File spoon-archives/postanarchism.archive/postanarchism_2003/postanarchism.0307, message 75


Subject: [postanarchism] Natacha Atlas and Transglobal Underground
Date: Mon, 28 Jul 2003 03:53:36 -0400


Nice to be updated on Autechre (I've got Incunabula on cassette somewhere).
Today, I've actually been enjoying the minimalist dub of Scorn (though it's
very derivative of PiL's Second Edition).

Note, when I mentioned my own appreciation of globally influenced techno, I
was thinking most of all  about Natacha Atlas and Transglobal Underground.
I started listening to the Nation Records bands (Fun Da Mental, Transglobal
Underground, and Loop Guru) about ten years ago, when they were all putting
out their first albums.

Below is an excerpt for a very interesting (though very long) paper,
"Islamic Hip Hop vs. Islamophobia" (http://comp.uark.edu/~tsweden/IAM.html),
which I simply stumbled across while I was Google searching for stuff to
quote in a music-related entry in our Common Wheel Collective journal.  I'm
not sure if this is that appropriate for the Postanarchism list (though the
music certainly can be describe as postmodern); probably it would be most
appropriate for that new hybrid-identity anarchist list (which I haven't
subscribed to...yet).  But I do think Natacha and TGU are both liberatory
and subversive, while at the same time being very melodic and listenable.
(This is *especially* true in the atmosphere after 9-11.)  And since we're
on a roll of posting interesting papers/reviews about electronica...

_________________________________-

Natacha Atlas: A Human Gaza Strip

Although Transglobal Underground (TGU)13 and their lead vocalist Natacha
Atlas are not, strictly speaking, hip-hop artists, I include them here
because hip-hop is one of the key constituent elements of their work. It has
been difficult, in fact, for music critics and the music industry to pin a
label on TGU's music. Among the many contenders are: ethno-dance, global
fusion dance-trance,14 ethnodelic, dub hop, global groove, world dance
fusion, cross-cultural funk, Arab funk, polymorphic trance, ethnic techno,
radical global pop, world techno, dub-rave-dance-trance-world,
cross-cultural fusion, etc. ("In Town" n.d.; Taylor 1997; Anderson 1997;
Wright n.d.; Hesmondhalgh 1995). Most recently, TGU has been marketed in the
US under the category of "electronica." TGU's ambiguous position at the
borders of "dance" and "world" musics has given rise to criticism, in
particular from John Hutnyk, who in a trenchant article entitled "Adorno at
Womad" says of TGU's performance at the 1994 World of Music and Dance
[WOMAD] Festival at Reading: "How is it that white British performers can
wear Nepalese masks on stage, abstracted from their social and cultural
context, without critical comment?" (1997: 109). Hutnyk goes on to criticize
the routinization of "global sampling" in the world music scene as well as
the depoliticized "hybridity-talk" that pervades both musical and cultural
studies discourses, singling TGU as an exemplar of such depoliticized yet
critically-hailed "hybridity." As counter-examples of bands that are
"hybrid," non-essentialist, yet politically progressive, Hutnyk cites
Fun^Da^Mental and Asian Dub Foundation, which are both directly involved in
the anti-racist struggle and which their politics at events like WOMAD.
David Hesmondhalgh (1995) raises similar issues, arguing in particular that
TGU's musical sampling practices should not be hailed--as music critics
typically do--as instances of radical postmodernism and multiculturalism but
instead seen as modernist appropriations that produce primitivist, exoticist
and romanticizing significations of the Other.

Without disputing that TGU has exoticist and appropriating tendencies, I
want to suggest that if one focuses on "Islam," the picture looks somewhat
different. I will argue, contra Hutnyk and Hesmondhalgh, that TGU and
especially singer Natacha Atlas do articulate a progressive politics,
although not in as overtly "militant" a fashion as Fun^Da^Mental, and that
"Islam" plays a critical role in this regard. But first, it is necessary to
clarify TGU's image. It is incorrect to describe TGU as "white," or even
"predominantly white." Band member Count Dubullah, in response to such
claims, notes his own Greek/Albanian background (in England, these ethnic
categories are not so clearly coded as "white" as in the US; moreover,
Albanians are Muslim15), that Natacha Atlas has "Arabic" roots, and that, in
performance, the band expands to include Africans, Indians and Sikhs
(Morrell 1996). TGU moreover is not outside the orbit of progressive Asian
bands and anti-racist activity, for it performs at anti-racist festivals, on
the same bill as the "political" bands.16 Hutnyk's model "political" band
Asian Dub Foundation in fact got its start on the concert circuit by opening
for Transglobal Underground on several dates in late 1994 (Luke n.d.) and
has since opened for Natacha Atlas solo dates.17 Finally, TGU records for
Aki Nawaz's Nation Records, has shared personnel with Fun^Da^Mental (Count
Dubullah and Neil Sparkes have recorded with both groups), and several of
its singles have been remixed by Aki Nawaz.

