Natacha at the Jay Pritzker Auditorium
I managed to make it to Chicago for the World Music Festival, a really fantastic annual event. My main purpose was to see Natacha Atlas, one of the most important world music artists doing Middle Eastern music today, and one of only a handful who have made some real inroads into the Western cultural scene, along with Rachid Taha, Khaled and Chab Mami. I first heard Natacha's voice on those great, and historic, world dance music collections issued by Nation Records, Fuse Vol. 1 (1988) & Fuse Vol. 2 (1990). On Vol. 2 Natacha sings in Spanish with a band called ¡Loca!, on a track called "Encantador". I next heard her when I lived in Cairo (1992-96). I was listening one day to the John Peel show, and heard some of her amazing vocals with Transglobal Underground, and I've been following her ever since. Natacha started releasing solo albums in 1997, with Diaspora; her latest, Mish Maoul, is her sixth. In July 2003 I got saw her perform in Detroit at the Festival of Colors, and also managed to talk with her for a bit backstage. Then she was touring in support of her 2003 album Something Dangerous, which, she told me, was very influenced by Missy Elliott. In Detroit her show was very dance oriented, with elements of funk, r & b, dancehall, hip-hop and Egyptian bellydance--the usual mix of elements Natacha has done on her albums.
Mish Maoul is much more lowkey and laidback than Something Dangerous, although it does have its hard moments. The album opens with a slow number, "Oully" or "Tell me" (incidentally, the way the Arabic titles are transcribed on this album are really confusing, as is often the case in world music releases). This song sets the tone, leading you expect a different sort of Natacha album than you are used to. Of course there are hard moments as well, most notably on "Hayati Inta," which has a very Moroccan feel, with its Gnawa-propelled bass line (played on ginbri), Gnawa-style chorus, and a mizmar (a reed wind instrument). "Ghinwa Bossanova" (Bossanova song), which as the title suggests, takes Natacha into Brazilian territory. I don't have time to give a full review, but the album is definitely worth checking out.
The first Natacha show was at the Old Town School of Folk Music, on the 16th, a real nice and intimate venue. Opening for Natacha were La Mar Enfortuna, a side project of Oren Bloedow and Jennifer Charles of Elysian Fields. The self-titled album came out in 2001 on John Zorn's Tzadik, and is an updating of traditional Sephardic songs--in line with Zorn's Tzadik project of promoting "new" Jewish music. The album is very accessible, tasteful and nice, if not terribly challenging. Essentially it's a studio album. So I was a bit surprised to see the new La Mar Enfortuna ensemble, which has now turned into a real group that's been together a little over a year, and has played mostly in Europe or in New York City. I was really blown away by their performance. The group features Bloedow on bass and guitar and occasional vocals, Charles on vocals, Brahim Fribgane on 'ud and guitar, Robert DiPietro on percussion, and Doug Wieselman and Ted Reichman. The last two play piano & accordion and sax & clarinet, and I'm not sure who plays what. The group did Sephardic songs in Ladino (the Spanish of the Jews of Spain), Hebrew and Arabic, and on each one several musical trends seemed to be productively clashing. On some songs the sax/clarinet player contributed klezmer sounds, on others what he played was more in the vein of avant-garde jazz. On one cut, Bloedow's Spanish guitar and Fribgane's 'ud played riffs in unison, demonstrating the close cultural links between Spain and the Arab world, while the beat was that of a dramatic paso doble. One of my favorite numbers featured Fribgane singing in Arabic and playing simple, bluesy lines on the 'ud, while the sax player picked up a guitar and played slide backing. On two songs where Charles sang in Hebrew, the Moroccan Fribgane joined the others in singing the chorus in Hebrew. On a song that I think is called "Ya Qalbi Khali" (My heart is empty), Fribgane sang lead (in Arabic) with Charles singing backing in Arabic. All in all, every song was somewhat startling for its inventiveness, and for the multiple musical/cultural strands that were brought into conversation, and confrontation, with each other.
