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26 mai 2006

Building cultural diversity through music

Natacha Atlas comes to Prague riding a global wave that she helped start

By James Scanlon
For The Prague Post
May 24, 2006

Hardly your typical cultural ambassador, Atlas nonetheless embodies the international spirit and energy of world music.

Beguiling and evocative, with a soul fired by her passionate Egyptian ancestry, is a one-woman campaign for cultural diversity in music. It's an attribute appreciated even by the United Nations. In 2001, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson appointed Atlas a goodwill ambassador for the UN Conference Against Racism. "She embodies the message that there is strength in diversity, that our differences, be they ethnic, racial or religious, are the source of riches to be embraced rather than feared," Robinson said at the time.

Natacha Atlas — her real name —was brought up in the Arab Quarter of Brussels, and in keeping with tradition, she learned the techniques of raq sharki (belly dancing) early on, while being immersed in the music of traditional Arabic singers like Abdul Halim Hafez, the inspiration behind her 1997 album Halim. From the start, breaking down barriers has always been her manifesto. "I'm a person of the world," she confirms, having spent most of her life hopping between Brussels, Cairo, Northampton and Greece. She first put her voice to the test by singing in various Arabic and Turkish clubs before a brief stint with a Belgian salsa band called Mandaya. It wasn't until she hit the United Kingdom, though, that her momentum really picked up.

Jah Wobble's Invaders Of The Heart group was her next port of call, where she found herself fitting in well with his experimental punk/reggae agenda. Atlas was even hailed as the first Arabic rocker in the UK. After lending her voice to some hit singles, Atlas moved on to the highly innovative and visionary Transglobal Underground. Disguised behind Nepalese masks, the band members need an attractive singer, and Atlas fit the bill. "I sang with Transglobal Underground from the very beginning," she recalls. "They didn't have any rules, and it was all about experimentation."

Given the vagaries of national radio, which was not inclined to give daytime airplay to bands that didn't sing in English, Transglobal Underground had to creep into the UK psyche via the club scene. Playing to large audiences at Womad, Glastonbury, Reading and Phoenix festivals also helped build a following. Minds were finally broadened, and it was suddenly hip to sing in an array of different languages, giving Atlas license to take on even bigger challenges. She stayed with Transglobal Underground for two albums — and Dream Of 100 NationsInternational Times — before reaching to the heavens yet again with Jah Wobble's stunning 1994 opus Take Me To God exactly a year before the release of her debut solo album, Diaspora. Although still technically a full-time member of Transglobal Underground, she received plenty of help from her bandmates, who played on the album and helped with production.

Since then, Atlas has worked with the likes of Peter Gabriel and Sinead O'Connor, and released a number of additional solo albums. Some of them have been exceptional, others a touch disappointing. Gedida (1999) and Ayeshteni (2001) — the latter featuring an awesome version of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You" — both get gold stars. But others, such as the overly ambitious Something Dangerous, featuring the Prague Symphony Orchestra, failed to inspire.

Now touring in support of her latest album, Mish Maoul, Atlas has returned to her North African roots. Transglobal Undeground's Tim Whelan and Nick Page (aka Count Dubulah), now with Temple of Sound, were drafted to help with the latest effort, which also includes The Golden Sounds Orchestra of Cairo. When Atlas first started out, global music was virtually an empty canvas. Her Prague concert should be a very entertaining reminder that, since then, it's become quite a colorful spectacle.

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