Natacha Atlas shakes off her 'belly-dancing' image with new Arab-jazz album

The Anglo-Egyptian singer says she has come a long way from being the belly-dancing performer of the 1990s

The new album from Natacha Atlas is a promise fulfilled. After a decade of gently probing the extremities of jazz music, the acclaimed British-Egyptian singer has at last stepped into the genre with both feet on Strange Days.

It is all done in her own imitable style, however – while the compositions are nocturnal, minimal and full of space, Atlas's heritage remains at the forefront with vocals rich in Middle Eastern melodies.

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It is an album that can go some ways in hopefully reclaiming the true meaning of the term "fusion", which over the decades has cynically been rendered to musical works that can charitably be described as pastiche. Strange Days is anything but. It is, instead, an intensive and thought-provoking blend of two distinct musical worlds, each with its own history and principles. This is why Atlas took her time to produce it.

In an exclusive interview with The National from the Oslo World music festival, Atlas describes her her eventual arrival to jazz, and how it required a certain skill set and personal bravery.

"There is a lot to consider when you are doing something like this because you want to make it authentic, otherwise what is the point?" she says. "I have always been skirting around the periphery of jazz music and slowly getting there. A lot of that is down to my band, who are great jazz musicians.

"The funny thing is, I love jazz and they love Arabic music – this is why there has always been a mix of the two. But for this album, I wanted to come closer to my band, so to speak. I wanted the new music to give them space to show what they can really do."

Meet the band behind the new album

Strange Days is indeed a dazzlingly collaborative work. The drumming by Asaf Sirkis is full of flair, particularly the hip-hop licks he provides in the pulsating Maktoob. Deftly anchoring both western and oriental sounds across the album is Andy Hamill on double bass, while Hayden Powell delivers a majestic trumpet solo in the cinematic opener Out of Time.

Leading the band is Atlas's chief collaborator, Egyptian violinist Samy Bishai. As well as being in the producer's chair on the album, he was also responsible for co-writing many of the songs on Strange Days.

<span>I would have to say that it was mostly the European promoters and music festivals that wanted me to just stick to belly dancing and costumes, where I just wanted to evolve</span>

Having him on board was essential, Atlas says, as their respective backgrounds meant they were often on the same page. Atlas, 55, was born in Brussels to a British mother and Egyptian father, and has lived in various countries, including Egypt, Greece and, at present, the UK.

Bishai's early life followed a relatively similar path. "We met 11 years ago when I was performing in Switzerland and we are both Anglo-Egyptian," Atlas says. "The interesting thing about him is in how his background is also opposed to me in a few ways. I grew up in Europe while he was born in Al Khobar [a city in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province] before he moved to Egypt and then England."

The lyrics are inspired by today's political unrest

Those distinct backgrounds resulted in the tumultuous subject matter of Strange Days. Despite Atlas's serene and almost celestial vocals, the album is a dark and broody collection of songs questioning the dire state of the world.

Out of Time is full of foreboding metaphors with "strangers running out of time" and "rivers running dry". In Maktoob (That Which is Written), which is sung in Arabic, Atlas explores the relationship between the Islamic concept of predetermination and our will as human beings.

The dystopian themes in the album are not merely a style, Atlas says. Many of the subjects discussed have been triggered by the political turmoil of the modern day.

"You have the Extinction Rebellion group and you have all these pockets of groups that are trying to fight against what's going on globally and economically with a message that says if we need to evolve, we're not going to survive," she says.

Although Atlas now lives in the South of France, she does not feel removed from what has been happening in the streets of Egypt and Lebanon over the years. "While it may seem like I am an outsider looking in, a lot of the album is informed by what is happening in the Arab world," she says. "A lot of that is down to Samy's brother, Nabil, living in Egypt. So Samy would go to Egypt regularly and we get the inside story of how the people truly feel in these challenging times."

And it is working. With the album having only been out a few weeks, Atlas describes the reception from fans as immense.

People have been telling me how they are touched with the new music,” she says. “Someone said the songs are making him think about things he was trying to avoid. That is just brilliant.”

Two worlds collide: how Atlas melds Arab music with jazz

Atlas's next challenge is recreating that atmosphere, not to mention nailing the evocative vocals, on tour. Judging by her successful Oslo gig, she  and her band managed to rise to the demands of melding both Middle Eastern vocal scales with the shape shifting nature of jazz music.

Atlas says it is a challenge for everyone on stage to continually overcome. “As an Arabic singer my challenge is to be aware of all the harmonic changes in jazz music.

Because in the Arabic modal style, we improvise but really stay in that same melodic circle, so to speak, while in jazz, you move around when it comes to harmony, so you really have to listen to what is going on and you need to be agile enough to do that," she says.

“While the challenge for the musicians when it comes to playing Arabic melodies is capturing the spirit of the music. Arabic music is not just about having technical ability, it is about [its] feel. The band have been doing a great job with this.”

Atlas says the positive reception to Strange Days serves as more validation for the career risks she took over her three-decade career. After attracting interest by appearing and co-writing five tracks on the 1991 album Rising Above Bedlam by the British band Invaders of the Heart, led by former Public Image Limited bassist Jah Wobble, she caught the attention of Transglobal Underground, who invited Atlas to be part of the London world music collective.

The partnership resulted in a string of successful albums, including the minor classic 1991 debut album Dreams of 100 Nations which, 28 years later, still sounds exciting and otherworldly.

While proud of the album's success, Atlas said she found herself increasingly trapped in an international music industry more interested in exoticism than shedding light on new international talent.

“I would have to say that it was mostly the European promoters and music festivals that wanted me to just stick to belly dancing and costumes, where I just wanted to evolve,” she says. “I broke out of that through sheer will. And that’s my advice to artists, no matter where you are. Stay open.

“Be connected to what is going on and don’t be forced into do anything. Keep looking forward.”