I chatted with Fribgane for a bit after the set. I had seen him perform with Hassan Hakmoun at the Gnawa Festival in Essaouira in June 1999. I was a bit ambivalent about Hakmoun's set at Essaouira, but Fribgane is an excellent guitarist. I had not known that he is also an 'ud player and a very fine vocalist. He still plays with Hakmoun, but seems quite excited about being in La Mar Enfortuna. Fribgane is originally from Casablanca, and has lived in the US since 1989, in New York City I believe. He told me the band had recently performed in Grenada, at the house of Garcia Lorca.
After intermission, Natacha Atlas and her group. Her current ensemble is an acoustic one (except for electric bass), and represents a big change from her previous outfits which were all about playing dance music. Harvey Brough, the group's musical director, plays piano and acoustic guitar. Brough is a composer, arranger, and performer, probably best known for his production work with Jocelyn Pook. He and Pook collaborated on the soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. He's been working with Natacha for just a few months. She handed him some scratchy cassettes of Fairuz and Abdel Halim Hafez and he produced arrangements for the songs. 'Ali Minyawi is on derbouka. Natacha introduces 'Ali as "her cousin," but as he explains to me, they're not really first cousins, but are related. 'Ali's family, as the name indicates, is from Minya in Egypt, but he was born in England and is working on a degree in tourism from North London University. On bass is Steve Leake, who was also part of her ensemble when I saw her play in Detroit in 2003. There are also three string players (violin, viola, cello), who Natacha hired on in New York. They played her New York City gig the previous night, after only one rehearsal, and they are really great. Finally, on accordion is Gamil 'Awad (Natacha Atlas introduces him as Gamal Kurdi, so I guess he goes by both names). Gamil is in his late fifties, an ordinary-looking, bespectacled middle aged Egyptian. Nothing hip looking about him. He too was part of Natacha's group in Detroit in 2003. It was astonishing to see someone like him, playing crazy lines on the electronic keyboards to accompany Natacha's dance numbers. What was more amazing was to meet him backstage and learn that he played accordion with the great Abdel Halim Hafez. It's comparable to meeting someone in the US who played with Elvis. If memory serves me, Gamil was recruited to play accordion with Abdel Halim in 1962, when he was 14 years old, and continued to play with him until 1977, when he moved to England. (Abdel Halim passed away the same year.)
Natacha began her set with a song by Lebanon's great female singer Fairuz, whose title I believe is "Insani Ya Habibi" (composed by the Rahbani brothers in the sixties). Natacha is very well-suited to sing Fairuz material, both because her voice is so pretty, and because her singing style is in the vein of Fairuz's light and open-throated vocals--which are marked in contrast to the typically Egyptian style of Umm Kalthum, which is more nasally and close-throated. The second number was Egyptian crooner 'Abdel Halim Hafez's "Al-Aseel." The song is from the '50s, and is not a well-known Abdel Halim number. The lyrics go something like, "the early sunset kissing the palm trees." At the close of the song, Natacha said was doing Fairuz songs in memory of what has been happening in Lebanon. And she said she chose Abdel Halim's "Al-Aseel" because the original recording had a jazz feel. (I cannot confirm this, as I've not tracked it down yet.) Natacha had decided to perform songs by Fairuz and Abdel Halim because, she said, these artists were fusing Eastern and Western sources in their music long before she started doing it. People make a big deal about the "East/West fusions" I'm doing, she said, so I wanted to pay tribute to the fact that musicians in the Arab world have in fact been doing this sort of thing for at least 50 years. Next up was "Ghinwa Bossanova" (Bossanova Song) from Mish Maoul, featuring some fine bossanova guitar from Harvey Brough. Fourth, another Fairuz number, "Laysh al-Haki" (Why the talk?), another Fairuz song I wasn't familiar with. As on all the Fairuz and Abdel