Natacha Atlas’s first solo release was called Diaspora (1995), a title that perfectly encapsulates the spirit and sound of her music. Through Halim (1997), Gedida (1999) and the present CD, Atlas’s aesthetic has been one of border crossings and hybridizations that mix traditional Arabic vocal styles, Middle Eastern pop and Western electronic dance beats.
None of that is surprising, of course, if you bear in mind Atlas’s personal history of cultural translations (as well as further translations that vary according to the version of her biography that you read).
Atlas—who speaks English, French, Spanish and Arabic—was born in Belgium, apparently to an English mother of Muslim/Christian descent and a Jewish father whose family had roots in Egypt, Palestine and Morocco. Raised in a Moroccan quarter of Brussels, as a teenager Atlas moved between Belgium and the UK, singing and performing raks sharki (belly dancing) in Turkish nightclubs and fronting a Belgian salsa band.
Just as her own music embodies a diasporic sensibility, Atlas’s aesthetic of cultural hybridization manifests itself on her numerous collaborations with a range of artists working in different genres and traditions: Apache Indian, Jean Michel Jarre, Mick Karn, The Indigo Girls, Peter Gabriel, Daniel Ash, Jah Wobble, Juno Reactor and David Arnold, among others. Since the early 1990s, Atlas has been a core member of Transglobal Underground, the pioneering London-based multi-cultural collective who blend electronica, dub, hip-hop and funk with Indian, African and Middle Eastern musical forms.
On The Remix Collection, Natacha Atlas’s sound undergoes another series of translations as selected tracks from her first three solo ventures are re-worked from varied, dance-oriented perspectives.
“Yalla Chant” from Diaspora is given three re-readings—by Killing Joke bassist-turned-producer, Youth, by Atlas’s cohorts Transglobal Underground and by Banco de Gaia. Youth serves up a hip-hop track filled with samples, pseudo-mystical spoken-word drop-ins and scratches, while Banco de Gaia’s ambient/trance approach is more fluid, hypnotically weaving itself around Atlas’s vocals and subtly drawing her ululations into the fabric of the mix. “Duden” (also from Atlas’s solo debut) receives two different treatments as Spooky offers a funked-up, dub-inflected mix and Talvin Singh, a drum ‘n’ bass ‘n’ bhangra rendering.
Originally appearing on Halim, “Amulet” is re-mixed here by both 16B and TJ Rehmi, who situate the track at contrasting points on the dance spectrum: the former provides a lush deep house version and the latter, a less dense d ‘n’ b interpretation that incorporates the rai-ragga vocals contributed on the original by Kamel and Mounir from Sawt El Atlas. Gedida is well-represented by the Bullitnuts’ ambient re-working of “Bastet” and Klute’s infectious take on “One Brief Moment,” which wraps the song’s orchestral mid-section in pulsing synths.
“Kicks world music off of the coffee table and into the clubs” was what Melody Maker said of Diaspora. And the same holds true for The Remix Collection. Atlas’s tracks are re-fashioned in new contexts yet in ways that enhance the passion, energy and hipness of the original versions. As a result, this “world music” CD could never be mistaken for the kind of feel-good, decorative fodder aimed at middle-aged, white listeners who favor beards and indigenous-fabric waistcoats.