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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Mawazine Sessions: Chanteuse Natacha Atlas on her latest album and collaborating with Ibrahim Maalouf

The straight-out jazz album marks a new departure for the 52-year-old creative gypsy.
Natacha Atlas at 2016 Mawazine Festival. Photo by Youness Hamiddine
Natacha Atlas at 2016 Mawazine Festival. Photo by Youness Hamiddine

Musical collaborations are a fraught business.The vulnerability that comes with sharing personal experiences and creativity is not for the faint-hearted.

But those awkward moments are essential, according to world-music chanteuse Natacha Atlas – they form the gateway to learning.

“As an artist you need to be open to that,” she says at the recent Mawazine Festival in Morocco.

“There are times when you can become enclosed in your own little world. It has happened to me in some parts of my career and that’s when you become too indulgent. When that occurs, you have to address that and need to try open up yourself again.”

For her latest album, Myriad Road, the world-music chanteuse teamed up with celebrated Lebanese trumpeter and composer Ibrahim Maalouf.

The straight-out jazz album marks a new departure for the 52-year-old creative gypsy. Renowned for her lack of fidelity to any specific genre, Atlas’s work can be best described as a heady brew of styles ranging from oriental, house, drum and bass and reggae.

The eclectic mash-ups are a reflection of her background. True to her surname, she was born to a British mother and Moroccan father, and has lived in various locations, including Belgium, Egypt, Greece and, at present, England.

After attracting interest as the frontwoman for a Belgian salsa band, Atlas first made waves by appearing and co-writing five tracks on the 1991 album Rising Above Bedlam by Invaders of the Heart – the group led by former Public Image Limited bassist Jah Wobble.

The acclaimed release, laced with Middle Eastern and dub arrangements, caught the attention of Transglobal Underground, who invited Atlas to be part of the London-based world-music collective.

The enduring partnership resulted in a string of successful albums, including the minor-classic 1991 debut album Dreams of 100 Nations which, 25 years later, still sounds exotic and otherworldly.

Atlas used her growing reputation as a gifted and sultry frontwoman to launch a solo career.

Her nine albums have delved deeper into her Middle Eastern roots, through the prism of wildly eclectic collaborations.

Her second solo release, 1997’s Halim, had her teaming up with Jaz Coleman, frontman of seminal punk group Killing Joke, for a pop-centric tribute to classical Egyptian crooner Abdul Halim Hafiz.

On 2003’s Something Dangerous, Atlas joined forces with Sinéad O’Connor and the Prague Symphony Orchestra for a rather zany collection melding R&B melodies with baroque arrangements

With such variety on offer, Myriad Road’s stripped-down approach seems positively revolutionary for Atlas.

She prefers to describe it as a natural progression.

“I have been flirting with jazz for about five years because all my musicians have come from a pure jazz background, so there has always been elements of that in my work,” she says.

“Also if you think about it, there are a lot of similarities between Arabic and jazz music in that there are lots of improvisations involved. There is a definite meeting point between the two forms, yet at the same time there are few differences.

“For example, it is very hard for an Arabic singer to perform on a lot of jazz arrangements because of the different key changes. You have to posses a knowledge of that or it will to be hard to follow. So the key is to try find a way to make these two ways have some kind of relationship.”

Upon meeting Maalouf nearly five years ago in Istanbul, she found a kindred spirit in that his work also straddles east and west.

“We have such a similar background,” she says. “For us it was about finding a way to express that in our music and make it palatable for Europeans, but at the same time touching people in the Middle East.”

Maalouf immediately threw down the gauntlet for Atlas in the studio.

In what would have been a rather frank conversation, Atlas recalls that Maalouf wanted the new work to avoid of the “Arabic cliché” description sometimes ascribed to her work.

“He felt I was partly responsible for that because when I went on stage I was in a belly-dance or Arabic costume and that helped cement that kitschy persona,” she says.

With this in mind, Myriad Road stands out as a career highlight for Atlas. It combines Maalouf’s haunting minor-key compositions with Atlas’s ethereal vocals. Keys tracks include the oud-led paranoia of Nafs El Hikaya, and the stately opener, Voyager.

It’s an album accessible both to western jazz heads and Arabic music lovers.

Speaking of which, Atlas confirms she is in discussions to bring her world tour to the UAE in November.

She says that she is considering a GCC tour that would include stops in Doha and Dubai.

“It’s something that I really want to do,” she says.

“I want to go there and listen to the music. I love the Khaleeji rhythm. It is crazy but really cool. I need to come there so I can totally experience it.”

Myriad Road by Natacha Atlas is out now iTunes

Next week: Tuareg bluesman Bombino

sasaeed@thenational.ae