Natacha Atlas: Transglobal Underground [DVD]

Natacha Atlas
Beggars Group

Natacha Atlas goes by her real last name, which seems prescient in light of her international background and world music productions. She has a mixed Arab ancestry whose status has been a bone of contention. Some claim her father is a Sephardic Jew, but Atlas herself denies this while she admits that she, like many people of Arab descent, has Jewish blood because Jews and Arabs freely intermingled in the past. Her mother’s people came from Morocco to Egypt to Palestine before moving to Europe. Atlas was born in the Arabic section of Brussels. She moved with her mother to Northampton, UK when she was a teenager, but then Atlas relocated back to Belgium. Her distinctive blend of pan Arab/European style vocals have been at the core of the multicultural music ensemble Transglobal Underground since the early ’90s. She also has launched a solo career and released four separate discs as well as a new greatest hits release. This DVD was issued simultaneously by the same company as the record The Best of Natacha Atlas, but the DVD’s content differs greatly from the album’s.

The DVD contains 12 videos, two interviews (one in Arabic, one in French-both with English subtitles), and a six-song selection from a 2003 show at London’s Union Chapel. Eight of the videos feature Natacha Atlas while the other four are the band Transglobal Underground’s videos. The group backing her live is not Transglobal Underground, although it is unclear whether any members of that troupe are still with her. No matter, because Atlas truly is the focus both musically and visually. Atlas was trained in the art of belly dancing (raqs sharki), which she incorporates into her performances.

The Natacha Atlas videos have a mysterious aura, which befits Atlas’ unusual vocal style. Several of them feature Atlas in the backseat of a taxi driving through a mysterious, unnamed city, intercut with scenes of her performing live at a nightclub. Sometimes in these videos she dresses modestly as befits a modest Middle Eastern woman. In one she takes off her clothes in the back of the cab and changes into a somewhat sexy black outfit that reveals her cleavage. The videos seem conceptually rather than literally linked to the words of the songs; six are sung in Arabic (two of which are repeated and sung in French), the other two are in English. For example, the song “Leysh Nat’Arak” (“Why We Fight Although We Are Together”) begins in a bright red interior of an ancient Egyptian temple. Atlas is dressed as Cleopatra-like queen who looks into bowl of water and sees the future, which consists of black and white footage of war and destruction. The lyrics offer a prayer to Allah for peace in very general terms (i.e. “Let’s make a peace / with G-d’s blessing”). Atlas’s stance on the Middle East peace process is ambiguous at best, which is confused by pictures of Yassir Arafat, dead bodies, and terrorist bombings that lack a context or coherent narrative. It should be noted that the DVD does not have a lyric sheet or offer translations for the songs so that the consumer needs to find this information elsewhere (such as the Internet).

The Transglobal Underground videos star Atlas, but also feature the individual band members. “Temple Head” contains live footage and reveal what exciting performers the musicians collectively were. In all of the four videos the group (with the exception of Atlas) wears bizarre masks. In “Taal Zalman”, the costumed members roam the beach near a temple and make odd gestures to the ornately dressed singing Atlas as she calmly explores the landscape. The music of Transglobal Underground has exotic Arab touches, but also contains a stronger Western edge than Atlas’ solo efforts, especially in terms of a strong rhythm and blues style drum and bass backbeat.

The six-song concert excerpt showcases Atlas with a five-piece, mostly percussion-based combo and a back-up singer. Atlas weaves her sultry vocals between the ping ponging polyrhythm and fast-paced, high pitched, plucked and bowed strings. The result is music that propels the body to move from the hips and yet hypnotizes the listener to stand fast. Watching how the musicians create this has a certain interest, but at a certain point the video works best as a soundtrack to closing one’s eyes and swaying luxuriantly. The highlight is the strangely named “Eye of the Duck” in which Atlas sings a sexy duet with an unnamed handsome turbaned bearded man whose voice resembles Marvin Gaye’s. The lyrics (sung in both Arabic and English) make clear that the two share a physical relationship (i.e. “Don’t you know / I love you heart and soul /From your head right down to your big toe / You bump and grind / You dip in time” and so on). The crowd gets to its feet at the beginning and stays there the entire song.

The two interview clips reveal little about Atlas and seem unnecessary. One would be better off reading a more detailed talk with Atlas, which can be found easily on the Web. Atlas’ musical performances in videos, as part of a group and live say more than her mere responses to simple journalistic questions.