Natacha Atlas: Lifting The Veil

Interview by Seth Jordan

The last time I spoke with Natacha Atlas by phone, on the release of her last solo album “Gedida” in ’99, there was a raging party going on in the background, with people screaming at each other in Arabic throughout. The belly dancing English/Egyptian diva had to stop our conversation several times in order to quiet down the domestic situation, alternating between her usual rapid-fire English accent and a blistering verbal Arabic assault on those making all the racket.Such cultural schizophrenia is nothing new however for the feisty pint-sized
chanteuse, who is also fluent in French and Spanish. Born of mixed Arab and
Sephardic Jewish parentage, Atlas grew up in the Moroccan suburbs of Brussels in
Belgium, moved to England when she was eight, travelled back and forth to
Belgium as a teenager and has the dubious distinction of being Northampton’s
first Arabic female rock star.

Her international career began in the early 90’s with UK beat crew Loca! and was
further enhanced when dub bassist Jah Wobble used her in an early incarnation of
his band The Invaders Of The Heart. Her long involvement as guest vocalist with
those ever-mutating, multicultural English dance mixmasters, Transglobal
Underground, has brought her sensuous blend of tradition and technology to the
ears of global groove listeners worldwide. These days she’s a World music icon,
a veteran of international WOMAD festivals, Galstonbury and Montreux. Her solo
albums, produced by the Transglobal team, have all received justifiably high
praise and include her ‘95 Beggars Banquet/Nation debut “Diaspora” and ‘97’s “Halim”.

Back in London after seven months in Egypt, putting the finishing touches on her
next album and preparing for her first tour of Australia in September, Natacha
is revved up and ready to rave. Her trademark stream-of-consciousness answers
are short on pauses, contain virtually no punctuation, and break only for the
occasional sharp intake of much-needed breath.

Brave beyond my own expectations I attempt to get a word in…….

Natacha, having spent the best part of the last year living in Cairo, is
Egypt becoming your preferred home these days?

Yeah, well it has been for seven months anyway, from the beginning of last
December. I brought back a colleague from Egypt too, named Rico, who’s been
composing my new album with me and he’s my new percussionist as well. There’s
fresh blood in the group with a few new members. So we’ve now got three English
musicians and three and a half Arabs, with me as the half. You could cut me down
the middle actually, this double identity of mine, half Arab and half European.

Some time ago when talking about your mixed ancestry you referred to yourself
as “A human Gaza Strip”. Do you still feel that way?

What I meant was that there’s a conflict within myself, with my differing
backgrounds happening simultaneously, about where I belong and don’t belong. But
I discovered that in Egypt there are so many sub-cultures existing that you can
walk in and out of several timewarps within five minutes. I’ve never really
known what bracket I fit into, but having seen the way it is in Cairo, I now see
myself as an Egyptian from one of those sub-cultures. There are so many people
there that are half-Egyptian and half-foreign, or three-quarters and one-quarter
or whatever. Quite often each sub-culture will have its own community, it’s own
clique, with it’s own mentality, views and attitudes. Some come and go all the
time, some have been schooled overseas, some haven’t, there are millions of
different weird stories, but they all have Egyptian roots from their parents or
grandparents or from being born there. So I’ve seen that I’m actually not so
abnormal after all and while I still sometimes feel like the Gaza Strip, it’s
probably a bit less than it used to be.

What’s the music scene in Cairo like these days?

There are lots of different scenes and again it’s easy for most people to only
be aware of their own sub-culture. There’s the wedding scene where the
respected, successful artists play, weddings and birthday parties. Those artists
get paid a bloody lot of money and they might do three parties a night, make
about $6,000 a month. I think I could get very bored of doing that scene after
awhile because it’s just incessant. It’s like selling yourself to the devil, but
that’s what a lot of musicians do there all the time.

Then they’re just starting to get these DJs who are a bit more hip to what’s
going on, playing tracks from the ambient mixed World music scene, but it’s
still quite new there. There’s a couple of big places there that hold like 4,000
people and these few DJs are playing my stuff and Transglobal mixes at those
places. But you can only get my music there on a couple of compilations. If I
can’t get my stuff released there in the official manner I guess I’ll have to
just do it unofficially.

Then you get people who are like Rico, who are used to playing with the
classical artists or the Egyptian pop artists, but he’s been getting into what
we’ve been doing the last couple of years and now really understands it, so he’s
writing new music along those lines. The album I’m putting together now is still
my usual mix, and it’s certainly not mainstream Egyptian music, but it’s a
totally Egyptian production other than two members of Transglobal Underground
who are involved. Even the cover photo is being done by an Egyptian photographer
who paints his photos after he prints them.

