Natacha Atlas was born in Belgium, the daughter of an Egyptian father and an English mother. Natacha grew up in the Moroccan suburbs of Brussels, becoming fluent in French, Spanish, Arabic and English, immersing herself in Arabic culture, Egyptian “shaabi” pop and learning from childhood the raks sharki (belly dance) techniques that she uses during her spectacular live performances.
Even more remarkable than Natacha’s dance moves is her unmistakable voice, rich in nuance and grounded in Arabic music.
Natacha moved to England as a teenager and became Northampton’s first Arabic rock singer. Since then has involved herself in a wide variety of musical projects. Dividing her time between the UK and Brussels, she sang in a variety of Arabic and Turkish nightclubs, and spent a brief period in a Belgian salsa band called Mandanga. As she commuted between Northampton and Brussels, however, she began to attract the attention of the Balearic beat crew ¡Loca! and Jah Wobble, who was then assembling his Invaders of the Heart. Wobble was looking for an wide-ranging Middle Eastern singer and fell in love with her voice.
In 1991, both these projects became a reality. Timbal by ¡Loca! started out as a track on Nation Records’ Fuse Two compilation and became a massive dance club hit, while Wobble’s http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000007641/musidelmund-20/002-7906139-4219234?%5Fencoding=UTF8&camp=1789&link%5Fcode=xm2 | Rising Above Bedlam – five tracks which Natasha co-wrote – attracted much critical acclaim and a Mercury award nomination.
The success of Timbal consolidated Natacha’s relationship with the ground-breaking Nation Label, who introduced her to TransGlobal Underground (TGU), at that time enjoying Top 40 success with http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00000DEO0/musidelmund-20/002-7906139-4219234?%5Fencoding=UTF8&camp=1789&link%5Fcode=xm2 | Templehead.
First guesting with TransGlobal Underground in 1991, Natacha became two years later a member of the core quartet of TransGlobal Underground, as lead singer and belly-dancer. A couple of years later, it was TransGlobal Underground’s Tim Whelan, Hamid ManTu and Nick Page (a.k.a. Count Dubulah, who helped her to make her first solo album, Diaspora.
Diaspora came out in the summer of 1995 to critical acclaim. Natacha combined the dubby, rhythmic-driven global dance of her longtime associates Transglobal Underground, with the more traditional work of Arabic musicians like Tunisian singer-songwriter Walid Rouissi and Egyptian composer and ud master Essam Rashad. The result was a collection of songs of love and yearning that genuinely fused West and East.
On her second LP, Halim, Natacha explored further her deeply felt affinity with Arabic musical heritage.
In parallel with the success of her solo albums she remained a full-time Transglobal Underground member, and Transglobal Underground composed her backing band, until they left Nation Records in 1999, and they have remained allies throughout her subsequent career. Atlas has appeared on most TGU albums and its members are usually involved in the production of her solo albums.
1997’s Halim followed, and then Gedida in 1999 , both creatively and naturally fusing Middle Eastern and European styles, and delighting an ever-increasing audience in both territories.
In 2000, Natacha released The Remix Collection, in which material from the first three albums was reworked by a variety of remixers, including Talvin Singh, Banco de Gaia, Youth, 16B, Klute, the Bullitnuts, TJ Rehmi, Spooky and Transglobal Underground.
Natacha’s fourth album Ayeshteni was released in 2001.
2002’s album, Natacha Atlas and Marc Eagleton Project’s Foretold in the Language of Dreams, was a considerable divergence. No beats; a calm recording, involving a slightly smaller group of musicians than normal, including Syrian qanun master Abdullah Chhadeh, whom Natacha married in 1999.
Aside from her own projects, Natacha remains very much in demand as a guest singer for the recordings and performances of a remarkably wide range of musicians, including Nitin Sawhney, Jocelyn Pook, the Indigo Girls, FunDaMental, Ghostland, Abdel Ali Slimani, Toires, !Loca, Musafir, Sawt El Atlas, Franco Battiato, Juno Reactor, Dhol Foundation, Jah Wobble, Jaz Coleman, Apache Indian (on his chart hit Arranged Marriage), Mick Karn, Jean-Michel Jarre’s Millennium Night spectacular at the Pyramids, Jonathan Demme’s film The Truth About Charlie, and David Arnold’s film scores including Stargate and Die Another Day.