I would argue that it would be mistaken therefore to insist on a sharp
distinction between "political" Asian dance bands like Fun^Da^Mental and
Asian Dub Foundation and a de-politicized exotic/hybrid/postmodernist
musical tendency (world dance fusion) represented by TGU and Natacha Atlas.
Both genres are released (in the UK) by Nation Records; both Fun^Da^Mental
and TGU/Atlas have made a move away from indiscriminate use of the music of
the world as the source of samples and towards collaboration with
"indigenous" musicians.18 TGU could be regarded as one prong in Aki Nawaz
and Nation's Records multi-faceted strategy for progressive
cultural/political intervention within British popular culture. The
trajectory of TGU's work is clearly consistent with Aki's broadly-conceived
anti-racist politics, his "punk attitude," and his commitment to
"reshuffling the global sound archives" while at the same time "insist[ing]
on the primacy of their source material" (Toop 1993:14).19

TGU singer and solo artist Natacha Atlas is key to such a strategy. Natacha
once described herself as a "human Gaza Strip," which one press account
acutely glossed as referring to the "complex melange of influences?both
genetic and environmental--that have shaped her both as an individual and as
a performer" ("Natacha Atlas" n.d.). Natacha's "genetic influences" are
hybrid, to say the least: her father, a Middle-Eastern Jew, born in
Jerusalem; grandfather, "was born in Egypt, and his family came from
Palestine. He came to Europe when he was 15" (Nickson 1997); her mother, an
English hippie, fan of Pink Floyd, devotee of Gurdjieff (Barbarian 1996;
Assayas 1996). Appropriately enough, Natacha grew up in the Moroccan and
Jewish districts of Brussels, absorbing musics from both cultures and
listening to her father's old Arabic records (Ali 1995:53; Assayas 1996).
When her parents divorced, she relocated in England, and reportedly became
"Northampton's first Arabic rock singer" ("Natacha Atlas" n.d.).20 At age
24, she went back to Belgium, where she belly-danced professionally in Arab
and Turkish clubs and listened carefully to the Arab classicist musicians
accompanying her. She describes going back to Belgium as a "return to her
roots" (Barbarian 1996). By her own account, Natacha doesn't suffer from an
"identity problem," asserting rather that she feels equally at home in more
than one culture ("In Town" n.d.).

Natacha's primary Middle Eastern "genetic" background, therefore, is
Sephardi (or, to use the more politicized term, Mizrahi). Her
"identification" with Judaism therefore is rooted in the Middle East and is
affiliated (even by "blood," in some complicated and unspecified way) to
Islam. This is not as incongruous as it might appear from a
Eurocentric/Ashkenazi perspective, for as Ammiel Alcalay so carefully shows
in his After Jews and Arabs (1993), "Eastern" Jewry was for centuries
intensely integrated into Arabo-Islamic civilization. The title of Natacha's
first solo album, Diaspora (1997), refers, Natacha says, not just to the
"first dispersion of the Jews of Palestine but also those of all the races
that have suffered injustice...The uprooted are everywhere. Iraqis,
Yugoslavs or Palestinians..." (Barbarian 1996). It is noteworthy that all
the diasporic peoples she names are Muslim (majority) peoples--assuming that
that by "Yugoslavs" Natacha means Bosnian Muslims. One of Diaspora's most
compelling songs is entitled, "Laysh Nata'arak" (Why are we fighting?),
which goes:

Why are we fighting
When we're all together?...
Between me and you there is a long history...
Let's return to peace
Let's make peace, we are brothers

The song addresses its call for peace to Arabs and Israelis in Arabic (the
translation is mine), and therefore the primary Israeli addressees are the
majority second-class Mizrahi Jews.21 Moreover, Natacha sings, "Let's return
to peace [emphasis added]" (Yalla nirga' li-al-salām), evoking a time,
before the creation of Israel, of amicable relations between Arabic-speaking
Jews, Muslims and Christians in the Middle East.
The plaintive title cut from Diaspora elaborates on these themes. Natacha
sings, in Arabic:

