Egyptian-British Singer Natacha Atlas is at Blackheath Halls on Saturday May 11, performing songs from her forthcoming album Strange Days, which is due to be released later this year in September. Natacha is known for creating music that fuses eastern and western sounds, and has experimented with a range of different genres, from hip-hop to jazz. Holly O’Mahony speaks to Natacha to find out more about her influences and her career making music.
Natacha was born to Anglo-Egyptian parents in Belgium and lived there for several years before attending a boarding school in Sussex. “I was raised listening to music from around the globe and from a young age I was interested in music from both the east and west,” she says. “I grew up listening to cassettes from Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey that I had been given by relatives.”
By the time she was 17, Natacha was making her own music. She was yet to find a sound that felt uniquely hers, but knew her interest lay in blending Arabic and western music. She moved to London in her early 20s and began recording electro-chaabi (modern pop) with world fusion group Transglobal Underground and bass guitarist Jah Wobble.
Natacha had her real break in 1995, with the release of her first solo album Diaspora. More albums followed, but it was Natacha’s version of ‘Mon amie la rose’, originally recorded by Françoise Hardy in 1964, that became a surprise hit, featuring in the top 20 of the French Singles Charts in 1999.
“The North African Arab population really connected with it,” Natacha recalls. “The cover was huge then and even now, it’s a song lots of people on the French version of [TV show] The Voice.” Natacha recorded the song in French and was able to get by touring in French-speaking countries too, thanks to her early years in Belgium.
Over the past 10 years, Natacha’s music has moved away from chaabi and towards Egyptian jazz. “I went more into the jazz side of things collaborating with my co-composer Samy Bishai and the French-Lebanese jazz trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf,” she explains.
“I went through a very acoustic period, going back to the roots of the music I’ve been influenced by. I wanted to find out more about the traditional and classical styles, and specifically, I wanted to learn more about how the quarter tone scales are used in Arabic music.”
The result of this exploration is Natacha’s upcoming album Strange Days, which she says is very much Egyptian jazz. “It’s been a learning curve for me,” she says. “Jazz is a kind of music that you need to absorb; you need to develop a relationship with it to feel what’s going on, and only then does it start to speak to you.”
Natacha has mixed Arabic scales into the jazz, employing Samy Bishai, who plays the Arabic violin, as the arranger. “It’s tricky because Arabic music is modal. You stay in one scale and may touch on another, but there’s no mad changes like in bebop,” she explains. “To take [jazz] and find a space where Arabic music can be woven in, I don’t know if that’s been done before.”
Throughout her career, Natacha has been interested in blending together vastly different musical styles and genres. She’s collaborated with several high-profile musicians across the spectrum, too: Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor, rock singer Peter Gabriel and violinist Nigel Kennedy among them. The result? Natacha’s work is a true triumph of multiculturalism.
Natacha is being supported by vocalist Randolph Matthews at Blackheath Halls this Saturday. The concert is a chance to hear songs from her new album Strange Days, ahead of its release in September. Natacha is also performing at St Mary’s Music Hall in Walthamstow this week, and will be touring in the autumn following the release of her album.
Natacha Atlas is performing in the Great Hall at Blackheath Halls,
23 Lee Road, Blackheath, SE3 9RQ.
May 11 at 8pm. Admission: £22/£20 concessions.