Natacha Atlas is to be marvelled at. She’s a singer – British, of mixed Muslim and Sephardic heritage – of breathtaking mettle; she communicates a musical quality that transcends difference; and she manages to make all this sound so much fun. What more could anyone want?
As 1999’s Gedida album demonstrated, Atlas has, since her relocation to Egypt, become an important player in that country’s development of al-jil (generation) music – a popular, Arabic-language format that draws from both sampler technology and Middle Eastern traditions. There are wonderful surprises scattered all over Ayeshteni. ‘Shubra’ gathers a momentum from a hint of dance beats powered by beautiful slithery strings and a vocal whose emotional quality is apparent despite any language barriers. Atlas’ foray into English for the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins classic ‘I Put a Spell on You’, hasn’t the malevolence of the original but it does have some great piano and string arrangements. More successful is a cover of Jacques Brel’s ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’. Maybe the split-second turns of the strings suit Brel’s own twists, but the effect is undeniable. Atlas soon picks up the pace with some jaunty and mysterious songs, and while Ayeshteni’s ending is given over to a terse, heavily cut-up Nitin Sawhney mix of ‘Manbai’, the cumulative effect is of a musician who refuses any false constraints on her work.Louise Gray