Natacha Atlas spent a lot of time in her father’s homeland, Egypt. There, she worked with members of Transglobal Underground and Egyptian musicians. Her album, Ayeshteni, was recorded and composed there.
In 2003, she released Something Dangerous, a solo album of contrasts and collaborations, in which she injected Middle Eastern music into UK pop, pulling in dance music, rap, drum’n’bass, R&B, Hindi pop, film music and French chanson.
On Something Dangerous (2003), Atlas not only combined more styles than ever, but for the first time on an Atlas album it featured guest vocalists, and more singing in English than she did before. There is a collaboration with English composer Jocelyn Pook (who, among other things, created the score for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut), it has Atlas’ Arabic vocal lushly surrounded by Pook’s western classical orchestration for the Prague Symphony Orchestra. Another guest is West Indian Princess Julianna, whom Atlas met when they were both guesting with Temple of Sound.
On the Arabic side, Atlas used Abdullah Chhadeh and one of Egypt’s finest shaabi trumpet players, the late Sami El Babli (deceased in a car crash shortly after the recording), to whom the track is dedicated. Atlas and Sinead O’Connor, who last recorded together on John Reynolds’, Justin Adams’ and Caroline Dale’s 2002 Ghostland album, trade aphorisms in ‘Simple Heart”.
With Mish Maoul (MNTCD 1038), released in April 2006, Atlas’ career came full circle to touch base with her roots.
The new album returned to the music she grew up hearing in the Moroccan suburb of Brussels, particularly when the Golden Sound Studio Orchestra of Cairo makes its entrance. It also reunited her again with Temple of Sound’s Nick Page (aka Count Dubulah), with whom she first worked in Transglobal Underground and who helped produce her very first solo album Diaspora.
In the early 1990s, three men got together in an inadequate recording studio equipped with a Simon Harris break beat album, a cassette of chants recorded on a holiday to Tahiti, a sampler and some basic recording equipment. In the space of a few hours, Alex Kasiek, Tax D and Hamid Mantu had created the first version of what would become their biggest selling record and the beginning of a whole new life for them. The trio called the record Temple Head and themselves TransGlobal Underground.
After a couple of meetings with record labels it soon became apparent that this record was not easy for people to understand. You could dance to it but it was too slow to be house (electronic dance music genre). Apart from the sampled chorus of ‘na na na, na na na’, there were no lyrics and wasn’t seen as commercial enough to be a pop song – there seemed to be no place or genre for TransGlobal Underground.
That was until the Temple Head cassette fell into the hands of Nation Records, a label created specifically to fuse western dance music with Arabic music, Asian music, and African music. Straight away, it fitted in with what Nation had been doing on the two Fuse compilations, released around the same time. After a couple of days in a better studio and the addition of Inder Goldfinger on tablas, Terry Neale – The Human Cuica, and a rapper known as Sheriff, the single was finished and released on Nation in 1991. Straight away, it created a commotion among those looking for something new: DJs such as Rampling and Weatherall and clubs like Whirl-Y-Gig and Club Dog.
Gradually, the media caught up and ‘Temple Head’ became Melody Maker’s ‘Single Of The Week’: “the kind of record that makes you proud to be an Earthling.” Mixmag thrust it straight to No. 1 in their Buzz Chart. Kiss FM DJs were playing it during the day (at the wrong speed) Gary Davies was playing it during the day on Radio One (at the right speed). Magazines were climbing over themselves for interviews, everyone wanted to know who this band were. Wanting to stay anonymous, some press shots were quickly knocked together with the three of them wearing carved Nepalese temple guardians masks, and the foundations of the band’s ‘trans-global’ image were laid.
At this point, along came Deconstruction Records, quick to seize on anything going on the dance scene, with an offer to make an album for them. Quickly an assortment of friends, associates and distant relatives got thrown into a studio in Euston and recorded the fundamentals of what was to be TransGlobal Underground’s first album. Tuup, a very old ally, got involved at this point and Jalal from Loop Guru co-wrote one track. The sessions also marked the first appearance of vocalist Natacha Atlas, who had recently departed from Invaders of the Heart. She gave a performance that reduced the whole studio to tears, then capped it by belly dancing around the control room wearing a copy of the Daily Mirror. So she was in.
Everyone was delighted with the results except for Deconstruction, who couldn’t see the point of any of it. Like it or not, a momentum had started up and a live line-up was put together, consisting of ManTu, Dubulah, Natacha, Goldfinger and Kasiek, with Tuup as a floating extra member. Most British dance acts of the time consisted of one singer and two keyboard players in anoraks. Trans-Global Underground rapidly gained a reputation for flamboyant live performances, dramatic costumes, belly dancing, endless percussion and, of course, Nepalese temple guardians. They returned to their spiritual home at Nation and recorded a second single, “I, Voyager.” This marked the debut of beat poet and percussionist Neil Sparkes (who later formed Temple of Sound), who became a regular member of the live team.
By the time of the third single, “Shimmer,” a track from the Deconstruction sessions featuring Tuup, the word was spreading. At that time, Nation Records, with Fun-da-Mental and Loop Guru also getting serious media coverage, finally had the wherewithal to get an album out. Dream of 1 Nations basically consisted of the Deconstruction sessions plus “I, Voyager” and a couple of newer tracks. The combination of so many musical styles was something no one had gotten away with before and the live performances were getting ecstatic reactions. Dream of 1 Nations was acclaimed as one of the year’s best debuts, and when it got into the top fifty it was inevitable that another major company would start throwing its weight around. This time it turned out to be Sony, who financed the second album, International Times. By this time, the basic live line-up was Mantu, Dubulah, Natacha, Neil Sparkes and Attia Ahlan. This was soon augmented by rapper Coleridge and multi-instrumentalist Larry Whelan. This line-up began Trans-Global Underground’s adventures into Europe and when possible the show grew even bigger with the addition of percussionist Satin Singh.
Beyond the live shows, TGU were also busy remixing and producing. They captured a unique little niche by specializing in remixing industrial bands such as Grotus and Headbutt. Their biggest task, however, was producing Natacha’s debut album for Beggars Banquet Records, Diaspora, which was more or less an unofficial Trans-Global Underground album, in that it was based around the live line-up of the time. Diaspora was Natacha’s first serious attempt at coming to grips with her mixed Arabic heritage. Her second album, Halim, released in 1997, moved away from the Trans-Global Underground sound in a more purely Arabic direction; however the Trans-Global Underground produced single, “Amulet,” was the track that did the most to get her taken seriously by Arabic audiences.
As for Trans-Global Underground themselves, in 1996 Psychic Karaoke, their third official album, was released. Probably the group’s most polished album, it took the line-up of the time about as far as it could go, so, after a lengthy spell of touring, it disbanded. Neil Sparkes and Dubulah went on to form Temple of Sound with Terry Neale, whose album, Black Orchid, was released late 98. Larry Whelan went on to work with Banco de Gaia and Natacha, who, while concentrating on her solo career, continued to appear live with Trans-Global Underground.
Once again, Trans-Global Underground was a floating, indefinable venture. For a while it was more of a club than a group, utilizing the services of North London clubland legends DJ Nelson Dilation and VJ Sheikh Ad Helik. The reputation of the live act continued to hold up, aided by the introduction of Johnny Kalsi, percussionist and leader of Indian drumming troupe the Dhol Foundation.
Trans-Global Underground traveled into Eastern Europe and Turkey, and made their first appearances in the USA. The album that followed these adventures, was Rejoice Rejoice.
For the tour around Rejoice Rejoice, Tuup reappeared onstage for the first time in a few years, along with sitarist Sheema Mukherjee who had played on the album. Trans-Global Underground ended 1998 with their biggest and most unexpected tour to date, supporting Jimmy Page and Robert Plant on a series of massive European shows, gaining a new audience.
By 1999 Natacha and Johnny’s own projects were taking up too much of their time to continue playing with Trans-Global Underground, but Natacha’s third album, Gedida, was largely Trans-Global Underground produced, notably the single ‘Mon Amie La Rose’ which was a big hit in France, and the band still worked with her on recording projects.
Around the same time, Trans-Global Underground parted company with Nation Records. Two more of the cast of Rejoice Rejoice came onboard fulltime, Punjabi percussionist Gurjit Sihra and Zulu vocalist Doreen Thobekile, who had worked with Hamid before on the Xangbetos project for Nation. With a new burst of energy, Trans-Global Underground started traveling further outwards, touring in India, Tunisia, Turkey, South Africa and playing regularly around Eastern Europe. A lot of time was also spent in Egypt working with various Egyptian artists including Hakim, Riko, Mika Sabet and of course Natacha Atlas.
The new material put together over this period became the album Yes Boss Food Corner, which was half finished when the band signed up to Ark21 Records new label, Mondo Rhythmica. The album was released in 21 but the relationship was shortlived, although the touring stepped up, with the band visiting Kazakhstan, Sri Lanka, Venezuela and an endless list of others. “With this album, ‘Yes Boss Food Corner‘ we’ve got closer to the spirit of our live performances than before and we’re very proud of it…but ultimately nothing beats the live vibe. We’re hoping for technology that could send us into people’s houses as holograms or something.”
The group’s current sound is less electronic, but it still blends acoustic and electronic instruments. “We always used a lot of real instrumentation. The mixture was part of the whole concept at the beginning. The difference is that the balance has changed.”
Hamid Man Tu describes the group’s approach to sampling: “One important thing is that the technology has developed a long way since we started and ‘sampling’ was new and exciting. Most forms of digital technology – which are what most people record with these days – are basically a form of sampling, so the division between sampling and live recording has become blurred, especially with people like us who were never too sure which was which.” For those who believe Trans Global Underground samples from CDs, Tu adds: “We sample ourselves a lot, then we play over the samples, then we sample over the recording…er…then we start getting confused. Somehow or other a record comes out of the whole thing.”
TransGlobal Underground have been there and done that. They’ve been built up by the press and knocked down by the press. They’ve played to huge crowds in almost every country in the world, released four albums and numerous singles, six of which were awarded Single of The Week by NME and Melody Maker, they’ve executed remixes for Pop Will Eat Itself, Dodgy, Grotus and Les Baxter (to name a few), signed deals with both BMG and then Sony (neither worked out) and handed over “Temple Head” to Coca-Cola for their ad campaign preceding the 1996 Olympics
Over the last years, the band’s line-up has changed frequently, from album to album, satisfying the band’s hunger for new sounds and ideas, always keeping their sound fresh. There are sounds from all over – India, Africa, Egypt, Israel, Europe. They use traditional instruments such as tabla, dhol, conga, violin, kalimba, jembe, piano, shenai, tons of percussion, tons of bass, all fused with the sounds of 9’s dance culture – hip-hop, house, techno – the list goes on and on.
Lately, the sound TransGlobal Underground seems less Arabic and more Indian. “The Arabic influence was largely due to Natacha Atlas‘ voice and since we’re still working with her solo projects and doing various production work for other Middle Eastern artists, a lot of our interests in that style are satisfied elsewhere (sounds like we’re eating a great big bucket of couscous doesn’t it). The main new Indian element is that we now have Sheema Mukherjee playing sitar, which involves a more melodic influence over the usual bhangra drum frenzy we like to indulge in.”
Even though many fans think of TransGlobal Underground as a club band, the group plays more and more in larger venues. “As there’s now seven of us, we don’t often fit into dance clubs. We seem to do 5% small sweaty venues and 5% big spacious festivals, which is a good combination.”
The group continues to work with Natacha Atlas on various projects although she has not participated in TransGlobal Underground’s latest recordings. “Natacha sometimes turns up backstage and makes us some excellent mint tea. As I mentioned, we’re all over her new album and she survived the experience so yeah, we’ll be working together when we can.”
In 2003 Coleridge opened a dance record business of his own and TransGlobal Underground and Doreen Thobekile began work on a solo project of hers. A whole nation of members of the tribe have come and gone; original male vocalist Tuup came and went at irregular intervals, reappearing unexpectedly in different parts of the world. At various times the line-up has included South African solo artist Doreen Thobekile, Johnny Kalsi from the Dhol Foundation, and still includes Great Britain’s greatest sitarist, Sheema Mukherjee.
Trans-Global Underground have diversified even further over the years. Producers/DJs Hamid ManTu (Drums, programming, DIY choirs and choruses) and Tim Whelan (keyboards, guitars, programming, production) relocated in Cairo for a brief period at the end of the 9s, working for artists like Hakim, Khaled and Kazem El Sahar before the release of the 5th album. Yes Boss Food Corner sent Trans-Global Underground on a worldwide journey that lasted 3 years and took them through to the 6th album, Impossible Broadcasting, with which they came home most of them anyway to the UK and set up their own label, Mule Satellite.
In 2007, Moonshout came out to the best reception they’d had since the Nation Records days, the album’s energy and ambition perhaps bolstered by the group being once again totally independent and plotting their own course. This was the climax of a busy period back in the studio which found them contributing music to the forthcoming Arabic/English language film Whatever Lola Wants and the Imagine Village project on Real World.