My heart is wounded, my country...
Without you
And my life is torture
And the pain increases

Natacha's Arabic verses alternate with Neil Sparkes' dub poetry, which
addresses the English-speaking listener and emphasizes once again the
rootedness of Eastern Jews in the Middle East:

The Kabbala revealed
Aramaic whispers in Jaffa and Tel Aviv
Spirits of the desert skies and plains
For what shall we mourn and grieve
Mesopotamia and Ur of the Chaldeas
Descendants of the Sephardim
Trading tolerance and unity
>From Baghdad to the Promised Land
Children of Canaan
Daughter of the Maghreb

The song's achingly beautiful atmospherics evoke Atlas's feelings about her
own family's "uprooting": "I don't even know how we arrived in Belgium. I
feel a great sadness, a feeling of loss" (Barbarian 1996).22 For Natacha,
the diaspora is contemporary, a dispersion from the Arabo-Islamic Middle
East, where, until the creation of the state of Israel, Sephardi Jews were
"at home." This is a Mizrahi, not an Ashkenazi, European Jewish vision of
diaspora. As Alcalay (1993:1) observes:

The modern myth of the Jew as pariah, outsider and wanderer has, ironically
enough, been translated into the postmodern myth of the Jew as "other," an
other that collapses into the equation: writing=Jew=Book. By what sleight of
hand?...Such an exclusive address...ultimately obscures the necessity of
mapping out a space in which the Jew was native, not a stranger but an
absolute inhabitant of time and place.

At present Natacha, as a kind of riposte to the postmodern myth, chooses to
divide her time between London and...Cairo, rather than Tel Aviv or
Jerusalem.  [Note, she now lives in Washington, DC -- Richard]

Natacha voices her orientation toward "Islam" on "Dub Yalil" (from
Diaspora), where she sings the opening lines of the idhān, the Muslim call
to prayer "Allahu akbar, ashhadu an la allah illa Allah" (God is greatest, I
witness that there is no god but God), over a dub beat. But Natacha does not
complete the opening of the call to prayer, whose next phrase is, "wa
Muhammad rasūl Allah" (and Muhammad is the messenger of God). Instead, she
sings, "Allah ana bahibbak" (God, I love you). The fact that she recites the
idhān without mentioning the prophet Muhammad, that she sings this religious
text rather than "chants" it, that her singing is set to a dub-reggae beat,
and that she uses the phrase, "God I love you", all make this a highly
heterodox "Islamic" production. Nonetheless, the song testifies to her
Islamic affiliations. While growing up, Natacha states, her father used to
tell her about Judaism and her mother about Gurdjieff, but she wasn't
interested. Now, she asserts, "I feel myself to be very Muslim, in fact.
Sometimes I go to the mosque, last year I did [fasted during] Ramadan"
(Assayas 1996).

Islam is also critical to Natacha's understanding of her own and TGU's
cultural intervention in Britain. I would argue that, given an over-arching
atmosphere of Islamo- and Arabo-phobia and racist violence against
immigrants of Muslim origin, Natacha's and TGU's attempts to insert
Arabic/Middle Eastern music into the British public sphere attests to a
progressive cultural-political agenda. Natacha has been the key figure in
this subversive activity, beginning in 1990 with her work in world dance
fusion outfit ”Loca! (on the compilations Fuse and Fuse II) with Jah
Wobble's Invaders of the Heart (for instance, on Rising Above Bedlam) and
with Transglobal Underground, and finally in a solo capacity (while
continuing to work with TGU). She did vocals on Apache Indian's top 20 hit,
"Arranged Marriage"; the music press asserts, with typical hyperbole, that
she was the first woman to sing in Arabic on the television show, Top of the
Pops ("Natacha Atlas" n.d.).23 Natacha has also worked with Daniel Ash (on
Coming Down, 1991), and her vocals are featured in the film, Stargate. As
Natacha has gained visibility, she has tended to use more and more Arabic in
her singing, whereas her earlier recordings featured more vocals in Spanish
and French. Natacha's articulation of Arabic has become clearer as she has
gradually gained better control over the language, and her Arabic lyrics are
now also more elaborated (Small 1997). According to Atlas, "now, something
more [of Arabic music] is getting through [in Britain]. It's no longer an
alien sound" (Ali 1995:50). If the Arabic sonic presence is now somewhat
more "normalized" in Britain, this is due in no small part to Natacha
Atlas's efforts.

