Audacious, eclectic, and on a constant musical exploration, singer Natacha Atlas releases her 18th solo album, taking Arabic sounds to a new, elevated audience.
Natacha Atlas is a globetrotter with multicultural roots and no permanent residence. It is between a rehearsal in Macedonia and a photoshoot in Paris that the singer and songwriter speaks of her career, her inspirations, and her love for Arab music. An internationally acclaimed and multilingual artist, she creates unique musical embroideries that weave jazz and oriental tunes with electronic sounds. Atlas’s 18th record, The Inner & The Outer, is an emotional and contemplative journey. “It’s a musical reaction to the challenges society has faced since the start of the pandemic,” comments the artist. “It manifests fear, mistrust, anger, confusion, and the discomfort experienced in a world where we no longer know how to trust our own realities.” The mirror of its maker, the album is full of hope, with poetic notes and vocals.
Atlas’s music has spanned much of the globe for the past two decades, selling over a million records. Her latest album pushes her boundaries by fusing Middle Eastern Maqam vocabularies (melodic modes used in traditional Arabic music) with a blend of jazz-infused, 21st-century electronics. She integrates her deep and expressive vocals in English and Arabic. The album was made in collaboration with old friends such as composer, musician, and sound artist Jason Singh and Egyptian violinist, pianist, programmer, and long-time partner Samy Bishai, with whom she produced, recorded, and cowrote the album. “With Samy, I got to know about the language of jazz,” she shares. “He gave me an almost A to Z encyclopedic world tour of jazz and how it has developed.” This album adds to Atlas’s impressive catalog of work and achievements, which includes music awards such as a Victoire de la Musique trophy – the French equivalent of the Grammy Awards. She has also appeared on scores and soundtracks of numerous Hollywood blockbusters, including Sex and the City 2, The Hulk, Brick Lane, and Sahara.
What makes Atlas the unique artist she is today is the combination of her audacity, ambition, and continuous musical exploration. Rare is the artist who can sustain multiple visions; Atlas has proven that it is possible. “It is just a natural progression,” she shrugs. Since her debut in the 1990s, she has managed to reinvent herself, adapting to new genres. Her live performances send audiences into a state of joy and emotional exchange. Her music displays respect, resilience, and pertinence, but also encouragement – all shared feelings that tie Arab people together, everywhere.
Born in Belgium to an English mother and an Egyptian father, Atlas draws on her rich cultural heritage to create her music. Growing up between Brussels and Cairo, she was exposed to worldwide music thanks to her father’s extensive cassette collection. Her inspiration and influences stem from European classical pieces to Arabic music, Turkish folk, and Indian sounds. From the Arabic classical artists, she mentions her admiration for Fairuz, Umm Kulthum, and Abdel Halim Hafez, as well as pop artists like Nancy Ajram whom she describes as “bubbly, cheeky, and sweet, which is lovely.” Atlas also developed an affinity for Indian musicians like Ravi and Ananda Shankar and Bollywood artists such as Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar. “I loved Indian films as a child,” she mentions. “My favorite was director and actor Manoj Kumar’s 1974 masterpiece Roti Kapda Aur Makaan. I remember how often I would hear words that would sound like Arabic,” she continues. “The meaning was the same, but the pronunciation was different. I’m thinking about words like donya, makaan, and mushkilla to name a few. One sees how there are commonalities and exchanges between different cultures.”
Informed by her multicultural identity at the crossroads between East and West, Atlas also developed a deep appreciation for artists such as David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, and Jeff Beck. Yearning to be a part of the bustling London music scene, she moved to the English capital in the 1990s during her late teens. “I was eager to find young, like-minded people with that mix of culture,” she remembers. “It meant that they, too, wanted to find an outlet for expression that included their duality. They were open enough to explore how this could work with others who were interested in multicultural dynamics. London was the only way forward,” she recalls. At the time, the city was the birthplace of a new generation of multinational artists and musicians pushing the limits of music and experimenting with new sounds. There, Atlas met with executives at record label Nation Records who introduced her to the members of Transglobal Underground, a UK-based, multi-ethnic music collective fusing different kinds of world sounds. Her musical journey had begun.
