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November 06, 2008

Natacha Atlas Charts New Ground in Arabic Music

Natacha Atlas
The Ana Hina album cover.

by John Oseid

I once endured a bitterly cold Manchurian winter with the help of classic Arabic songs. After teaching English all day to my Chinese charges in the mid eighties, I unwound night after night by listening to cassette tapes my young neighbors--who happened to be Palestinian students--shared with me. The rich melodies from warmer climes kept me sane until spring arrived.

The plaintive strains in Natacha Atlas's new Arabic album Ana Hina (I Am Here) have rekindled my love for Arabic harmonies. In the nineties, the sultry Anglo-Egyptian singer built her reputation on electronic beats with the world fusion collective Transglobal Underground. In recent years, she's been going back to her roots, this time reworking golden age Arabic music from the forties through the seventies.

Ana Hina is a lesson in Arabic traditions, from Atlas's melismatic voice to the riq tambourine and darbouka the album features prominently. "Ya Laure Hobouki" and "Le Teetab Alayi" were signature ballads for Lebanon's beloved singer Fairuz, composed by the famed Rahbani Brothers. The title track--Atlas's own composition--mixes accordion with the ancient ney flute.

Atlas takes her tributes in new directions, too. "El Asil" was popularized by the Egyptian heartthrob crooner Abdel Halim Hafez, but she modernized the tune with vamping horns and piano. Elsewhere, she throws in bits of tango and on "La Vida Callada," a Spanish song set to a poem taken from Frida Kahlo's diary, she collaborates with Barcelonan vocalist and oud player Clara Sanabras. Atlas aptly describes "Hayati Inta" as a "Berber-flavored number&reinvented&as the Doors meet Mingus." Somehow a version of Nina Simone's famous "Black Is the Color" fits in perfectly, too. It all makes me long for cold Manchurian nights.

More music:
* If you hurry, you can catch Natacha Atlas live before she begins a European tour. Tonight, she performs at the San Francisco Jazz Festival in the Herbst Theatre (the UN Charter was signed there in 1945).
* She'll be at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles on November 9.
* You'll see me in the crowd on November 11 at BB King on New York's 42nd Street.
* Boom Box: An unabashed gusto for music of the world

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