Ana Hina is set to be one of the year's finest albums.
Martin Longley 2008
Singer Natacha Atlas is now recording in London rather than Cairo, but perversely this is her most traditionally Arabic album, at least in terms of its nostalgia. Working with musical director Harvey Brough, she's chosen a classicist acoustic approach, as opposed to her usual electronic reinventions of Middle Eastern and North African sounds.
Natacha's fluttering voice is very prominent in the mix, allowing the space to savour every detail of her ornamented phrasing. Around half of the songs have a 1940s or 50s aura, sensitively interpreted by an orchestra of serpentine strings, ney flute, oud, percussion and a horn section that includes Julian Siegel. The Egyptian star Gamal Al Kordy makes a notable contribution on accordion; an apt inclusion given his involvement in many of the original recordings of these songs.
It's not all Arabic traditionalism, though. The Atlas/Brough songwriting partnership has produced four originals and a pair of arrangements, which revisit ancient folk forms, both Western and Eastern. Two of the originals possess strange echoes of other songs, with the title track evoking both Jacques Brel and James Brown's It's A Man's World.
A reading of Black Is The Colour follows Nina Simone's formula; just voice, piano and strings, sung in English. There's also an eerie version of a Frida Kahlo poem, in its original Spanish, sung as a duo with baroque guitarist and oud player Clara Sanabras, who this time opts for a pinging ukulele. And then, Brough re-arranges Hayati Inta, taken from the last Atlas album, driving all night down the highway of doom.
El Asil, from the book of Egyptian singer Abdul Halim Hafez, is followed by a lush arrangement of a tune that's at least 500 years old, with an exquisite ney/accordion conversation as its introduction. Such diversity might sound excessive in print, but the experience of gliding down these wayward alleyways produces a seamless sensation of high creativity, tastefully programmed. Ana Hina is set to be one of the year's finest albums.