Natacha Atlas Mounqaliba Review

Album. Released 2010.  

BBC Review

Atlas’ new, precisely ornamented disc has an optimistically melancholic character to it.

Martin Longley 2010

In recent times, Belgian singer Natacha Atlas has moved closer to an acoustic palette. Upon residing in Cairo, she became even more attuned to the music of her mixed heritage. The London-sourced mash-up electro-beats receded, and Atlas began to make recordings that sought a high level of Egyptian authenticity. With her latest album, and her recent live performances, the transition appears to be complete. Will Atlas now ever return to the dancefloor throbbing of her earlier years? In classical Arabic, the album's title suggests a "state of reversal", but she's referring to civilisation in general rather than her own internal evolution.

It must be said that Atlas has developed a kind of pan-Arabic sound that benefits from her outsider experiences. She can still confidently insert Nick Drake's River Man at a strategic point in the disc, singing some of its verses in Arabic. She also introduces some French language passages on two songs, from the repertoire of Françoise Hardy. These inclusions would seem incongruous on a genuine Cairo session. Even though Atlas has recorded in that city previously, this new project was laid down in London, and its orchestral players are Turkish rather than Egyptian.

Atlas's songwriting partner is Samy Bishai, who grew up in Egypt. The featured pianist is London jazzer Zoe Rahman. Even though Atlas considers this project to be a balanced meeting between the Western and Arabic musical spheres, it definitely sounds as though the entire ensemble is completely steeped in Middle Eastern and North African vocabularies.

The album is peppered with short interludes, featuring spoken snatches and ambient sections. There's a sense that the entire experience is seeking to paint a multi-faceted portrait, lending an episodic character to the proceedings. These pauses for contemplation are not out of place, as most of the actual songs are inward-looking and generally serene. The instrumental and vocal gestures are delicate and precisely ornamented.

A lush Egyptian-style string swell permeates most of the pieces, with many of these songs featuring a deep-voiced male chorus to underscore the songbird swooping of Atlas. Piano, accordion, ney (flute) and goblet or frame drums provide various patches of dominance. The album is dripping with dignity, the strings alternately sweeping dramatically or picking emphatic pizzicato phrases. Towards the conclusion, Ghoroub attains a particularly sombre state, culminating the building of the disc's optimistically melancholic character.

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