Music and Life: Telling it like it is

Plato had it right: “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” Nietzsche was more succinct: “Without music, life would be a mistake”. Both were alluding to the strong link between making music and being alive; music is the sound of our soul.

For 30 years, Natacha Atlas has had a globally renowned career, with at least a dozen albums in her name and numerous collaborations with Peter Gabriel, Jah Wobble, Transglobal Underground, Jocelyn Pook, Seckou Keita, Joss Stone, Nitin Sawhney, Jean Michel Jarre, numerous Egyptian Shaabi, Jazz musicians, orchestras, chamber quartets, rappers and hip-hop artists and film sountracks.

Central to each of these pieces of work has been her remarkable voice, at once something golden yet also mature, rich, supple and exquisitely controlled.

Here’s Natacha Atlas’s latest single: The Outer, taken from the forthcoming EP The Inner and The Outer, a musical response to the complex emotions we all felt during the pandemic.

A pioneer in what was known as ‘world music’, Natacha Atlas transcended any restrictions, carving out a career which also saw her become Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations at Mary Robinson’s invitation, who said at the time “she embodies the message that there is a strength in diversity. That our differences – be they ethnic, racial or religious – are a source of riches to be embraced rather than feared.”

Growing up in an Anglo-Egyptian household between Belgium, the UK and Egypt, Atlas’s musical influences included the great Egyptian singers like Umm Kulthum, Abdel Halim Hafez and Lebanese legend Fairuz. Alongside those voices were the sounds in Bollywood films, the rhythms of Reggae and the energy of punk.

London’s musical melting pot played its part in her musical life when Atlas joined Transglobal Underground, allegedly giving a vocal performance that reduced everyone in the studio to tears … before she lightened the mood by belly dancing round the control room wearing a copy of the Daily Mirror.

“People think I’m this exotic goddess, but I’m not really. I’m more of a punk girl from London.”

Today Atlas is on the cusp of releasing a new EP, The Inner and The Outer, made with long-term collaborator Samy Bishai.

The EP is a sonic exploration of the retreat into an inner world in the face of the horror and dystopia of the last two years. The Inner and The Outer follows the breathtaking jazz album Strange Days, released in late 2019, which I also recommend.

While London sat in cold grey weather a few weeks ago, the South of France (where Atlas and Bishai are based) basked in sunshine. Our conversation crossed borders, literally.

As Natacha ushered the cat out, we were joined by Samy Bishai. Together, we discussed Natacha Atlas’s latest EP, The Inner and The Outer, her last album Strange Days, and her musical journey from beats, sample loops and lush orchestration towards an improvisational jazz style.

We also hear about The Odyssey, a remarkable collaboration with Hervé Koubi’s company of dancers which beautifully blurs the line between music and dance, as it tells the story of Odysseus and Calypso who is played by Natacha Atlas (see below).

Our conversation was an insight into the life of two musicians making vital and evolving music. In the hubbub of conversation across borders the sound occasionally faded out, but it took nothing away from these incredible artists.

Listen to Natacha Atlas and Samy Bishai discussing Music and Life with me in this latest episode of Telling It Like It Is.

Listen to Music and Life: Telling It Like It Is with Natacha Atlas and Samy Bishai

You can access the other episodes of Telling Like It Is here.

Past guests (and the subjects we discuss) include Professor Corinne Fowler (History), Chinonyerem Odimba (Home), and Ian Douglas (Technology).