Halim numbers, Harvey Brough's piano playing was very fine, as was the string section, which often played in harmony rather than unison. The songs written and produced for Fairuz by the Rahbani brothers frequently explored harmony, which was (but no longer is) somewhat novel and avant-garde for Arabic music in the mid-twentieth century. The piano and the strings elements really make these old numbers sound authentic; Brough's piano is particularly good on the Fairuz numbers. The song is "very romantic, like all Arabic songs," says Natacha. Number five is a number called "Adam's Lullaby" that Natacha co-authored with Jocelyn Pook. The lyrics are quite simple, "'Ayish ya ibni Adam, 'ayish" (Live, oh human [son of Adam], live); i.e., choose life, not death. Next is another Abdel Halim number, "Bayni wa Baynak," one of his better known songs. Gamil 'Awad always shines on accordion, but especially so on the Abdel Halim cuts. Number seven, Natacha announces, is an anti-war song. People in the audience clap. She talks about how upset she is with what is going on in Lebanon and Iraq, how much she dislikes the policies of Bush and Blair in the Middle East. The song, "He Hesitated," she says, is about a soldier who wonders whether or not to shoot. The lyrics are pretty simple and go something like this:
Ana shuftu hinna wa'if la wahdu
(I see him here, standing by himself)
Kan yfakkar, yis'al nafsu, aywa walla la', yibda' darb al-nar
(He was thinking, asking himself, yes or no, [to] start shooting)
Number 8 is "Mon Amie La Rose," a song originally recorded by Françoise Hardy in the mid-60s, and which appears on Natacha's third album, Diaspora (1999). She says, it's a very heavy song, about life and death, and dedicates it to her English mother, who is dying of cancer. Natacha had wanted not to tour and to stay home with her mother, but her mum wanted her to sing in the US and spread the message that the East and West can live together. (Her husband, Natacha's father, is Egyptian.) Natacha lends this French chanson some Eastern touches, trilling in Arabic style, and Gamil's accordion frills are very Arabic sounding. Next up is a song whose name I don't catch. It's sung in Arabic, and one of the lines is "Georgie Clooney," which is quite amusing, but it fits with the song. Natacha explains that she usually writes songs together with her cousin 'Ali, but when she was writing this one, 'Ali wasn't around to help. She was trying to find a line that would rhyme with typical Arabic phrases like "'ayouni" (my eye) and "hayati" (my life) and she provisionally threw in "Clooney." The people she was recording with liked it, so she kept "Georgie" in. Song number 10 was the final Fairuz number of the night, whose title is something like "The moon made me late." The lyrics, I think, go "la ghadab 'alayi, ghadab 'al 'amr" (don't get mad at me, get mad at the moon.) I am struck again by how gorgeous Natacha's voice is when she sings Fairuz. Some of the single notes she hits are events of sheer beauty, real gems. Next up is "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair," which Brough says is Appalachian in origin, but here inspired by Nina Simone's famous version. I'm not much of a fan of the few songs Natacha has sung in English, and this one doesn't go over well with me either. When she talks between songs, it's clear that she speaks unaccented Brit English (she was raised in Belgium and England), so I don't know why she sings in accented (European?) English. Next is "Hayati Inta" (You are my life), from Mish Maoul. With her acoustic band the song as not as hard-rocking as it is on the album (see above), but it's still very effective. The last song of the evening is "Moustahil" (Impossible) from Halim (1997), Natacha's second solo album. This is a real belly dance number, and eventually Natacha, who has been singing the entire night perched on a stool, gets up and bellydances. Then 'Ali does quite a long percussion solo on his derbouka, and then the band gets back to the song. I think that "Moustahil" segues at some point into another song, whose name I don't know.
All in all, it was a very fine show, very much appreciated by the crowd, which was clapping and cheering for an encore, but an encore there was not to be.
