Singer Natacha Atlas calls herself "Anglo-Middle Eastern." Born in Belgium to an English mother and a father of mixed Arab background, she made her name in multi-ethnic club music with the group Transglobal Underground. But Atlas' recent work draws on her Arab cultural roots, including classical music and poetry. Her new CD, Mounqaliba, is a meditation on global contradictions, a subject Atlas is uniquely qualified to illuminate.
Mounqaliba is a classical Arabic word meaning to be "in a state of reversal." The rich, subtle album Atlas has made construes that idea in various ways, some of them personal, as she channels the art forms of her ancestors.
On "Muwashah," which is also the name for a song form that goes back to medieval Moorish Spain, she's working with a 20-piece Turkish orchestra, a group adept at Arabic and Western classical music as well as jazz. Western piano and Eastern ney flute take lead roles in the arrangements, while Atlas sings with that quality of fragility and power that marks the great Arab singers. Even when the beat picks up and Atlas hints at her pop music past, the mood remains reflective, even brooding.
Atlas mostly sings in Arabic or French, but she includes one song in English, a luminous cover of Nick Drake's "River Man."
The songs on Mounqaliba are interspersed with ambient sound beds, laced with snatches of spoken word from Peter Joseph, founder of the Zeitgeist movement. On first listen, this juxtaposition of music and words might seem jarring. It's also provocative. The music bridges a cultural divide between Islam and Judeo-Christian societies. Joseph's words talk about societies as well, but in structural terms: the monetary system, scarcity, propaganda, corruption.
The sounds and ideas on Mounqaliba rub against one another and ultimately produce sparks, even light. Atlas hones the contradictions of her tangled heritage into an enchanting musical space and a restless meditation on the contradictions of an uncertain world.