NATACHA ATLAS – Ana Hina, with the Mazeeka Ensemble – World Village USA (Dist. by Harmonia mundi) 55:00. ****½:
Ever heard Natacha Atlas? If not, you are in for a treat. The former belly-dancer-turned singer, of Belgian-Arabic extraction, is an amazingly versatile chanteuse. Her repertoire ranges from classical Near Eastern ballads to wild Egyptian dance music with instruments like the Dharabuka and the Douf. Without notice, it may suddenly ignite in a rocket flame of Arabic-rap fusion. On this disc, she begins with “Ya Laure Hobouki,” a tender ballad sung by famous Lebanese singer Fairuz, followed by a peppy rendition of “Beni ou Benak Eih” that’s guaranteed to make you lose your seat. Years ago, she sang the unadventurous title song from You Only Live Twice, but fear not, there’s none of that here. In fact, you never know what you’re going to hear from track to track. This disc even contains a song with lyrics by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, and a sultry version of the old Joan Baez standard, “Black is the Color.”
According to the liner notes, the highly rhythmic Fairuz tune “La Teetab Alayi was a definite hit in Denmark.” I can’t imagine it not being a hit anywhere else. Too bad the liner notes don’t translate the songs or even say much about Atlas, but it really doesn’t matter that much. You’ve never heard a disc organized quite like this one. Atlas’ voice may be softly feminine, even high on one cut, then turn sultry-sexy on another. The jazzy “Hayati Inta Reprise” features a wild accordion solo by the great Gamal Al Kordy as well as other exciting musical effects, like an accelerando forged solely on dramatic effects. The disc concludes with the dissonant and creepy “El Nown,” sung by Atlas and the ensemble. And although it’s about the seductive power of sleep, I wouldn’t advise playing it before retiring.
— Peter Bates