A master of fusing Arabic and Western music, Natacha Atlas has always broken cultural barriers, pushed the envelope, and refused to be pigeonholed as an artist. Atlas is one of the most prominent singers who has successfully blended these musical styles, drawing inspiration from hip hop, drum and bass, reggae, Maghrebian music (such as Algerian rai and chaabi and Egyptian classical music), and, most recently, jazz. She also infuses her music with political themes, whether showing her solidarity with Egyptian protesters during the Arab Spring or calling for peace between Palestinians and Israelis.
Her new album “Strange Days” is a sophisticated experience in blending Middle Eastern tunes with jazz. It is refreshing to hear undulating, round oriental melodies and Arabic vocals entwined with sounds of jazz. The album feels grown up, showing the natural progression of Atlas’ rich and colorful musical career. And like her life and artistic work, it defies crisp and clear categorization, much to the delight of her fans.
Natacha Atlas was born in Belgium to an English mother and Moroccan-Egyptian-Palestinian father and grew up in a Moroccan neighborhood. She also has Sephardic Jewish ancestry from her great grandfather. Atlas and her siblings moved with her mother to England after her parents divorced when she was a little girl. Moving back to Belgium after finishing school in England, she started working in Arabic nightclubs and began embracing the Middle Eastern side of her identity ignored in her youth.
Fearless experimentation with various music styles has defined Atlas from the beginning of her career. Belly dance became a feature of her earlier singing career, serving as part of her artistic persona. Atlas’ collaboration with Transglobal Underground, a British electronica group, in the late 1990s put her on a path to become a multicultural, multilingual world fusion singer and songwriter with a distinctive voice that deftly and sensuously blends melisma and micro-intervals.
After the debut of her solo album “Diaspora” in 1995, her success grew with every new release and collaboration. She has worked with a wide range of artists over the years including Estelle Goldfarb, Jah Wobble, and Hi-Finesse. Her cover of Françoise Hardy’s famous “Mon amie la rose” became a big hit in France in 1999. Many of her songs have been featured in soundtracks of popular movies such as “Hulk,” “Kingdom of Heaven,” “Beowulf,” and others.
While Atlas has been an internationally acclaimed artist for decades, her fame has largely evaded the U.S. Trying to break out from the box of ethno-electronica music, she became even more multifaceted. Her recent work has integrated hip hop, traditional Arabic songs, and even tunes from the Appalachia. But she has stayed true to her Middle Eastern roots as just about all her songs use Arabic language and music. Much like her own mixed ethnic background, Atlas’ sound is a fusion of styles.
Political consciousness has also colored Atlas’ straddling between cultures and musical genres.
Political consciousness has also colored Atlas’ straddling between cultures and musical genres. In her younger years she struggled with her identity, calling herself a “human Gaza Strip,” given her ethnic background, which includes Jewish and Arab blood. While in recent years she has been less politically vocal and more accepting of her unique identity, she used her power as a singer to make political statements by calling for peace between religions and standing together against injustice.
Partly reflecting her struggle with the duality of her Jewish and Arab ethnicity, her 1995 song “Leysh Nat’arak” (“Why Are We Fighting”) was inspired by the religious and ethnic conflicts in Palestine, Israel, former Yugoslavia, and Iraq. The song lyrics call for unity and peace between Muslims, Jews, and Christians in the Middle East:
Why are we fighting when we are all together?
Listen to your heart and you will know the truth,
Between us there is a long history.
The song is also her way of exploring why her family left the Middle East for Belgium.
For Atlas, the embrace of multicultural music genres now appears to be synonymous with integrating the conflicting sides of her identity. While she has been a critic of Israel’s policy against the Palestinian people, in her 2014 interview for Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, she said:
“For many years, I boycotted Israel and refused to perform here. But when I met a Palestinian fellow who’s married to an Israeli Jewish woman, something in me changed. Suddenly, this chance personal acquaintanceship made me think that maybe there should be another way.”
“There’s nothing easier than to boycott and say that I don’t want to see Israel or meet Israelis or come here and perform. But then what? Where does that get you? There is something rigid and uncompromising in that posture, which I doubt serves the goal,” Atlas added.
Exploring her Egyptian roots, Atlas lived in Cairo for a few years, which gave birth to musical creations that incorporated Egyptian indigenous tunes. During and after the Egyptian revolution in 2011, she felt inspired by the protesters. Concerned about the nation’s future, Atlas adapted and dedicated a subversive political song – originally written in 2010 – to the pro-democracy uprising, titled “Egypt: Rise to Freedom.”
In 2001, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, appointed Atlas as Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations World Conference against Racism.
In 2001, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, appointed Atlas as Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations World Conference against Racism. While Atlas insisted that her role was minimal, the conference organizers considered her musical career an exceptionally powerful message to the world about diversity and inclusion.
Robinson praised Atlas’ music as an example of “strength in diversity, that our differences – be they ethnic, racial, or religious – are a source of riches to be embraced rather than feared.”
While she is less politically outspoken these days, Natacha Atlas’ work speaks for itself. Her latest jazz-meets-Middle East album “Strange Days” is a rich and delightful mix of cultures that only she could bring together with such skill and mastery.
In the current era of identity politics, tribalism, and nationalism across the world, creating music that defies categorization and celebrates multiculturalism is indeed a bold political statement. Perhaps the world would be less divided if people could listen to and appreciate musical fusions, such as Atlas’ compositions, which are completely outside the box and aptly represent the universality of great artistic expressions.