Natacha Atlas: engaging dystopia on new album Strange Days
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Natacha Atlas began exploring jazz and Middle Eastern melodies on her 2015 album Myriad Road with Franco-Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf. She goes one step further on Strange Days, co-written and produced with violinist Samy Bishai. An accomplishment for the vocalist at the height of her talents, but who says she couldn't have done it without Bishai.
"It's probably the most accomplished album and all the most accomplished albums I’ve made have been with Samy Bishai," Atlas tells us just ahead of the album launch at the Bal Blomet in Paris.
"I’ve learned more about musical theory with Samy because he was more classically trained than I was. There’s lots of things that I can do on this album that I could not have done 10 years previously."
Both artists are Anglo-Egyptian and share a love of the Arabic language. Bishai admits it was challenging bringing jazz and Arabic music together.
"On the surface they’re really incompatible," he says. "Arabic music is largely modal and uses lots of untempered scales that have quarter tones in them which makes it very difficult to make harmonies around them. Whereas jazz is largely obsessed with harmony."
He says not only did Atlas rise to the challenge "she surprised me with just how good she was".
Atlas and Bishai wrote the album together "throwing ideas backwards and forwards". They're extremely complicit, completing one anothers' thoughts and phrases as they talk. On stage, notably with dystopian love songs like Min Baad, it's hard to decipher who is pulling the (heart)strings.
The album benefits from other first-rate musical support with Hayden Powell (trumpet and flugelhorn), Robinson Khoury (trombone), Alcyona Mick (piano), Andy Hamill (double bass), Asaf Sirkis (drums) Laurie Lowe (drums) and guests Joss Stone, Tanya Wells and Sofiane Saidi.
Bishai has described the album as a "darkly dystopian Arabic-infused jazz fantasy" a way of avoiding pigeon-holing their oevure. Is it jazz, world music, world jazz, modern Arabic? Who cares. It makes for a great listening experience.
To find out more about where the dystopia lies, the influence of Fairuz and the Rahbani Brothers and making bridges between Arabic music and jazz, listen to the interview. You might also care to subscribe to the podcast.