Sounds of unity

Natacha Atlas and Yasmin Levy have brought together the sounds of their Arab and Jewish heritage. Jamie Renton meets the two singers.

Natacha Atlas was born to an English mother and her father had family in Egypt and Morocco. She grew up in Brussels and the UK.
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I met the Anglo-Egyptian global music diva Natacha Atlas and Yasmin Levy, the young torchbearer of the Sephardic Jewish Ladino song tradition, at the Balcony Bar of London's Barbican Arts Centre one afternoon in March. Atlas is here to talk about her recently released album Ana Hina, which sees her move away from the beat driven electronic global fusion for which she is known towards a classically Arabic acoustic sound. Levy is promoting her justifiably acclaimed third album Mano Suave, the title track of which features a duet with Atlas.

Here are two contrasting personalities from very different cultural and musical backgrounds. Levy is the younger of the two, a dark-eyed and gentle soul with an air of fragility that belies the quiet inner strength she draws from her strong cultural roots. She grew up drenched in Ladino music (the sound of the Sephardic Jewish community expelled from Spain in the 15th Century) and in a decade long career has used her powerful, haunting voice to explore the links between the Ladino and Flamenco traditions.

Petite and striking looking, Atlas is a more complex character, with different facets to her personality (western and eastern, friendly, spiky and aloof), not surprising given her tangled roots. She was born in Belgium to an English mother and a father with family in both Morocco and Egypt. Natacha grew up in the Moroccan district of Brussels, before moving to the UK when her parents divorced. As a teenager she sang in local rock bands. "Although I sang in English," she recalls. "There was a Middle Eastern lilt in my voice even then."

In the early 1990s she sung and belly-danced in the band of London's bass-playing pioneer of rocking global fusion Jah Wobble and then with the similarly open minded, but more dance-floor orientated, collective Transglobal Underground. Although she left Transglobal in the mid 90s, she continues to make guest appearances with them, most recently on their latest CD Moonshout and members of the group have featured on most of the eight solo albums she's released starting with Diaspora back in 1995.

Over the years Atlas has found increasing success in the Middle East (particularly Egypt), although her individuality as an artist has probably held her back from entering the mainstream of a pop culture with strict rules about image and sound. Slowly but surely though, things are loosening up, although Atlas's still not sure that the Middle East pop factory is quite ready to embrace artistic individuality.

"I don't mean being insulting - we're not talking about Marilyn Manson here, because that kind of thing will never be understood anywhere in the Middle East - it's certainly not understood by me and I've got one foot in the West. I'm talking about the kind of individuality that Björk has for instance, that's just not quite understood there yet. But I think they're getting ready for change." She cites the Arabian electro of recently disbanded Lebanese duo Soap Kills as a rare example of Middle Eastern musical nonconformity.

When we speak, Atlas is working on four different projects: there's Ana Hina, the aforementioned acoustic recording. An electric album which she describes as "More Arabic pop, but with some Latin American and Bollywood flavours". The Asian producers she's working with on that one have now gone to a label in India who say they'd like a whole album of Hindi - Arabic collaboration, which she's currently putting together. The fourth album is a Latin flavoured thing she's working on with producer Marc Eagleton, who she previously collaborated with on 2004's underrated Foretold In the Language Of Dreams.

Ana Hini features a large group of acoustic musicians (The Mazeeka Ensemble) under the direction of producer Harvey Brough, who create a rich backing over which Atlas croons a mixture of classics from the Arabic songbook (drawing on the catalogue of legendary songwriters the Rahbani Brothers and songs associated with Abdel Halim Hafez and Fairuz), some Atlas originals and a couple of inspired oddities.

"There's three Arabic musicians on it," Atlas tells me. "But because we're doing a number of Fairuz songs, I wanted to use western string players, as that whole style was a fusion of east and west, between those lush harmony things with Arabic stuff." The album's a musical expression of Atlas's mixed Arabic and western heritage then, but it also finds her on a cultural mission. "It's my way of showing the Western World the beauty of Arabic composers such as the Rahbanis. I also did a couple of covers of Abdel Halim Hafez songs that have another fusion, which is slightly ramshackle Arabic big band jazz, just to show that Arabs were doing fusion back in the 50s and 60s." The engineer Jamie Orchard-Lisle has fashioned a rich, crystal clear sound and Halim Hafez "ramshackle swing" tunes such as El Asil have a deliciously louche quality.

I witnessed a very different side of Atlas's musical personality a few days after our interview, when she strolled onto the stage of London's Darbucka World Music Bar and gave an impromptu rendition of the bossa nova flavoured City Of Gold at a performance by ex-Transglobal duo Temple Of Sound (you can find the recorded version on ToS' latest album Globalhead). City Of Gold finds Atlas singing in Portuguese for the first time and she further explores her multilingualism (she's fluent in five languages) on the still yet untitled electric album, the one that includes a strong Hindi flavour. I wondered if there was a precedent for collaborations between Arabic and Bollywood singers. "There's more and more of that happening. There's a singer called Mia Hariri who just sang a song mainly in Hindi, with a few lines in Arabic and she's dressed up in this Hindi Bollywood style, you can find it on YouTube".

Atlas's also been working with Transglobal Underground on the soundtrack of Whatever Lola Wants, a new film by the Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch about an American woman searching for a famous recluse ex-belly dancer in Cairo. "It's a very cross-cultural story," she explains. "A lot of the ideas I had for the electric album came from the music we were working on for the film" Levy too has been on a voyage of musical exploration and Mano Suave marks a major artistic leap forward. "It's the first time I can say that I'm where I want to be," she says, smiling with obvious pride. "The first time I feel like a grown woman who has found her voice. I listen to my two earlier albums now and I can tell you where the problems are. With the first (Romance and Yasmin) I did pure Ladino songs, with the very traditional way of 'head singing' that all the Ladino singers use. With the second album (La Juderia) I discovered flamenco and this changed my way of singing to 'chest singing'. I went from one extreme to the other. With Mano Suave, I've found the centre. I'm not trying to impress any more."