Natacha played again in Chicago on the 18th (she was in Milwaukee on the 17th), at the Jay Pritzker Auditorium in Millenium Park, downtown, close to the lake. This is really a great venue, designed by Frank Gehry, but what's truly remarkable about it are the acoustics, fully the equal of any indoor arena. I managed to get front-row, VIP seating, which made the experience even better. Perhaps because the sound was so good, this show was even more enjoyable than the first one. The playlist was as follows: (1) Insani Ya Habibi, (2) Al-Aseel, (3) Ghanwa Bossanova, (4) Laysh al-Haki, (5) Bayni wa Baynak, (6) He Hesitated, (7) Mon Amie La Rose, (8) Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair, (9) The Moon Made Me Late, (10) Hayati Inta, and (11) Moustahil. Two songs less than they played at Old Town, and despite the ovation, no encore. (Natacha was clearly working within a time limit, and the stage hands were signaling for her to get off so that the Zanzibar Culture Club could go on next.) The only thing I would add to my observations of the earlier concert are that (1) Natacha was wearing a wild costume that I couldn't make sense of, it reminded me of something Fairuz might have put on for one of her folkloric shows (see photo); (2) "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair" sounded much better than the first time around; (3) Gamil played a great accordion solo on "Hayati Inta," and (4) perhaps because of the time constraints, Natacha didn't speak nearly as much about what she was trying to do with her music. She did announce the anti-war song, however, and the crowd applauded.
I headed backstage right after the band left the stage, thanks to Natacha's booking agent. I talked a bit with Harvey Brough, Ali Minyawi, and Gamil 'Awad, and got to spend about a half hour or so with Natacha in her dressing room. I didn't really have particular questions I wanted to ask her, but here are some of the points that came up. She's very upset with US and British foreign policy in the Middle East, the hypocrisy of the talk about promoting "democracy," the failure to solve the Palestine problem, the way that the US and the British conspired with Israel in its recent full-scale assault on Lebanon. She said she was really pissed off, and was complaining in all interviews about this, that she was unable to get her ney (reed flute) player Lou'ai Hinawi into the country. Hinawi has a Syrian passport, resides in England, is married to an Irish woman, and is about to get his British passport. He was unable to get a visa to Austria when Natacha and her band played recently in Vienna, so they had to find a last minute substitute (someone from the Transglobal Underground family). Hinawi only managed to get a visa to Denmark because the King of Denmark wanted to attend her show, and so he intervened. No king or president plead Hinawi's case with the US State Department, however, so the band was touring without a ney player.
Natacha went on to elaborate on the East-West fusion issue, saying that Cairo was a really swinging place in the fifties and sixties, with all kinds of interesting cultural production, but that since then it's become quite conservative by comparison. She reckons that Cairo might have carried on in this way if only the Palestine problem had been sorted out. Natacha talked about how she wished that popular Egyptian films from this period were screened at festivals in the West, rather than art films like Hadi 'Abd al-Salam's The Mummy. She mentioned Isha'at Hubb (from the fifties), which stars Omar Sharif, as an example, and a film from the early sixties starring Fuad al-Muhandis and Shwaykar where the Fuad character has a shoe fetish (she couldn't remember the name of the film, and I don't know it). Her point being, Western audiences need to see these films to get a sense of how hip Egypt was in those days. I mentioned to her Ghazal al-Banat, starring Layla Murad, which has a scene where Muhammad 'Abdal Wahhab leads an orchestra that is basically playing a hoedown.
She said she's not been spending as much time in Cairo as she used to (a few years ago she was spending six months out of every year there), and is not sure she will be back as much due to the death of her "uncle" (her father's cousin) with whom she was very close and with whom she spent a great deal of time in Cairo. Natacha recently went to Cairo, however, because the French magazine Rock'n'Folk did a feature on Natacha in Cairo. Her "cousin" (son of her deceased "uncle") text messages her all the time, telling her he heard one of her songs played on the radio, or that he saw one of her video clips on television. She says that her music is being played more and more in Cairo...which is a good thing.
Finally, I mentioned to her that I had read about the talk she gave in London last month at an event organized by Aki Nawaz regarding Fun^Da^Mental's All Is War. Natacha said that she thinks Aki is getting really good at public speaking. (I saw an interview he did on BBC and I concur.) As for her talk, she felt she was too emotional, but that Aki told her afterwards, it's good to be emotional. Interestingly, Natacha doesn't feel that she is very articulate, doesn't feel can she express herself well about politics or about her music, and I got the sense that's in part because she didn't do college. In my opinion, she more than compensates by the articulateness of her music.
That's it. Go listen to some Natacha! She continues to be one of the most important missionaries for Arabic music operating in the West.
Tags: Natacha Atlas, La Mar Enfortuna, world music