Natacha Atlas’ performance had been anticipated with excitement since the beginning of Ramadan. The British performer is the fifth and the final female singer in a series of diverse performances organized by al-Mawred al-Thaqafi for the holy month under the title Hay.
Anticipation rose over the last couple of weeks and everyone was talking about her show, whilst those who were unfamiliar with her work googled her details. Her origins as a Moroccan-Egyptian Arab born to a British mother in Brussels were in themselves a draw for many of the people who attended the concert. The theater–maximum capacity 500–was full, and then some people sat on the floor next to the stage, on the walls around the theater, and some were forced to listen to the concert from outside.
Sadly, however, the concert failed to deliver.
Was it actually Atlas’ performance that caused some people to scream and cheer for her, or was it just that the anticipation of the concert had pushed enough adrenaline through their veins to force them to react like this? I couldn’t honestly tell, but for most, the concert was a disappointment.
Natacha–who sat on a chair for most of the concert due to a recently-sustained foot injury–was loudly applauded by many of those attending. Some people may have been starstruck by her, or, more likely, by her band members, who brought a wide variety of influences to the music but Atlas herself was not the cultural and musical phenomenon we expected her to be.
The show started with a song entitled ‘Makan’ (A Place), which was a pure Arabic tarab song, with no hint of western influence. The Arabic lyrics were filled with clouded messages like “I’m looking for a place when I have a freedom in my mind and a game for the human race,” spotlighting her origins.
“I would always consider myself an Anglo-Arab performer,” the singer says, “I really am working on that mélange. I have never heard anything that represents both sides [western and eastern] of my heritage, and I want to make music for people like me.”
From a set of eleven songs, the next five were covers of original music by Lebanese diva Fairouz, including ‘Ma Te’tab Alli’ (Do Not Blame Me), ‘Betmarjah Be’albak’ (I Play Like a Child with your heart) and ‘Salouny al-Nass’ (People asked me), which were appreciated by some of the audience who may not have known the original songs. Those familiar with the Fairouz’s music were not impressed.
While other singers in the Hay series also picked some of Fairouz’s songs to perform, they managed to make the songs uniquely their own by performing them in their own style and also—critically—by only picking one or two songs for each set.
“I have tried to reinterpret jazz in an Arabic way,” the singer says talking about her music, “I currently have a group [of musicians that work with me] that is a real blend of Arabic and jazz backgrounds.”
The singer moved on to perform a new track from her forthcoming album ‘Monqaleba’ (Overturned). The track, entitled ‘River Man’ is the only English language track on the new album, and the first track in Friday’s performance to showcase the much vaunted cultural blending. In actual fact the song was again sung in the traditional Arabic tarab way, in which the singer stresses the Arabic vowels instead of the English ones, against a background of jazz. I wondered how a western ear would react to this mixture.
“Now that there is more world music around, and more people traveling,” the singer points out, “it seems more people like it.” She recalls a story that happened in Finland four years ago. She was doing a show, and a young Finnish man came up and spoke to her in Classical Arabic, “This blond, taweel (tall), blue eyed man told me that he had fallen in love with my music and it made him want to learn Arabic.”
At last Atlas sung her signature tune ‘Mon Amie La Rose’, made famous by her, although originally performed by French singer Françoise Hardy in 1964. Despite being a commercial success for Atlas back in the 1990s it didn’t help her to move from the independent scene into the mainstream. On Friday though, the song finally managed to capture the attention of the audience.
“I’m not into mainstream of any kind really,” the singer says, “I’m not Justin Timberlake and I’m not Nancy Ajram.” The need to move to more commercial musical business certainly crosses her mind, though. “If a big star asked me, “Do you want to do a duet with me?” I probably would say yes, but I don’t know if I would say yes for the right reasons.”
In the final song ‘Enta Habibi’ (You are my Lover), the band, once again, proved to have a better grasp on the art of entertainment than the star, as each one of them drew applause from the audience in turn, by their skilful command of their instruments. At this point, Atlas finally decided to stop reading the lyrics to her own songs from a board in front of her and to start belly-dancing, moving around the stage after tying a white scarf around her fire red galabyia trying to mimic the famous Middle Eastern dance style without a great deal of success.
At the end of the day, expectations were running so high, that it might have been difficult for any performer to reach them, however Atlas didn’t come close and didn’t even seem to be trying.