It's a far more traditionally Ladino album than La Juderia, yet Levy's voice has an unmistakable flamenco quality, which she attributes to the influence of the album's producer, London-based broadcaster and ethnomusicologist Lucy Duran. "She helped me to let go of the flamenco, but not the passion of the flamenco. So now I miss nothing." In their own very different ways, these are two very important artists within the world music scene: Levy has previously been nominated for the Middle East & North Africa category in the BBC Awards for World Music and Mano Suave was recently voted as one of the Observer newspaper's 50 Essential Albums from Around the World.

Although very popular in the UK, France and increasingly the Middle East, Atlas has tended to receive less acclaim from the world music establishment, perhaps because up until now, her sound has mainly been driven by electronic beats and is therefore easy for purists to dismiss. However, all this has changed with the release of Ana Hina which is already receiving much praise from the critics. I wondered how they met.

"I chased her!" laughs Levy. "My husband has all her albums and it was his idea to ask her to collaborate with me." "I said 'Yes, as long as we didn't have to record in Israel'," recalls Atlas. "For me it's difficult to go to Israel, as it takes it in to the political. But people are people, whatever religion they're from. And artists are special in that a lot of us aren't governed by dogmatic rules, because we have to be free to express ourselves. I fell in love with Yasmin's character straight away. I thought she was really nice, really daring and no different to a lot of the women I know in Egypt. She's Jewish Israeli, but she has that Middle Eastern temperament and warmth, and I was drawn to that."

"When Natacha came to the cafe where we met," Levy recalls, "she was this big name. And then this little, beautiful faced woman turned up. She was so small, I wanted to take her home with me to raise her." By now, Levy and Atlas have both broken down into laughter. "Natacha was the best thing that happened to me on the album, nothing compared to our friendship." They recorded at London's Livingston Studio. "We spent a lot of time in this little room, just talking and drinking wine," remembers Atlas with a fond smile. "And it was like I'd known her all my life. We could have talked all night and then we suddenly thought 'Oh, we better do some work!'"

Their duet has Levy singing in Ladino, Atlas in Arabic. "Mano Suave is an old Bedouin song," explains Levy. " It's about a man who is in love with a woman and describes her beauty to his mother, her dark eyes and long hair and then he says at the end of it that she gave her heart to someone else." Atlas already has her eye on another tune that would work well as a Levy / Atlas duet: Ya Loura Hobouki the opening track on her new album. "It has this beautiful blend of Middle Eastern things, with something slightly Russian in the melody and Latin in the rhythm," she explains. "It's about how, when you're in love, every rhythm, every beat, every smell of the flowers. everything seems to emphasise your feelings of being in love."

But there's a problem, an issue that Atlas feels she needs to air: "Some Arabic artists wouldn't even consider working with anyone Jewish." "You mean they wouldn't work with an Israeli," responds Levy, looking baffled and concerned. "No, Jewish," says Atlas emphatically. "I'm really upset," says Levy, her shock and distress clearly growing, the more this sinks in. "For me it is the Israeli and Arabic thing, I understand about that, but Jewish. Why? Now in this century?"

"It stems from the political thing with Israel," says Atlas. "I think if that was sorted out then people would relax a lot more. It's about the fact that Israel has got more tanks and they use them and the Palestinians are still just throwing stones and being battered." Atlas has clearly taken a very deep breath before bringing up this issue - she later confides that she's avoided discussing this with Levy up until now, for fear of upsetting her - and Levy, her eyes clouding over, her voice cracking, is visibly taken aback. What makes this even more powerful is its contrast with the strong, charming friendship which exists between the two. A friendship characterised by warmth and laughter. Yet here's Levy struggling to get to grips with the way anti-Zionism can spill over into anti-Semitism. I try to put it in context, explaining how opposition to the violent extremes of Islam can expand to an irrational hatred of all Muslims and in the same way, opposition to the violent extremes of Israel can expand to an irrational hatred of all Jews. And all of it's wrong.

"That's exactly it," agrees Atlas, "It's irrational and more and more in the world, people are behaving irrationally, not just on a political or religious level, but on every other level. This is a scary time. I call it 'The Second Dark Ages'. Look at the mentality of right wing Christians in the US. There's a lot to get through, a lot to fight." "In Israel, I hear so many bad things about Muslims and Palestinians," says Levy. "This is the problem, we all think we're better than someone else. It's like 'Jewish is better' or 'Muslim is better' and it's so stupid. We are all human beings."

"There's a lot of conditioning we need to redress," reckons Atlas. "And that starts from very young. Kids are conditioned to think in that way and it's difficult to challenge. We all get conditioned to behave in certain stereotypical ways on every level. Even in very basic relationships between men and women, the game playing. I'm constantly trying to check myself with that too. We all have so much more evolving to do."

But Levy believes that history can give us hope. "I sing songs from the time that the Jews lived in peace with Muslims in Spain. The country that accepted the Jews after the expulsion from Spain 500 years ago was Turkey and the Ottoman Empire. There was a mutual respect between Muslims and Jews." So would they consider recording together again? "I would love to do everything with you," says Levy to Atlas. "But I realise how bad the situation is. I don't want people to make your life hard."

"It's OK," says Atlas, matter of factly. "It's already done anyway, so whatever happens, happens now. I made my decision when I said yes, when we first met." The interview over, the three of us leave together. Atlas apologises again for raising the anti-Semitism issue. Levy, although still clearly upset, says she understands and the two women stand outside the Barbican and hug amid its windswept concrete before going their separate ways.