Later, in 1995, Atlas released her first solo album Diaspora. She combined the dub, rhythmic-driven global dance sound so distinctive of her musical associates at Transglobal Underground with the more traditional work of classical Arabic musicians. The result was a collection of songs of love and desire that genuinely merged West and East. In 1998, she delivered an Arabic fusion cover of Françoise Hardy’s pop song Mon amie la rose that charted in Europe. Later, her 2006 album Mish Maoul wed Arabic, electronic, and organic beats to Latin sounds and bossa nova. “I loved her music when I first heard her version of the French song Mon amie la rose. I felt in her interpretation a great understanding of East and West, something I always deal with in my own work, mixing both worlds,” recalls Egyptian artist Youssef Nabil. The two struck up a friendship, with Nabil and Atlas collaborating a great deal in the early 2000s. “We met with the understanding that we both came from the same part of the world and we both are dealing and concerned with the same issues. Her music and her voice are unique; she is the one who opened that door internationally for oriental music 30 years ago, since her collaboration as a lead singer with the band Transglobal Underground.”
To date, across her 18 solo albums, Atlas has collaborated with great artists and musicians such as Peter Gabriel, Jean-Michel Jarre, and Ibrahim Maalouf. Atlas has also partnered with choreographers, composing scores for performances. The latest is a collaboration with Algerian-French choreographer Hervé Koubi, for whom she co-composed Odyssey in 2021 with Bishai. The show brings together 17 performers with rich and varied Mediterranean roots who take turns embodying the figure of Ulysses, embarking on a poetic and dreamlike journey, and carried by Atlas’s haunting voice. “Samy and I are planning a collaboration with the BBC orchestra to turn the music from Odyssey into an orchestral work,” she reveals. “You learn a lot about human interactions through collaboration,” muses Atlas. “The creative side is a process, a new experience, which makes you grow artistically. To have this opportunity is a gift. I would even say God-given. It is a blessing, even when obstacles arise… Each opportunity is a chance to evolve both musically and emotionally.” For Atlas, fashion and music are intricately linked. They are both a method of demonstrating individuality, beliefs, and ideas, and the singer’s musical trajectory expands to the world of fashion. Christian Louboutin and Atlas met over 20 years ago, when she was living in Cairo. “Natacha is one of the most innovative artists I have ever met in my life,” comments Louboutin. “She manages to write stories into her music. Her voice crosses cultures and expresses her love for melodies, not only in music, but also in dance, theater, and choreography.” This year, the designer invited Atlas and Bishai to compose and record a score for his Fall 2022 presentation, inspired by his love for dance and performance art. “It was obvious for me, when we did the Loubishow in Paris at the Niemeyer space, to have her talent enhance the performance,” he continues, adding that the experience was an “incredibly prolific musical process.” The result is an atmospheric, varied performance that constantly switches direction, an amalgamation of Western and Eastern sound, with the hypnotizing voice of Atlas. “We really like doing this kind of work, especially if we can be experimental and try new ideas,” comments Atlas. Another fashion project the duo created was in 2020. They composed the score for the UK concept-driven fashion brand Cottweiler Spring Summer 2020 digital runway show. On stage, Atlas is undeniably Arab, dressed in a traditional Egyptian jalabiya. She tends to favor Arabic designers, mentioning the work of Anthony Hamdan Djendeli, a new designer based in LA of Arab origin; of Suzy Tamimi; and of Karim Tassi, who has featured her music in his fashion shows in Morocco.
Atlas’s voice seduces; her music is honest and engaged, backed by a deep cultural appreciation, rich in nuances, and proudly grounded in Arab heritage. “My favorite music will always be Arabic music and the Mawal, a traditional and popular Arabic genre of vocal music that is very slow in beat and sentimental in nature. Its beauty will always be my biggest influence and my greatest love,” she says. Atlas will tour Europe this month and will perform at the Th éâtr e de Grasse in October with Hervé Koubi for the Odyssey show. No matter her location, Arabic is always in her heart. “Whenever the call to prayer would ring out across the city, we would stop rehearsing just to listen to the beauty of the voices in Arabic… melodically floating over the hill, valleys, and streets. It captivates me. In my opinion, vocally, there is no better sound.”
Originally published in the September 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia