The Natacha Atlas story has been told a few times over the years, but it’s worth a quick re-cap for newcomers. Born in Belgium with Egyptian, Palestinian and Moroccan heritage, she moved to Northampton and was part of the early 90s World Beat explosion with various Balearics, Wobbles and Transglobals, building a track record of recordings that explored Arabic sounds while accommodating Western influences.
With the release of Mish Maoul, she has stormed back to her roots and back to form after an interesting experiment at more English-language, Western-orientated music, “My A & R man at my record label pushed me in that direction to see what the results would be. I think it worked mostly but I feel a lot more natural with Mish Maoul.” She sounds it too. As Atlas says “I intended to make an album that was more natural to me in sound and vibe, and in a way the album took form in ways that we had not expected it to. Wahashni for me is a mix of Greek and Egyptian and Hayati Inta is more the Moroccan and Algerian gnawa feel.”
The two songs she is referring to are probably the rawest and most organic on the CD, featuring hand-clapped beats and traditional instruments such as oud and gasba flute, with some sensual, ethereal vocals from Atlas. At the opposite end of the spectrum are highly accessible songs like the two collaborations with Princess Julianna, Feen and Bathaddak, both of which are influenced by Egyptian pop music. “Leading up to the recording, I was listening to mainly Egyptian pop music like Sherime and Nancy Ajram,” explains Atlas. To that end, she makes wonderful use of the Golden Sound Studio Orchestra of Cairo, a contrast in style that works surprisingly effectively. “I think the budget we had dictated a lot of what we did because the funds were not there. As a result we did what we could with what we had, and through experimentation you always find things that you wouldn’t think would work,” she explains.
That restricted budget also influenced the decision on what to call the album. “Mish Maoul Means ‘Unbelievable’ in Arabic, we named it that because we couldn’t believe we had made an album like this with the budget we had.”
Well, this listener’s verdict is that future recordings should keep to that limited budget, because there is a pleasing openness and sense of joy about the songs. As well as the cross-fertilisation with Western and North African pop music, and the aforementioned natural feel to many tracks, we are treated to an experiment in bossa nova with Ghanwa Bossanova, a wonderful driving pop-rai feel on Harem Aleyk, a great collaboration with French-Algerian fusionists Clotaire K, and a couple of sumptuous ballads. All driven, underpinned or somehow embellished in other ways by those gorgeous string arrangements. The result looks like being her best-received album for some years critically, and hopefully commercially as well. If so, one hopes that it doesn’t lead to big-budget productions in the future, because with Mish Maoul, Natacha Atlas might just have found a winning formula without one.