Mounqaliba, or, in its English subtitle, Being in a State of Reversal, is Natacha Atlas’s ninth full length album spanning a career almost two decades long. Although I do not speak Arabic, I wanted to see whether the album had crossover appeal many international albums are capable of (and had a friend help with some translation), and Mounqaliba definitely does. Atlas’s Anglo-Egyptian background draws from global influences, blending a variety of musical styles from Arabic, jazz, classical, and rock into her contemporary pop sound, which should appeal across continents.
Moreover, this album is a polemic about the tragedy of the global culture, and “everything is cock-eyed and upside down and we are far from being civilised.” The concept is further enhanced by “interludes” interspersed between the proper songs. Some interludes sound like field recordings, though the majority are clips from social theorists and Zeitgeist-movement espousers Jacques Fresco or Peter Joseph advocating for a resource-based economy. The disembodied voices, reminiscent of a sample DJ Shadow utilizes from the film Jacob’s Ladder about angels and dying, stir the listener to address problems with the capitalistic free market economy, or at least learn more about the damage being done.
The light “Intro” flows effortlessly into the graceful dance of “Makaan”, whose flute sounds as if it comes from a land further east. Atlas’s voice freely sinews in and out of the rhythms, sometimes hidden behind the instruments and other times direct and center. “Bada Al Fajr” follows after the first interlude and is a simple, delicate piano song relating to sunrise.
The one song with a bit of English is her cover of Nick Drake’s “Riverman”. Atlas’s voice sounds as unencumbered as Drake’s own, though her version strengthens the strings with jazzier piano and a stronger rhythm, and by the end she is back to Arabic. The other cover is a take on Françoise Hardy’s “La nuit est sur la ville” (in French) and sounds squarely as if it is from a jazz club.
“Batkalim” starts off with an electronic feel akin to a Nickodemus production, and has a powerful chorus and a dramatic string section before its lengthy temperamental piano solo finale. Atlas sings about people releasing their minds and becoming rational thinkers as opposed to consumers of biased media. Continuing into the title track, “Mounqaliba”, the classical piano transforms into a more expansive desert oasis scene. Plodding strings and a beckoning flute take over and a mystic, somewhat sorrowful, wordless vocal casts its spell.
Bearing close similarity to works by late singer Lhasa de Sela, “Le Cor, Le Vent” hints at a smoky cabaret club in Paris. On the other hand, “Lahazat Nashwa”’s (translating roughly to “moment of joy”) mesmerizing rhythms are characteristically more Middle Eastern and feature bolder vocal male and female accompaniments backing Atlas as she expresses her happiness at attaining everything she could desire. “Ghoroub” is a dramatic song about a man, while “Taalet” is an energetic love song. “Nafourat El Anwar” (or “Fountain of Light”) is a breezy little love song which fades out with the album. When it is gone, Atlas’s charm is left lingering within the secret garden of your mind.