With all the changes in popular music over the decades, the stereotypes about being…
- Posted on Aug 3rd 2010 4:00PM by Steve Hochman
Atlas, an Anglo-Egyptian raised in Belgium and England, and launched to renown through the world-fusion electronica of Transglobal Underground before starting her own wide-ranging solo career, juggled French, Arabic and English in the lyrics while the six-member band went even further. And yet never was there a sense of disjointedness, culture-hopping or even juxtaposition. At one point, pianist Alcyona Mick used Aly El Minyawi's percolating Arabic rhythms as a launching pad for a churning salsa solo straight out of Eddie Palmieri, with violinist/musical director Samy Bishai and cellist Peggy Baldwin (the latter a one-day hire but sounding as if she'd played with the ensemble for years) joining in to evoke swaying palm trees with their sinuous lines. Cairo? Havana? Take your pick. The dozens of people who got up to sway themselves would be happy with either.
Drake's 'River Man' made a trickier connection of Cairo to Cambridge, but it was no less natural with the Arabization of the vocals and strings not having to stray too far from the original's understated delivery and suitably meandering strings. It was one of three songs played this night that come from Atlas' upcoming album, 'Mounqaliba,' due for Sept. 21 release. There would have been more new selections, but ney player Louai Alhenawi, a key component of the band, got tied up in US visa process red tape. Still, it's a good preview of the music therein, including opener 'Makaan,' a fittingly dusky tone-setter.
Natacha Atlas, 'Makaan'
Musically, the album effectively builds on Atlas' last two albums, 2006's 'Mish Maoul' and 2008's 'Ana Hina,' which personalized Arabic pop traditions and applied the artist's aesthetics to such classics as Simone's 'Black is the Color of My True Loves Hair.' On the new one, she ranges from a version of Arabic standard 'Muwasha Ozkourini' (inspired by a Rahbany Brothers version and played at the Skirball) to Françoise Hardy's mid-'60s Parisian hit 'La Nuit Est Sur La Ville' (unlike the Nick Drake song, which was unfamiliar to Atlas until Bishai recommended it for this project, this was a favorite in her home during her youth).
In addition, Atlas spotlights the work of two other intriguing figures: Jacque Fresco and Peter Joseph. Not familiar with their music? That's understandable. They're not musicians. They're social critics and theorists. And the transitions they represent are to a radical shift of our economic systems.
"It's a concept album, in a sense," she said in by phone from her Chicago hotel room the day before the concert. Exactly what the concept is eludes her at first, and she turns to Bishai to help for a minute but then resumes, explaining the literally transitional interludes linking some of the album's tracks.
"'Mounqaliba' means 'in a state of reversal,'" she explained. "Evolution's been arrested and going in a state of reversal. The technology is out there to eradicate so many of the problems of the world, but it's been arrested by the fact that corporate conglomerates are ruling what's going on."
She points to 'Zeitgeist: The Addendum,' Joseph's latest film exploring the Zeitgeist Movement, a campaign in part to abandon the money/profit-based economy in favor of a resources-based system. That, in turn, is associated with the Venus Project, founded in 1975 by the now-94-year-old Fresco, a veteran design engineer following in the footsteps of such previous figures as Herbert Marcuse and Buckminster Fuller, who married engineering with socioeconomic theories. A few audio clips from the film featuring Fresco's voice are interspersed through 'Mounqaliba,' crafted into somewhat ambient musical settings.
Fear not. This is an album of poetry, not polemics. There is some content, Atlas acknowledges, that could be seen a political -- but not in an explicit or pedantic way. 'Makaan' finds a solid balance.
"It's almost a poem that imagines a utopian place where we have all evolved beyond what we are now," she says. "Money is the religion and that's actually the problem. So the album reflects the questions about certain things in the interludes, more than the songs. The last song, 'Nafourat El Anwar,' is a poem about the fountain of light. The title means 'The Fountain of Lights,' which is an Arabic poem. And a few songs are romantic and poetical."
If the political intent is left relatively low-key on the album, the musical intent is upfront.
"The musical philosophy was to bridge Western classical music, Western orchestral settings with the strings, and Arabic music," she says. "I just wanted to go a bit more orchestral than 'AnaHina.' That led the way, but then we jumped off the diving board with more orchestral, semi-symphonic ideas."
And jumping further, that's a campaign she'd like to lead.
"We'd like to do workshops with university orchestras where we would introduce Arabic music to classical string players, teach Arabic bowing techniques, introduce them to a foundation of Arabic music as an integration," she says. "Samy and I would like to do that in the future. I just thing that the more you can introduce musicians, especially musicians who are serious about pursuing long-term careers, like classical or jazz musicians, the more you can expose them to Eastern music – whether far Eastern or Middle Eastern, it opens their world, as well."