ALISON STEWART, host:
The music of Natacha Atlas is as complex as her personal history. Her father Egyptian, her mother British, she lived in a Moroccan neighborhood in Brussels as a child, but then moved to the U.K. You can hear the influence of her background in her music.
With her recent release "Ana Hina," she's recorded a more acoustic and traditional body of work than her previous albums. On this CD, Atlas performs folk songs from across the globe. She remakes songs by legendary Middle Eastern artists like the Lebanese singer Fairuz, as well as other surprising sources. Natacha Atlas makes it all her own, and she joins us from the BBC in London. Hello.
Ms. NATACHA ATLAS (Recording Artist): Hi. Hi.
STEWART: There is this lush, romantic sound to part of this CD. The first track, I'm going to let you say the name because you say it much better than I do.
Ms. ATLAS: Ya Laure Hobouki.
STEWART: What was the inspiration? ..TEXT: Ms. ATLAS: That was sung by Fairuz, written by the Rahbani brothers. And I've heard their stuff since I was a teenager. So, I've always wanted to do some of those old songs.
(Soundbite of song "Ya Laure Hobouki")
STEWART: You've worked with musicians from the Middle East, and musicians who've had training in the East and in the West. Where did you get your musical training?
Ms. ATLAS: Because of my multi-cultural background, I listened - I've heard Arabic music - and also Eastern European music - but Arabic music since I was a kid. And then, when I was in Egypt, I did live in Egypt for a little bit. I have a couple of distant uncles out there that are in music, and one of them taught me a little bit about - just basics about Arabic music, although you can never stop learning that stuff. It's amazing.
STEWART: How many languages do you speak?
Ms. ATLAS: Well, I speak English, French, Arabic, and a little bit of Spanish, actually. I need to brush up on that, but…
STEWART: Of all your languages that you speak, which do you prefer to sing in?
Ms. ATLAS: Arabic.
Ms. ATLAS: No question. Because of the style of music that I sing, it sort of lends itself best to that. Arabic is by far the most expressive for me, but that's a personal preference.
STEWART: The one song that's in English on the CD is called "Black is the Color," and it sounds a bit like a folk song. I know there's a Nina Simone version of it as well. Can you tell us the origin of the song and why you chose to put it on the CD?
Ms. ATLAS: I do believe it may be a folk song from Appalachia, although some people have said that it was originally from Scotland. I'm not too sure. I really liked it because, for me, it had a very old world feel about it. It had - it felt like you could even do a medieval version of it. It's that open.
(Soundbite of "Black is the Color")
Ms. ATLAS: (Singing) Black is the color of my true love's hair, of my true love's hair, of my true love's hair.
I find it a lot of modern songs in English just don't - they're just not romantic enough. They're just a little sort of blase, you know, and I just fell in love with Nina Simone's version, which is very sort of stark and stripped down.
STEWART: We're speaking with Natacha Atlas, whose most recent release is "Ana Hina." And, Natacha, every review I read of the CD described how it was so much different than your previous work. Do you feel that it is that much different than your previous work, and how is it different?
Ms. ATLAS: It's different in that it's not electronic. Most of my previous albums have been sort of based on grooves and electronics and sometimes samples and programming and stuff like that. And this wasn't. This was all violins, double bass, percussion, all organic instruments.
STEWART: Why that choice, to go with only organic instruments mostly?
Ms. ATLAS: Well, just because it's just - this wasn't really planned. It was just - I had wanted to sort of do some cover versions of those old songs for long time, and it's really the only way to do it because they're songs from the '40s.
(Soundbite of music)
STEWART: There's a track on the CD which I like especially. It's a re-imagined version of a song that you've recorded previously, if I'm correct, "Hayati Inta."
Ms. ATLAS: Yea. Hayati Inta.
STEWART: It's described as - this is great, great liner note writing - the Doors meets Mingus meets Miss Atlas.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. ATLAS: I think that's mainly because of its Sudanese Nubian feel, because Sudanese and Nubian music, you know, are sort of pentatonic in style and so are African in flavor. And therefore, because they're African in flavor, they're linked to blues, and that's where people will identify who are from the West.
(Soundbite of the song "Hayati Inta")
Ms. ATLAS: Sudanese and Nubian music are also closely linked to Egypt because Sudan was a part of Egypt and Anubia. ..TEXT: STEWART: It's interesting. Over the course of our conversation, and I think it's fair to say over the course of your career, your music has - we've talked about Arabic music and African music, Appalachian, British traditional music. Was it a conscious effort on your part to decide, I'm going to fuse all these genres together? Why did you choose to go down that road rather than just sort of concentrate on one?
Ms. ATLAS: Well, you know, I don't think anything is that sort of planned out really. It isn't a conscious effort, to go, I'm going to fuse all of these together. It just sort of happens naturally. You know, you do what you do because that's what you do.
STEWART: During the course of this interview, I feel like we've been on a travel log. We've talked about Sudan and Egypt. Where do you call home now?
Ms. ATLAS: Right now, I really - I'm at a phase of my life where I don't know where home is anymore. I travel so much, but it's starting to become a tiresome thing, really. I mean, I find - I spend more time bag-dragging around airports. But I do that more than anyone else I know other than my band. But when it comes to having a social life and meeting up with people, having a drink and going for a meal, I don't get the time to do that anymore. Consequently, I don't know where home is anymore.
STEWART: Natacha Atlas, we thank you so much for joining us on Weekend Edition. The name of her CD is "Ana Hina." Thank you for being with us.
Ms. ATLAS: You're welcome.
(Soundbite of music)
STEWART: You can hear full songs from Natacha Atlas' recent release on nprmusic.org.