It must be a bit of culture shock to come back to England after that length
of time away. What do you miss most when you’re in Egypt that you’re used to
having in England?

Organization! Less chaos, less noise, people being on time, things like that.
This is the first time Rico’s ever been out of Egypt and his comment is, “Wow,
everything’s so organized here. Even the dirt is organized!” In Cairo the
pollution is really bad, it’s a filthy city really. It’s vibrant and attractive
at the same time, but it can be a hellhole as well. I knew exactly what he meant
when he said that. He didn’t mean the road, he meant the dirt itself is all in
neat little piles here in England instead of just blowing around chaotically as
it does in Cairo. It made total sense to me that that was his first impression.

You’ve said that Transglobal is about breaking musical shackles but that your
own music is more about working within the rules of Arabic music. What are those
rules?

In order to keep the identity of Arabic music you have to respect the Arabic
scale. We put all the proper quartertones or whatever where they’re supposed to
be in order for it to make sense to the Arabic form and to the musicians
themselves. You don’t need to fuck about with the Arabic scales, they’re
beautiful as they are. If you just mix them together with modern European sounds
and dub sounds, you’ve got a great blend. There’s no need to invent any new
scales and you couldn’t if you tried anyway. You’ve got everything you need in
the core and essence of Arabic music as it is.

On the official Transglobal website they’re quoted as saying, “Natacha’s
longstanding association with the band is a continuing source of confusion for
both Transglobal and for her”. What’s the state of your Transglobal involvement
these days given the expansion of your own band?

It’s a matter of organizing our lives around each other. We’re still involved of
course as Tim (Whelan) and Hamid (Man Tu) have done part of the writing on the
new album and will be mixing it as soon as I finish the vocals. We might not
play live together much anymore though as we just can’t these days. They’re
doing their tours and I’m doing mine. We can’t be in two places at once and it’s
too tiring as they’re getting too old and maybe I am too. Whenever it’s time to
make an album though we always manage to find each other again. They’re always
involved in my albums, it’s a necessity for me. They understand the structures
and if you’re doing the arranging for this sort of music you need to know much
more about those things than just the average musician. It’s been a long
learning process for us all over the last ten years and we’re able to do things
now that not many people can, as far as mixing the scales and the technology is
concerned.

Both your own band and Transglobal will be appearing at the big pre-Olympic
“Hemispheres” festival in Sydney in September. Can we expect some crossover
there between the two bands?

I was hoping that we’d be able to get up onstage together, but my understanding
from my manager, who manages both bands, is that apparently they’re flying out
as we’re flying in. We’re playing on different nights there, so it doesn’t look
like it can happen. That’s how it always is these days. But since I’m touring
around Australia a bit and they are too, maybe we’ll cross paths somewhere else.

Will your sets here be from the forthcoming album or mostly older material?

We’ll still be doing material from the last two albums, “Gedida” and “Halim” as
well as two songs that I’ve just been working on. You’d never guess what one of
them is though. It’s a really extraordinary Egyptian version of Screamin’ Jay
Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You”. It’s quite intense and you wouldn’t even know
that’s what it is until the piano chords come in with the melody. If he could
hear it from wherever he is I think Screamin’ Jay would have liked it though.

Your live show is known almost as much for your belly dancing as for your
singing. Do you have any cultural problem with the continuing popularity amongst
non-Arabic Western women to learn belly dancing or is it fine with you for the
art to be passed on in this way?

I think it’s fine. I’ve seen a lot of good European dancers and I’ve seen some
bad ones too. It’s interesting how some of this art form is developing outside
of the Middle East. It does give it a different character. I’ve seen troupes of
European dancers and it has a different nature about it because it doesn’t have
the soul of a Middle Eastern person, it’s got a European soul instead. Maybe
there’s a little bit of ballet in their background or another Western form that
they’ve learned, but it brings something different to it, and as long as you
know the difference between the two it’s an interesting variation.

As this is your first time in Australia is there anything in particular that
you want to see or do while you’re out here?

My manager, who’s Australian, has also told me that I should try and get up to
your Great Barrier Reef while I’m out there too. I’ve done a bit of snorkelling
in the Red Sea near the Suez Canal, although it’s usually really hot there, 35
or 40 degrees (Celsius) and I’m used to that kind of heat. If it’s that hot down
in Australia I can get in the sea, but if it isn’t then I’m not sure I’ll be
able to even get in the water at all.

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