Natacha Atlas released her third solo album in February 1999. Like its predecessors Diaspora and Halim, Gedida strives to blend the melodic delicacy and technical refinement of North African Arabic music with the digital flow of Western dance music - and, like its predecessors, it's an evocative, undulating success.
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Nobody is better qualified to make this bewitching blend than Natacha. She's of Egyptian ancestry, and her family moved through Palestine from Meknes in Morocco some generations ago. She was born in an Arabic quarter of Brussels, and spent some time in Northampton as a teenager before returning to Brussels. For the last five years, she has been spending as much time as possible in Cairo, strengthening her bonds with her roots, immersing herself in shaabi, Egypt's indigenous bluesy pop music, and writing songs in Arabic. She brings this unique array of influences to bear on her music not simply by patchworking them together, but by synthesizing them into something thrillingly new. Gedida means simply "new " in Arabic.
Produced and written (mostly) by longtime associates Tim Whelan and Hamid Mantu of TGU, much of Gedida was recorded in Egypt, and it will be released throughout North Africa and the Middle East where Natacha has an expanding following - a previous single ("Amulet") was awarded the jury's "Grand Prix" at the prestigious "Nuit Du Clip" hosted and presented by the MCM international network in Tunisia. Natacha has spoken with admiration of the shaabi singers who pride themselves on their "ga'ree", or daring, and push their songs against the limits of what is possible in the genre. In her music, she does the same thing. Natacha is respectful of classical technique and punctilious about getting her Arabic right - even going to the lengths of re-recording three songs for the Arab version of the album so that the pronunciation would not transgress the stringent requirements of radio in the Gulf States. But despite this devotion to detail as far as language is concerned, her lyrical and musical daring is evident throughout Gedida. "Bastet" for example, animates an unashamedly political lyric - "the endless flow of distorting political and religious belief systems acts like an addiction" - with scratching and bustling drum and bass rhythms. And "Malabeya" generates the same breathless momentum with skittering shaabi percussion.
Natacha's lyrics plug directly into ancient dreams and timeless emotions - in "Bahlam", she sings of "the dreams of girls that have not changed for a thousand years" - and her music is similarly expansive. It's cinematic scope is evident not only in the breadth of instrumentation and emotional sweep of epics like "Kifaya", "Ezzay" and "The Righteous Path" - where the arrangements call to mind the eclectic, instinctive charm of Ennio Morricone as they enfold Natacha's arabesque vocals - but also in the presence of an imagistic song like "Mon Amie La Rose", a lament which was originally performed by Francoise Hardy, and which introduces a note of bittersweet Gallic melancholy. Natacha speaks French as well as she speaks English, and the ability to conduct interviews in that language has contributed to her success on the other side of the channel - she has sold approaching 100,000 albums in France, appeared on French national TV several times, and she is scheduled to play at the prestigious 5000-capacity Paris Olympia in the Spring. Gedida's cinematic feel gets even stronger with the bewitching closing track, "One Brief Moment", which Natacha wrote and recorded in collaboration with soundtrack composer David Arnold. Natacha's relationship with Arnold goes back to1995, when they worked on the soundtrack to the Kurt Russell film "Stargate", and she also contributed to his Shaken Not Stirred compilation of James Bond songs with a spellbinding rendition of "From Russia With Love". "One Brief Moment", which will be released as a single in April, is a heady, breathy pulse of a song which benefits from luxurious production and which - as Natacha's first vocal in English - may be more accessible for listeners in Great Britain. Singing in English is not something that Natacha has felt able to do before, but she clearly rose to the challenge on this occasion.
Natacha has enjoyed in recent years the enthusiastic support of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, who share her passionate interest in North African music - she and Transglobal Underground were special guests on the 1998 Page and Plant European Tour, and they were in attendance at a vibrant Improv Theatre gig in London in February. That gig marked the beginning of a hectic period of touring to accompany the release of Gedida - highlights of which included sold-out appearances at the 3500-capacity Olympia in Paris and the 2000-capacity Shepherd's Bush Empire in London. Gedida was very well received in the British press : Mojo described the album as "Atlas's finest hour" and offered "two thumbs up" Mojo, while Sunday Times wrote "worthy of wonder is the organic power of the music, as is the singer's soaring, resonant voice ... the most powerful tune ("The Righteous Path") is like a meeting between a Moroccan dance band and My Bloody Valentine, scored by John Barry. It shudders to a huge climax and is the best of an intoxicating bunch."
Despite that UK acclaim, Natacha's profile continues to rise most impressively on the continent. In France, Gedida has sold more than 80,000 copies (the single "Mon Amie La Rose" has notched up nearly 130,000 sales) and enthusiasm is similarly high in Spain, Italy and Belgium.
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