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El Sombrero

Multicultural Muses

Music should have no boundaries, but record labels think otherwise. The record industry constantly devises ever narrowing categories, from new soul to ska pop to indie rock. And what about the sounds that don’t fit, that defy labeling?

There’s plenty of music that refuses to be boxed in, even under the generous umbrella of global music. Amel Larrieux, Chantal Chamandy, and Natacha Atlas all create music that combines Indian, Middle Eastern, and African rhythms with modern mixes of soul, pop, and rock. They stir fusions of traditional and contemporary sounds for tunes that never fall completely into either category.

Labels have been trying to neatly cram Larrieux into the neo-soul category for years, but it never worked. For one thing, she’s too eclectic, both musically and culturally, with her Frida Kahlo braids and African American, French, and English background, to be pushed into such a tight space. So she did what any self-respecting artist does: She formed her own label, Bliss Life, and never looked back. Her recently released third solo CD, Morning, reflects the dizzying range of Larrieux’s musical style, shifting from soulful, folky ballads to uptempo jazz with hints of Middle Eastern melodies.

Opening with the upbeat samba rhythms of “Trouble,” the singer combines a chirpy delivery with jazz-infused scatting for a danceable yet complex song. On the other hand, “Weary” showcases Larreiux’s emotional interpretation coupled with sharp songwriting: “Whoever said that love was overrated/must not be getting none.” This is underscored with a stealthy tabla beat. The 10-track album offers a balance of her musical skills, from her willowy vocals weaving between talking drums on “Earn My Affection” to the funk and bass of “Mountain Of When.” Morning doesn’t sound like anything you’d hear on the radio or MTV and that’s what makes it a worthy listen.

Born in Egypt to a Greek-Egyptian father and a Lebanese mother, raised in Montreal and billed as the Egyptian Jennifer Lopez, Chamandy embodies globalization. Make no mistake however, this sultry performer is a pop singer, heavy emphasis on the top-40. Her first single, the percolating, tabla spiced “You Want Me,” has already climbed Britain’s dance charts and though she boasts a lovely, fluid voice, she uses it the same way her Montreal song sister Celine does, with lots of over-the-top drama.

Chamandy’s 14-track Love Needs You (Ninemuse) sounds like the aural version of a fusion restaurant – English lyrics accented with splashes of Spanish, French, and Arabic and topped with Middle Eastern and Indian instrumentation. She plays her exoticism like a Bollywood violin; Egyptian nuances with a J.Lo pop sensibility is exactly what you get. The first track, “Zindegi,” sums it up with breathy lovelorn vocals couched in Middle Eastern darboukas. “You Want Me” stands out with a teasing delivery tossed with throbbing tablas and her Pakistani collaborator Subir Dev’s ethereal chants. A few tunes, like the frothy Latin ballad “Feels Like Love” and the overblown, Indian-influenced “Take A Chance,” stray too far into Dion-anthem territory, but overall the CD provides an accessible blend of global pop sounds.

With a throaty voice drenched in the heady influences of Morocco, Egypt, and Palestine, Atlas doesn’t just sing, she caresses words until they submit to her will. The queen of multicultural music since she burst onto the scene in the ’90s with Transglobal Underground, Atlas is noted for her restless and ingenious experimentations. She marries Middle Eastern music with drum and bass, hip-hop, Bollywood, and French chanson with unaffected ease and charm. Mish Maoul (Mantra) finds her returning to her North African roots with spectacular success.

From the first few hypnotic notes of “Oully,” the haunting opening tune she sings with Temple Of Sound‘s Nick Page, it’s apparent Atlas is serious. No dabbling with cute gimmicks; no more elaborate sound experimentations. This album presents all the music Atlas claims with authority and sincerity. Backed by luminous string arrangements by the Golden Sound Studio Orchestra Of Cairo, as well as healthy doses of oud, gasba flute, and ghaita, the CD vibrates with innovation and authenticity.

“Feen” serves up an unlikely yet flavorful, booty-shaking gumbo of hip-hop beats, R&B verses, and Middle Eastern crooning. “Hayati Inta” swirls with Tuareg claps and pounding Arabic rhythms, and “Ghanwa Bossanova” whips together sinewy Middle Eastern delivery over a groovy bossa nova melody. Mish Maoul is a rich stew, but it will certainly feed all the listeners starving to death on a limited recording industry diet.

Natacha Atlas appearing 9/18 at the World Music Festival in Chicago.

– Rosalind Cummings-Yeates

Filed Under: Monthly

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