Back to the Future with Natacha Atlas

NATACHA ATLAS & the Mazeeka Ensemble
Ana Hina
World Village 450005

This album evokes a 1940s movies set in Middle East in which dodgy characters haunt the smoky shadows of a dark souq. Picture Natacha Atlas as the singer whose voice slices through the blue cigarette pall. Her material is culled from film scores, traditional sources, and the back catalogue of famed Lebanese singer Fairuz. Covering Fairuz is akin to a French chanteuse trying to do Edith Piaf and would be a vain attempt for most, but not for Atlas. Her undulating wails could wake the dead, and she has the range of an operatic soprano. Her supple and multi-colored voice also allows for bold experiments, such as a North African take on a “Black is the Color,” and a Frido Kahlo poem set to music that’s one part Mexico and two parts Morocco. All is backed by a gloriously retro orchestra.


Still a Contender

Nobody Left to Crown
Verve Forecast B0011631-02

After opening Woodstock and recording twenty-eight albums, sixty-seven-year-old Richie Havens could rest on his laurels. Instead, he’s released a Grammy-worthy record. Havens is in superb voice, his trademark gravel now smoother, mellower, and sweeter. But time has not dulled his roar. In “Say It Isn’t So” Havens expresses incredulity of being suckered into another “war without end.” If you miss the point, he follows with a brilliant acoustic cover of The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” If you’re waiting to be led to glory, Havens insists there’s “nobody left to crown” and that “scoundrels rule the roost.” And the slave master in “Fates” sounds a lot like Dubya. Havens still wails on his open-tuned Guild like a man-possessed, but his mature singing is a clinic in how to be soulful and poignant without being histrionic.


Name That Genre!

Home Sweet Home
Manivette Records 274-1600

And now for something completely different…. Moussu T are a quartet from Marseilles who sing in French, English, and Occitan and that’s just the tip of a very eclectic iceberg. The opening track, “La cabussada” leads you to think this is a sea song ensemble along the lines of Cabestan, but I can assure you it’s the only thing on the album whose genre is identifiable. If you took a jug band, a swing group, some stride jazz, a dash of blues, some over-the-top music hall, the soundtrack from a 1940s Loony Tunes cartoon, and some refugees from Spike Jones’s band, and tossed them into a blender, you might get something approaching Moussu T. This one will have you smiling from start to finish; just don’t try to figure out what it is.


It Takes a Village

The Imagined Village
Real World Records W147

Since the dawning of the industrial age ethnomusicologists have bemoaned the disappearance of traditional villages and the “authentic” culture that went with it. Those villages were more romantic than real in the first place, so what if we just moved on? Could one then re-imagine village music in ways relevant for contemporary society? That’s the challenge brilliantly taken up by English artists who cut their teeth on traditional music—such as Billy Bragg, Martin Carthy, The Copper Family, and The Watersons—and those who dabble in contemporary idioms such as Transglobal Underground, Afro Celt Sound System, and Sheila Chandra. Why not a hip-hop version of “Tamlyn,” a Bollywood rendition of “Cold Haily Rainy Night,” a funk-laced “Acres of Ground,” or an electric jug band country dance tune? Why not indeed! This is the most original thing to come out of the folk music community in years.