger Harvey Brough, the band blends her resplendent phrasing and an orchestra of meandering strings, ney flute, oud, percussion and a horn section that includes Julian Siegel. Half of the songs have a 1940s or 50s aura, a golden age of Arabic music.
With her voice under a simple spotlight beside piano and strings, her cover of "Black Is the Color" fills out the tried and true form of Nina Simone's style. In a duo with Clara Sanabras, whose oud is replaced by a ukulele, she conveys a gripping version of a Frida Kahlo poem, sung in original Spanish.
Ancient folk forms, Western and Eastern, resurface with elegance on four original songs. A lush 500-year-old arrangement is prefaced by a t?te-?-t?te between a ney and an accordion following a swooping page from Egyptian singer Abdul Halim Hafez on "El Asil". "Such diversity might sound excessive in print," says the BBC’s Martin Longley, "but the experience of gliding down these wayward alleyways produces a seamless sensation of high creativity, tastefully programmed."
Growing up in a Moroccan suburb of Brussels, she became conversant in French, Arabic, Spanish and English. At the age of 16, she moved to Northhampton and became the city’s first Arabic rock star. Soon she was travelling to Turkey and across the Middle East, connecting with relatives and drawing inspiration from new environments. She studied singing and the fine points of raq sharki, the "real deal" of belly dancing, which could have a rippling effect on the audience Saturday night.
"Audiences are always so warm and friendly in Istanbul," she said. "I look forward to performing for them again this weekend."
Natacha Atlas and The Mazeeka Ensemble
Saturday, January 10, 9:00 p.m. Babylon
Şehbender Sokak, No: 3, Tünel, Asmalımescit,
Beyoğlu (0212) 292 73 68 www.babylon-ist.com