Natacha Atlas’ music has spanned much of the globe for these last two decades, exploring all facets of electronic music and finding unique and very personal ways of merging them with Maghreb music, the Arabic music of North Africa. Many Middle Eastern and Arabic artists have explored pop music, indeed. But none of them have had anything on Atlas, who’s daring approach to musical exploration has led her to work with as many diverse talents as legendary bass player Jah Wobble, Sinead O’Connor, film composer David Arnold, and Robert Plant, amongst others. In her own right, Atlas is a fearless, genre-bending experimenter of music, on par with the likes of other musical masterminds like Bjork, Annette Peacock, Laurie Anderson, and Kate Bush. To date, the singer has released nine proper full-length studio albums (not including the remix albums and compilations), in addition to appearing on the works of various notable artists.
Atlas’ first proper forays into popular music happened by way of her involvement with two very significant bands that helped to give ethnic music a real push into the pop-conscious Western world: Transglobal Underground and Jah Wobble’s Invaders of the Heart. Both bands featured Atlas’ supple, sensuous voice to wonderful effect and let much of the world hear the almost primal passion of an Arabic vocal in a newly revitalized context. Atlas, however, would truly hit her stride when she struck out on her own. Often with the help of members of Transglobal Underground on production duties, the singer showed us how versatile Middle Eastern music could be with her albums. Her first solo release, Diaspora, was a haunting and shimmering mix of North African, Middle Eastern and even East Indian music that was grounded in a base of pop, reggae and hip-hop. Atlas would flip the formula on its head with her follow-up, Halim, an album that favoured a much more live approach of Egyptian instrumentation with the electronic elements relegated to the background. Subsequent albums found Atlas tipping the balance either way between Western and Middle Eastern elements and she steadily built up a fan base on the strength of her live shows, which further expanded upon the new and exciting dimensions of her recorded material.
Habibi: Classics and Collaborations isn’t Atlas’ first compilation of work, but it is her most cohesive one yet. It includes many works from her back catalogue as well as her musical ventures with Jah Wobble and Transglobal Underground. It also contains a number of collaborations with artists like Andrew Cronshaw, David Arnold, and Yesmin Levy. The great thing about this double-disc set is that it is judicious in its selection of Atlas’ work. It takes in a fair share from Atlas’ solo albums but also makes a point of including numbers outside of her own albums that are not entirely easy to find on CD. This makes the item worth having not just for the curious uninitiated who would like to take a dip into the artist’s work, but also for her established fan base, who may not have had a chance to get their hands on all her material. Wise choices include the serpentine hip-hop sway of “Iskanderia”, a cut off her debut album along with “Ya Leyli” from Halim, a could-have-been single with galloping darbuka drums that bring to mind the swooning mysteries of the Arabian Nights. The percussive rumble and clatter of “Shout at the Devil”, which originally appeared on Jah Wobble’s album of the same name, dispels the shadows and brightens up the proceedings with a catchy refrain. Other notable tracks, like “Adam’s Lullaby”, a tear-soaked Middle Eastern ballad with the full swell of a string orchestra and the earthy, back-to-roots charmer, “Lahazat Nashwa”, find the singer in a more pensive mood.
Atlas has renown over the world. But her music still, at times, seems to hover outside the perimeters of popular music, never reaching the masses in a way that would make her a household name. This would be expected of an artist who mostly sings in a foreign language. But the question of whether Arabic music could ever have the kind breakthrough in the American market that Latin music has had is a curious question that hangs over her work. Europe has embraced the singer’s work much more openly; in France (where North African music, particularly rai, is popular) she is championed, already having scored hits with her gorgeous covers of “Mon Amie La Rose” by Françoise Hardy (also included on this compilation) and Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas”. And her live shows in places like Denmark have gone down extremely well. But some sense of mystery that dominates the waves of popular music and popular culture keeps Atlas a breathless secret that seems to whisper in only the ears of discerning music fans and critics…
For the casual listener, Habibi: Classics and Collaborations will provide marvel after marvel of this woman’s stunning work. For those initiated listeners who have been following Atlas’ work for some time already, they are privy to a secret that never should have been kept.