NATACHA ATLAS as part of the SMALL WORLD MUSIC FESTIVAL at the Phoenix (410 Sherbourne), Friday (September 22), $25-$30. 416-645-9090, www.smallworldmusic.com. Rating: NNNNN
Natacha Atlas is busier than ever.
This is curious for a number of reasons. Though most people probably know Atlas based on her dance-club-friendly work as a vocalist for electronic world beat fusion collective Transglobal Underground or as the woman pop artists (Indigo Girls, Jah Wobble) and soundtrack producers (Danny Elfman, David Arnold) call on when they want to add a fetishistic "exotic" tone to poppier beat-driven fare, she's currently performing traditional-style Egyptian and Arabic songs with a completely acoustic ensemble.
Even more remarkable, though, is that in a dicey political climate where airlines confiscate shampoo bottles and any man with an Islamic-sounding name and a beard gets the evil eye at customs, Atlas - a proud Muslim who's described herself as "a human Gaza strip" - is in such high demand for tours across North America and the UK.
"I was surprised that we got a tour here this year," yawns a jet-lagged Atlas from Chicago. "But it's nice that, with the bad side of what's already happening politically over here, with all the misunderstandings around Muslim and Arab cultures, it seems people want to actually know the truth."
Atlas, who was born in a region of Belgium dominated by Moroccan culture and grew up in England, has frequently said that educating people about Arabic culture is one reason she draws on her Egyptian and Palestinian roots to create her hypnotic blend of belly dance, Arabic chants and modern Egyptian pop.
One of her strengths as an artist is her ability to effortlessly slip between more accessible pop forms and formal, traditional styles without breaking a sweat - or worrying about her work's commercial viability.
Atlas's latest disc, Mish Maoul (Mantra/Beggars), is a celebration of the North African music she heard growing up. For the most part, the CD soars through serpentine chants and rhythmic ululations, though she does throw in a couple of mainstream hiphop-style tracks (Feen and La Lil Khowf) for good measure. This is truly globalized music, the sound of MTV Base echoing through the bedrooms of Middle East teenagers and mingling with the Arabic pop seeping through the windows of taxis.
Being able to work within those more accessible frameworks means Atlas's message can connect to groups beyond the "already converted," as she calls them.
"When you bring traditional styles to the forefront of people's attention by putting them in more popular forms, people naturally do get curious."
She pauses. "Let me tell you a story. I did a show in Helsinki about 10 days ago. Afterwards, when I was signing some autographs, a young Finnish man came up and spoke to me in fluent, classical Arabic. His Arabic was better than mine! I asked why he knew how to speak so well, and he replied, 'Because of you. I discovered you 10 years ago because of your music, and it made me want to learn the language.'
"I was ecstatic," she says. "If I can make people get closer to Arabic culture and make them understand the real side instead of just stereotypes, then I've succeeded."