Music genres can be helpful, allowing us to filter through the vast ocean of listening options, which grows on a weekly basis. But these handy little tags are often inadequate, either allowing too much room for interpretation or not fully capturing a musician’s full range. In the case of Natacha Atlas, the question of genre becomes more of a “chicken or the egg” debate. Is she a world musician utilizing electronica, or is she an electronica musician heavily influenced by world music? Let’s look to her origins for clues. Atlas was born in Belgium, unquestionably one of the premier global breeding grounds for club music. Score one for the knob twiddlers. She is, however, of Middle Eastern descent, with her ancestral heritage reaching back to Egypt, Palestine, and Morocco. World wins that round. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a draw. And, in this case, that is the perfect outcome. Atlas’ music reaches across too many borders to be easily classified, and that’s one of the qualities that makes it interesting.
Mish Maoul is the seventh album from Atlas since debuting in 1995 with Diaspora, but her recording career began earlier than that. In 1991, she was featured on Rising above Bedlam, the second album from the world-electro-dub outfit of PiL’s former bassist, Jah Wobble’s Invaders of the Heart. She’s also a long-standing member of Transglobal Underground, an ethnic fusion unit working in a similar vein to her own pursuits. So, while Atlas may not be a household name, she brings 15 years of experience to her latest album, and it shows. Mish Maoul is a tight and polished release, with just enough variety to keep the disc intriguing over the course of its 50-plus minute playing time.
Beginning with a subdued vibe, the lead track, “Oully”, combines ethereal synth strings, a slow snare drum groove, passionate flute playing (this coming from a devout anti-floutist), and the qawwali-like chanting of a male vocalist. Weaving in and out of all of this is the beautiful and plaintive voice of Atlas, who, although singing in what I assume to be Arabic, conveys more emotion to these Western ears than most English-singing vocalists ever could. After that deeply meditative introduction, “Feen” finds Atlas rolling out a rap, delivered in English, about world consciousness: “You ever wonder why the world’s so crazy? / You ever think about the times and the troubles that we’re living in / And what kind of retribution will the future bring?” Oh, the seeds we sow. From her Mesopotamian roots to her European home and flowing out to her listeners across the globe, the pattern of civilization’s evolution seems to be eroding at its genesis, and Atlas’ musical lineage mirrors its fragile path. Meanwhile, the song’s rhythm track is your basic house music, with a repeating Arabic woodwind figure darting in and out, as Atlas moves effortlessly from rapping to soul singing to chanting.
Later, on “Ghanwa Bossanova,” Atlas finds that Brazilian song-form’s sweet spot, just a shade cooler than lounge, and adds her own Middle Eastern flair, taking the sound of Bebel Gilberto halfway across the world. She’s shown a flair throughout her career for treading dangerously close to being cheesy, but always finding the right approach, even when covering Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “You Put a Spell on Me” or James Brown’s “(It’s a Man’s Man’s) Man’s World”. Incidentally, both of these covers, along with a healthy dose of original material, can be found on the very fine Best of Natacha Atlas released last year in the UK.
What that compilation shows is that Atlas has been on her game for a long time now, and that Mish Maoul is but another installment in a very solid career. For fans of ethnically-fused electronica, Atlas is the real deal. While very appealing to Western sensibilities, her love for the sounds of her homeland ring true, elevating her recordings beyond similar efforts that merely sprinkle a dash of Middle Eastern flavoring into their electronic music recordings. Most of all, Atlas’ gorgeous voice presides over the entirety of Mish Maoul, imbuing these songs with a prayerful authenticity that transcends the genre, whatever genre that might actually be.
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