Natacha Atlas Ayeshteni

Much has been said about Natacha Atlas' mixed roots, which are said to be Jewish, Palestinian, Egyptian, as well as thoroughly Western European. The speculation aside, her music is a positive testament to what can happen when Maghreb musical influences meld with urban dance music. Ayeshteni is Atlas's fourth release in just six years of her solo career, and typical to her style it offers songs drenched in Arabic string orchestration, oud and dharabuka. The influences as always remain, ranging from Egyptian vocalists Abdel Halim Hafez, the great diva Omme Kolsoum and Peruvian singer Yma Sumac. It is less brilliant than Halim and Gedida released in 1997 and 1999, respectively. In Halim, the brilliant vocalist and dancer trained in traditional raq shari belly dancing, expanded her vocal range and paid kudos to Hafez by delving into more traditional operatic songs whilst offering up infectious dance floor worthy tracks. Gedida pushed the challenges one step further by experimenting with danceable beats that verged on the drum & bass genre. Atlas even did a politically astute hip-hop-like number critiquing the state of affairs regarding the Jewish-Arab conflict; a theme she constantly returns to. In comparison to those, Ayeshteni is not a great leap, but it is beautifully produced and offers up some alluring surprises, such as a cover of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You," with Arabic vocal nuances adding new verve to the old classic. The highlight of the album is her cover of Jacques Brel's "Ne Me Quitte Pas," which has all the emotional resonance of her previous rendition of "Mon Amie La Rose," by Francoise Hardy. Atlas rarely goes wrong and has grown as a vocalist and songwriter over the years and this album, while no landmark effort for her, is still a brilliant listen from start to finish. (Mantra)