Moreover, Transglobal Underground's other core members have traveled in the
Middle East and have seriously studied Arab music, in particular, the
Eastern modes (māqamāt) and melodies (Small 1997; Twomey 1997). First
exposed to Arab and Iranian records by Sam Dodson (stage name: Salman Gita)
of Loop Guru (until recently, a Nation Records labelmate), later they
studied with Middle Eastern musicians, including Natacha's Egyptian
relative, 'ud player and composer Essam Rashad (Small 1997).More recently,
they also collaborate with Middle Eastern musicians, including Essam Rashad
(on TGU recordings and Diaspora) and Tunisian artists Walid and Rafiq
Rouissi (on Diaspora).24 TGU member Alex Kasiek claims that Arabs,
especially those living in the West, are pleased with what the group is
doing:

For a lot of Arabic people if you start playing Arabic music they see it as
a compliment. The West is contemptuous of their culture, they see [it] being
some sort of frightening "other." So they [Arabs] tend to find it as a mark
of respect. (Small 1997)

As for audiences in the Middle East, Atlas claimed in 1997 that her solo
recordings were considered too avant-garde for the mass market, but that she
had won acceptance for Diaspora among Moroccan youth (Snowden 1997:33).
Since then both Natacha and TGU have had more impact on Middle Eastern
markets. Natacha's 1997 album Halim (released in the US in 1998) has been
more successful , due no doubt to the fact that Halim (a tribute to the
canonical Egyptian singer 'Abd al-Halīm Hāfiz) sounds like a
sixties/seventies style Egyptian-Lebanese pop album, with the addition of
some dub and hip-hop beats. In July 1998, Natacha traveled to Beirut to
perform her single "Amulet," which has enjoyed some success in the region,
on Lebanese television station LBC.25Meanwhile in 1997, popular Egyptian
singer Hakim, interested in expanding his sales beyond the Egyptian market,
enlisted TGU's help in remixing a collection of Hakim's greatest hits.
Released in Egypt in 1998, the album (Shakl tānī/Remix) is a remarkable
fusion of Hakim's intense sha'bī vocalisms and TGU-style rhythms and deep
bass. Although I was unable to obtain sales figures, the Hakim/TGU album
seemed to be doing well in Cairo when I visited there in August 1998. Shakl
tānī is expected to be released in Europe soon. Meanwhile, Slam!, Hakim's
record company, assisted Natacha Atlas in the production of her new album,
Gedida, which was just released (February 199) in Europe. (It will be
released in the Arab world as Gazouri, minus a few tracks that are too
political or sexy).26

As for the non-Arabic speaking English audience, Natacha considers "Islam"
key to her success. The music press frequently calls attention to the
exotic, "chiffon-draped belly dancing" she does on stage with TGU
("Transglobal Underground" 1996), and she has been criticized in some
quarters for reproducing stereotypes of sexualized Middle Eastern women
(Hesmondhalgh 1995: 9).27 But Natacha seems to prefer to stress her
performances' spiritual appeal:

I love the profundity of Arabic singing and the formality of it, and the way
it seems to touch on the religious. I believe the Muslim call to prayer is
the sound of God, that's what ignites me and ignites Westerners who hear it
and are moved by it. ("Diaspora Finally Available" 1997)

Natacha is aware that the kids in the audience "don't know what the fuck I'm
singing about, but they have a feeling." When she hits the high notes, she
says, their eyes are shut, and "They look as though they're reaching for
Allah. It makes them feel good, spiritual" (Ali 1995:50).

So whereas Natacha's colleague Aki Nawaz employs "Islam" to shake up white
youth, Natacha employs "Islam" to bring them into her spiritual world. The
two strategies, I would argue, are complementary. The genius of TGU and
Natacha Atlas is their sly insertion of subtle attacks on Islamophobia into
a complex, multi-targeted, "club-friendly" (Wright n.d.) and upbeat,
danceable mix that blends hip-hop, techno, Indian film soundtracks, African
chants, and dub reggae with Middle Eastern stylings. While I think Hutnyk
and Hesmondhalgh raise important criticisms regarding the exoticizing
effects of TGU/Atlas performances and mixes and their appropriations of
un-credited samplings, I do not agree that TGU and Atlas simply produce
images of unmarked Otherness and a depoliticized notions of hybridity.
Instead, their hybridized music is heavily "Islamicized, " and therefore,
politically charged.28








   

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