Lucid Culture


CD Review: Natacha Atlas & the Marzeeka Ensemble – Ana Hina

Aptly titled – Ana Hina means “I’m Here” in Arabic – this is Atlas’ best album, a stunning departure for her and in a best-case scenario, a career-defining moment. Atlas was the frontwoman/bellydancer in Transglobal Underground, whose dubious achievement was bringing Middle Eastern melody into electronic dance music (or further electronicizing Middle Eastern pop, depending on how you look at it). As the soft-focus, red-tinted photo on the back cover of this cd makes clear, much of it is a homage to legendary Lebanese siren Fairuz. Atlas’ sweet, high soprano doesn’t have Fairuz’ gravitas or drama. Instead, she imbues the songs with a remarkable subtlety and sensitivity: she’s arrived, no doubt about it. Rather than using a big string orchestra as would typically back Fairuz and her contemporaries, Atlas and producer/pianist Harvey Brough utilize a smaller acoustic combo who nonetheless provide lush, rich atmospherics. This is one of those rare albums where the joy and delight of the musicians literally flies off the cd.


It opens auspiciously with the big swell of the strings on Ya Laure Hobouki (Laure, My Love to You), a Fiaruz song by the Rahbani Brothers, the great Lebanese songwriting team from the 50s and 60s. With a similarly anguished, haunting feel, Beny Ou Benak Eih (What’s Going On With Us) was originally recorded by iconic Egyptian crooner Hafez  and features quartertone accordion by brilliant Egyptian player Gamal Al Kordy. The title track – an original by Atlas and Brough – is a sweetly swaying “habibi” number that gently builds to a crescendo on rivulets by Al Kordy. La Shou El Haki (Why Should We Talk) is another Rahbani Brothers hit written for Fairuz, flowing along on gentle piano cascades. Black Is the Colour recasts the Nina Simone classic as Mediterranean cabaret.


La Teetab Alayi (Don’t Blame Me) is a Rahbani Brothers classic, a powerful, insistent Levantine dance song that’s been covered by thousands, and this one ranks with the best of them. La Vida Callada (The Unspoken Life) sets a poem by Frida Kahlo to a noir Mexican cabaret melody written by multi-instrumentalist Clara Sanabras and played on piano by Brough with a stark string arrangement. Hayati Inta Reprise is a rearrangement of a song on Atlas’ dance cd Mishmaoul, slinking along over a bluesy acoustic bassline a la The Fever with a long, hypnotic accordion solo from Al Kordy and finally an intense, unexpected crescendo. El Asil (Sunset) is a dark, bouncy, suspenseful cabaret number originally recorded by Hafez, East greeting the West over shisha outside a Cairo jazz club. Lammebada is a beautiful, ancient, traditional number that opens with a taqsim (improvisation) by the ney flute as the oud pedals a single note. And then the strings rush in. He Hesitated is a brutally timely original about a soldier watching a door, pondering whether or not to shoot as the strings give the scene a haunting backdrop. The cd closes with the stately El Nown (Sleep), floating on stately layers of vocals. Purists who grew up listening to mono bootleg cassettes of Fairuz or Oum Kalthoum won’t be disappointed; newcomers to this kind of music will be rapt. This one’s destined for a lot of top-ten lists this year. 

September 8, 2008 - Posted by | Music, Reviews

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