Arts, Culture & Media

Global Hit - Natacha Atlas

The Middle East is one part of the world that, no surprise, will figure high on Barack Obama's agenda.

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And if he wants to get a quick lesson in Arabic culture, its music specifically, we suggest he listen to the latest recording by Natacha Atlas.

Natacha Atlas is 44.

She's the daughter of an Egyptian neurologist, and a British costume designer.

Atlas herself grew up in a Moroccan suburb of Brussels. And now makes London her home. She's always looking for compelling ways to bring the riches of the Arabic songbook to western ears. On "Ana Hina," her new CD, Natacha Atlas is a bit like a young soul diva, singing the old hits.

She focuses on the retro pop sounds of the middle east from the 50s and 60s. The title track evokes that perfectly, though it was written recently by Atlas herself. Last year, Natacha Atlas undertook an acoustic tour.

She recruited British arranger and composer Harvey Brough (bruff) to be the director of the show.

He arranged for Atlas songs that are best associated with some of the stars of the Middle East: singers like Lebanon's diva Fayruz, and the late Egyptian hearthrob Abdel Halim Hafez.

Atlas kept Brough on board for her new album because he was able to pull off for her what she wanted for this recording.

�As a composer, he can dissect, analyze, and notate music that if I gave him some Fairuz and Abdel Halim Hafez stuff that he'd be able to figure it out. MW: And did he? NA: Well at first he was overwhelmed by it. Like, oh my god, this is quite alien to him, but then very quickly he started to develop a relationship with it and understood it. So for me it was a way to introduce him and other musicians of a classical nature that maybe have an interest in Arabic music for them to get close to it, and also bring Arabic musicians into that so that there can be really a true exchange because that expresses my duality too.�

As an Egyptian-Brit, Natacha Atlas has been exploring that duality her entire professional life.

That's the point of her work with Transglobal Underground.

And when Atlas deejayed our New Year's Day show in 2002, her love of east-meets-west fusion prompted her to pick this song "El Asil" by Abdel Halim Hafez.

And here's Natacha Atlas in 2002 explaining her love of this song.

�There's something about it that sounds like Frank Sinatra, you know, for me it's like the late 50s early 60s fusion of western music and Arabic music.�

On Ana Hina, Natacha Atlas covers El Asil. She loves the song. But she also confessed to me that she's had a crush on Abdel Halim Hafez for years.

�He's like the icon for women, as he was a film star, he was a singer. Because he was ill all his life, he had a sensitivity that was...he had something that was in touch with his feminine side. He was very gentle, very sensitive, but still very male. But he capture a lot of Arabic women's hearts because of...he was unusual in that sense because usually it's a very macho persona. And his was quite unique.�

El Asil means sunset, and the song compares the sun's rays to the streaks in a lover's golden hair.

Natacha Atlas is so faithful to Abdel Halim Hafez's version, that they are almost identical in duration.
If you're in LA or New York, you have two chances to hear her perform it live.

Natacha Atlas is in Los Angeles on Sunday, and New York on Tuesday.