Egypt, home to Nefertiti, Cleopatra and other dazzling Pharaonic queens, is caught between the sword and the wall in the "war on terror." But it's still a land of exotic divas, and the Wisconsin Union Theater's World Stage series kicks off with a pitch for global peace as 21st-century nightingale of the Nile Natacha Atlas sends shivers down your spine (Tuesday, Sept. 19, 8 p.m.).
Atlas wasn't born Egyptian. She grew up Muslim, moving between Brussels' Moroccan streets and London. As a teen in Belgium she hooked up with cousins who were dancers. "I learned to dance fast. It was already in me, you know?" she says. "I worked in Arabic nightclubs as a belly dancer before my singing career took off."
She sang with a Belgian salsa band, a London-based reggae punk outfit and globetrotting world-beat collective Transglobal Underground before going solo in the mid-'90s. Today Cairo and London are her dual home base. From there she sweeps across Europe and Africa playing her own brand of Egyptian pop.
Atlas crosses musical frontiers, choosing eclectic collaborators like Sinead O'Connor, the Indigo Girls, subversive U.K. classical composer Jocelyn Pook and film-score wizard David Arnold, whose credits include the James Bond pics from '97 on. Over the course of her decade-long solo career Atlas has produced six albums, weaving ever-evolving musical tapestries from her own geographic-genealogical heritage and her torchy, ululating voice.
"My singing's definitely Arabic," she says. "Nothing but that comes across in my melodies. I use quarter-tone scales, but I often cross Arab rhythms with Western ones. The spacing in R&B and dub works really well."
But lately she's working in a lush, acoustic, jazzy-classical mode. "No rap, no dub," she says, "but it's still Arabic music infused with Western elements."
Her acoustic ensemble - the one she's bringing to the Union Theater - includes Egyptian percussionist Ali Minyawi and British bassman Steve Leake, who've both been playing with her for years. Also on the tour is accordionist Gamal el Kordy, a major Arab musician who got his start playing with Abdel Halim Hafez, an Egyptian singing and cinema idol of the '50s.
Atlas' point of departure for the acoustic tour, she says, is the divine Feiruz, a potent-voiced '50s legend from Lebanon who still reaps awards and reportedly once sued Madonna for plagiarism. Atlas does Feiruz tunes, and also some of her own.
Among Feiruz's early hits were melancholy Middle East love songs and Western dance numbers arranged as Arabic music. "She loved lush string arrangements with an Arabian base," Atlas says. "It's a style that really expresses me very well. With this acoustic set I'm trying to show that people from the Arab world were fusing East/West elements long before I came on the scene."
It's a fusion that transcends musical boundaries, spilling into the spheres of human relations and diplomacy. "With my music, I'm trying to say there can be understanding between the Eastern and Western worlds. We have to work on it, but we can find common ground. And we can learn from our interesting differences."