A welcome return to form and return to her North African pop roots for the icon of musical multiculturalism. After exploding onto the World Music scene in the 1990s with Transglobal Underground, Natacha Atlas seemed to lose her way in recent years, her albums becoming ever more elaborate but at the same time progressively less engaging. This decline has been arrested (and how!) by a joyful blend of Arabic pop, North African roots, searing Egyptian orchestration, and Western rap and programmed beats.
Those Transglobal Underground boys are back, but it’s the breath-taking string arrangements of the Golden Sound Studio Orchestra of Cairo that really make their mark. At times they swirl in and out of the beats, at others they provide a bed on which slower tracks lay, and on others they drive songs forward with piercing, dramatic shards of sound.
On top of this, Natacha Atlas’ voice is in turn sensual, emotive, or playful, and cameo appearances from trumpet, gasba flute, accordion, ghaita and oud help maintain a rootsy feel throughout.
It’s a quite bewildering array of styles at times — at one point a sparse hand-clapped Tuareg-style call-and-response chant is followed by a seductive bossa nova, which in turn makes way for a captivating, earthy take on the Egyptian-meets-Hindi-pop of Samira Said.
Even the seemingly incongruous introduction of rap and modern R ‘n’ B seem to work: Feen is a hit single in the making, Princess Julianna’s “freaky baby” chorus rescued from cheesiness by the stabbed promptings of the orchestra, Natacha’s soaring, aching vocal and some superb roots-rai instrumentation, all backed by a hip-swinging North African beat.
La Lil Khowf features boundary crossers Clotaire K and Algerian vocalist Sofiane Saidi, and boasts a luxurious arrangement that manages to evoke both the James Bond theme work of John Barry and the exhilarating approach of Thion Seck’s recent Orientation album. The ballad Bab El Janna is the only real disappointment, lacking the spark or passion found elsewhere on the CD.
It’s a heady mix that might prove to be too rich for some, but which is likely to be continuously rewarding for those prepared to stick with it.