Natacha Atlas is that rare, paradoxical thing: an authentic product of multiculturalism. "Authentic" may not be an immediately praiseworthy description in the context of either dance music or global fusion - the two regions in which, having started out as a belly dancer and a salsa singer in Brussels, Atlas has covered and discovered extensive territory - but this is precisely the point. Guided by a remarkably beautiful timbre and a vocal style all her own, the Belgian singer, born in 1964, has managed to weld the European club with the traditional Arab ahwa, or coffee shop - which plays modern classical Arab singers like Abdel Halim Hafez, the Egyptian icon of the 1960s who inspired her 1997 album, Halim - and in so doing, she has managed to demonstrate how someone might be equally comfortable in two apparently incompatible venues. This authenticity reflects Atlas's profoundly cosmopolitan upbringing, which infused her imagination with sounds and expressions spanning Europe and the Middle East but, in her personal outlook and understanding of music alike, managed to forge them into a convincing whole.
Atlas grew up in both Brussels' Moroccan quarter and (with her mother, a Muslim convert to Islam) in Northampton, England. Speaking Arabic and Spanish as well as French and English, she is both a Muslim and, by paternal ancestry, Jewish. In her eighth album, Ana Hina, Egyptian Arabic for "I am here", she is even less tied down by the conventions of electronic music than she is in Mish Maoul (2006), her last album in which her career was thought to come full circle and "touch base with her roots".
An intense medley of tunes and references utilising all four languages to show what her voice is capable of, Ana Hina is a powerful statement about being in the world today, a musical monument to globalisation if such a thing exists (and this is globalisation in the most positive and inclusive sense of the word). Even some of traditional Arabic music's signature tunes like the Turkish-inspired Lammebada - with the original classical Arabic lyrics refreshingly delivered in stunning staccato - is made to fit the electronic dance mould, spilling slightly out of it, but for the most part still working as club music. The effect is both refreshing and disorienting, like the smell of traditional Sufi incense at an ultra-modern bar. No one else can make dance music so ethnically relevant or, by extension - for the contemporary, "westernised" Arab - so moving.
Ana Hina, recorded mostly with the Egyptian Mazeeka Ensemble and including the widest range of Arab references in a Natacha Atlas album to date, makes equally compelling private and public listening. You might want to dance to it, but you can choose to daydream instead. And having completed all 13 tracks - the last is called El Nowm (Sleep) - you are unlikely to have any doubt about the meaning of the title, either. Ana, I, or her - someone as in touch with the contemporary world as you are - is most certainly here.