September 2006

Natacha Atlas
Part of the 5th Annual Small World Music Festival
September 22, 2006 Phoenix Theatre Toronto
Middle Eastern Mystique
by Joyce Corbett with photos by Roger Humbert
In terms of age and ethnicity, it was a mixed crowd that turned out at the Phoenix on Friday for Natacha Atlas — Arab, European, North American, African, like her music. She performed some songs from previous recordings as well as many from her latest CD, Mishmaoul. Most of the audience knew her music and towards the end, shouted requests, a few for “Eye of the Duck”, a reggae/ska/Egyptian piece from a few years ago, and so many for her middle eastern version of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” that she couldn’t ignore them. In a sweet but decided, British-accented voice, she responded “oh no, I haven’t done that for a long time... we haven’t rehearsed it, we just have time for our last song”.
Although I am sure we would have enjoyed her arresting version of the classic tune, I am glad she went on to more strongly Arabic music. On this occasion with her acoustic band, it was what she did best with few exceptions. The music that she is deeply involved with emotionally is definitely the most powerful and her roots in the Maghreb and Egypt are obviously very important to her right now. Her voice, clear and high, weaves a spell with its characteristic Arabic intervals and middle-eastern modulations. It is seductive, sweet, mysterious and tragic. There are many influences in her music and her vocals are also reminiscent of Hindi singers at times. Natacha Atlas is truly a world musician, it comes naturally.
Natacha Atlas

Of Egyptian, Moroccan, English and apparently some Jewish background, she grew up Muslim in a Moroccan neighbourhood in Brussels, later settled in London, and is now moving to the south of France. She spends as much time as possible in Cairo learning more about the music and improving her Arabic. Natacha Atlas is a big star on the other side of the ocean, but this was only her second show in Toronto. The last one was about six years ago.

Although Natacha Atlas lived in London for many years, she seems to have made it bigger in France than anywhere else in Europe. Her version of Françoise Hardy’s “Mon amie la rose” from 1995 became a top ten hit in France. This was just a few years after the Algerian exile Khaled had the first hit song ever in France sung entirely in Arabic. Since then, they have both had tunes in the top ten at the same time. Natacha Atlas has even won Best Female Singer at the Victoire de la Musique awards, the equivalent of Canada’s Junos, or England’s Brits.

For this concert, I thought that Natacha Atlas would be performing mostly music from her latest CD, Mishmaoul (an Egyptian phrase meaning “Unbelievable!) and I wondered how it would sound without the electronics and production, and without the exotic Golden Sound Studio Orchestra of Cairo. She did perform some pieces from Mishmaoul but she performed a lot of other material as well. As for the pieces from the CD, live, they were at least as good and mostly better.

“Ghanwah Bossanova” as recorded on the CD is not one of my favourites, although I certainly like it better than “Feen”, a sort-of rap/hip hop/Arabic tune with high voices. While the novelty (for me, anyway) of hearing a bossanova sung in Arabic is interesting, I feel the instrumental underpinning on the CD is a bit thin and I am not fond of the use of the synthesizer in this piece, especially the slightly corny Bach-like run at the end. Performed live with the acoustic orchestra the tune was much better. It was more rhythmic, more entrancing, and received much applause. “Oully Ya Sahbi” was simply gorgeous, as I said, the more Arab material was generally the best.

One of the exceptions, “Mon amie la rose”, came right after an anti-war song she wrote, entitled “He Hesitated”, that featured strings, arpeggiated guitar chords and shifting harmonies. Natacha Atlas dedicated “Mon amie la rose” to her mother, who, she told us, is dying of cancer. She almost cancelled her tour but her mother wanted her to continue on with it, telling Natacha that she thought she had an important message of peace for the world. Natacha Atlas believes that the east and west can learn to understand each other. She needed a few moments to collect herself before starting the song.
Gamal Awad
I also very much liked the Appalachian folk song they played, “Black is the Colour of my True Love’s Hair”. Explaining the leap, musical director/pianist/guitarist Harvey Brough said, “we play music we like”. Natacha told us she based it on a Nina Simone version she knew. It was quite an original take with stretched out syllables and phrasing.

Throughout the evening, the instrumentation was exceptional and much of it, I’m sure, was not easy to play. When Harvey Brough tuned up the guitar for a piece that Natacha co-wrote with guitarist Marc Eagleton, he said, “this one is in E flat minor. All of you guitar players out there will know what I have to contend with.” The string section was an essential part of the mix, at times sweeping downwards in a very Middle Eastern way and then shifting through odd tones into more western harmonies. Bass player Stephen Ieake kept the knit tight. The accordionist, Gamal Awad, is an exceptional musician, whether playing tango-style, arabesque or even on one tune, with an Irish lilt. On the second last tune, an Arab/rock/jazzy kind of fusion piece, he really got to stretch out with an extended solo. Percussive, fluid, lyrical, bittersweet, mysterious, the accordion is at his command. The audience loved it.

The finale was an Arabic piece that I cannot put a name to. It cast a deeper spell I’m sure than the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ piece would have and erased any thought of that song from the minds of the audience as they basked in the pleasure of the song performed. What was on our collective mind was the question of whether or not Natacha Atlas would dance. This was the last chance. Having learned Rag Sharki as a child, Natacha was once not just a vocalist, but also a belly dancer with British Transglobal Underground; so we waited, expectant. Sure enough, after singing for a while, she left the stage with the long white sash that had hung on the side of her music stand all evening. The band kept on playing, jamming up a storm with Ali Abdel Alim on doumbek.

When Natacha arrived back on stage, the crowd cheered enthusiastically. The dance alone would have been an impressive finish to this varied evening, but after Natacha finished delighting us with movement, her cousin Ali Abdel Alim played a long, jaw-dropping solo on dumbek, getting the audience to participate with clapping at certain times, but silently, just by showing us. He had our full attention. What heights to end a concert on! Natacha Atlas sure can put a spell on you.

Ali Abdel Alim
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We welcome your comments and feedback
Joyce Corbett
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Roger Humbert
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