Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Natacha Atlas - Transglobal Underground (DVD)

This DVD was put out simultaneously with the CD, The Best of Natacha Atlas. If you are not familiar with Natacha, The Best of is a good place to start, but all of her recordings (except the Remix Collection) are fabulous. If you are already a Natacha fan, this DVD is well worth getting your hands on.

It’s not perfect, however. I’m just not a big fan of the songs Natacha does in English and French, and there are too many of these here: “When I Close My Eyes” (twice--as a video and in concert), “One Brief Moment,” “I Put A Spell On You,” and “Mon Amie La Rose” (twice). I’ve always found Natacha’s Arabic numbers much more compelling and innovative. Fortunately there are enough Arabic numbers here to make the DVD worthwhile. Best of the Natacha Atlas videos are the first four, “Mistaneek,” “Yalla Chant,” “Leysh Nat’arak,” and “Amulet.” “Mistaneek” and “Amulet” both show Natacha singing and belly dancing in a nightclub. “Yalla Chant” is shot in black-and-white and shows Natacha sitting in a typical London teashop, with a typical multiracial clientele. It features a cameo from Fun^Da^Mental’s Aki Nawaz, who shows up as one of the patrons. “Leysh Nat’arak” (which translates as, “why are we fighting?”) shows footage of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This makes sense for a song whose lyrics include the following lines (I translate from Arabic: “Why are we fighting/When we’re all together?...Between me and you there’s a long history...Let’s return to peace/Let’s make peace, we are brothers.” The video for “Mish Fadilak” is the least interesting of the Arabic numbers, because it is just too glitzy and overproduced, with seductive dancers covered in dark gauzy materials, with belly dance outfits underneath. It looks like it’s made to compete with the racy “video clips” so popular now in the Arab world (on this, see abuaardvark.typepad.com), but for me, it’s not what Natacha Atlas is all about.

There are four Transglobal Underground (TGU) videos from ‘93-’94, in the days when Natacha was featured in the group as singer and belly dancer. (She turned to solo work in 1996). The vids are not terribly interesting or innovative, but are fun to see, and they give you a sense of what Transglobal was about in its early days. Best of all is the video for “Temple Head,” which mostly shows footage of TGU in concert, and gives us a visual representation of all the dizzying global elements that went into TGU’s music. For a couple years, TGU and its “global dance fusion” really blew it up in England, but then the very white and very English Britpop (Oasis, Pulp, Blur and the like) came along and marginalized TGU and similar bands. But check out TGU’s latest release, Impossible Broadcasting, which represents a return to the kind of great music they were putting out over ten years ago. (As for Britpop, Damon Albarn of Blur at least has moved away from “classic British rock,” as evidenced by his work with Gorillaz and the Moroccan elements on Think Tank, Blur’s 2003 release.)

Then there are six songs from a Natacha concert recorded at Union Chapel, London in June 2003. I find this material a bit disappointing, I’m afraid, as I saw Natacha perform in concert in Detroit the following month, and the Detroit concert was much more rocking, raucous, and funky than what is shown here from Union Chapel. In summer 2003 she was touring in support of her May release, Something Dangerous, which I think is the funkiest and most experimental of Natacha’s releases to date. When I talked to her backstage in Detroit after the show, she said she’d been listening to Missy Elliott a lot while working on Something Dangerous. But the live footage at least gives a good taste of the overall funky vibe of her US concerts on the number “Eye of the Duck,” from “Something Dangerous.” It has a dancehall feel, provided by vocalist Chardel (from Jamaica) who opens the song. The rest of “Eye of the Duck” is a wonderful duet between Natacha (singing in Arabic) and Inder Goldfinger (singing in English). Goldfinger used to work with Natacha in the Transglobal days. Another invaluable feature of the concert footage is the consistently brilliant keyboard work of Gamal El Kordy. I got to meet Gamal after the Detroit show, and was simply amazed to learn that he used to play accordion and keyboards with vocalist ‘Abd al-Halim Hafiz, one of the giants of Egyptian music. Gamal looks to be in his mid-fifties, like your regular middle-aged Egyptian, and it is hard to believe the wild sounds that emanate from his keyboards. And hard to imagine that he got his start as a teenager, playing accordion for ‘Abd al-Halim. (But maybe it’s not so strange. In the interview footage, Natacha says that Jay-Z was also an influence on Something Dangerous. Jay-Z’s 2000 hit, “Big Pimpin,’” is based on a sample from the ‘Abd al-Halim Hafiz song “Khusara.”)

Finally, there’s footage of an interview Natacha did with an Egyptian t.v. station, in Arabic (and a lot of English). There’s some interesting material here, most notably the info that the title “Something Dangerous” really was meant (as many suspected) as a statement about the run-up to the Iraq war. And what I didn’t know is that the title song includes some samples from anti-war demonstrations.

This is meant just to be a rough description of this DVD. In sum, if you dig Natacha, I think this is worth getting.

(There is lots written on Natacha Atlas, and a “google” will get you lots of sources. I wrote an article that focuses mostly on her first release, Diaspora (but also discusses Halim and Gedida), entitled “Islamic Hip-Hop vs. Islamophobia: Aki Nawaz, Natacha Atlas, Akhenaton.” It appears in Global Noise: Rap and Hip-Hop Outside the USA, ed. Tony Mitchell.

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