Alex Macpherson talks to the Kuwaiti artist, producer and writer Fatima Al Qadiri about her work, religion and the limitless possibilities of the internet for cultural exchange.
Two disparate albums all part of Kuwaiti artist's quest for knowledge
"From a very early age, I was curious about the world," explains the artist, producer and writer Fatima Al Qadiri. Her restless, wide-ranging work takes this curiosity as its starting point, but she doesn't just explore disparate cultures and genres, she delves into them and interrogates how they are represented. The way in which she manages to bend and twist what she discovers is what makes her one of the most startling and singular emergent electronic musicians around.
Appropriately, Al Qadiri is the product of a globally shaped background. Born in Senegal to Kuwaiti parents - her father was stationed there as a diplomat - and raised in Kuwait, Al Qadiri moved to New York (where she now resides) to study linguistics at the age of 17. As apt as that choice might seem in hindsight, Al Qadiri admits that it was completely and utterly random: "I couldn't study what I wanted to study - art or music - because the [Kuwaiti] ministry of education didn't approve of those subjects," she remembers. "And I was on scholarship. This was the only scholarship they sent to New York, so I took it because I just wanted to be there - I didn't care what I had to study."
Nevertheless, art and music were always going to be the fields in which Al Qadiri would end up. Exhibitions, curatorships and other assorted projects followed. Last year saw the release of her first two EPs under two separate identities - releases so different that you might not necessarily connect them unless you knew they were made by the same woman.
As the first of those identities, Ayshay - Arabic slang for "whatever" - the WARN-U EP saw Al Qadiri pay homage to the Islamic vocal anthems of her childhood, reconfiguring them through electronically treated vocal accappellas into disquieting drones and hymnal harmonies. Its three tracks - Warn-U, Jemsheed and Shaytan - drift like wreaths of smoke. While a surface reference point for some listeners may be Björk - whose 2004 album Medúlla is perhaps the most high-profile example of a cappella experimentation by a "pop" artist - perhaps a more accurate comparison might be the Brooklyn musician Julianna Barwick, whose own background growing up in rural American church choirs informs the way in which she uses layers and loops of her voice to create bewitching devotionals. Meanwhile, a 12-minute megamix of the entire EP by LA production duo Nguzunguzu adds instrumentation, but is less interested in making Ayshay's music accessible to confused beat freaks and is more concerned with shifting the strangeness sideways by using frantic percussion and sonorous chimes.
"I was really interested in the idea of a cappella and how to push the boundaries of it," explains Al Qadiri. "So much a cappella in the West isn't religious, and it's not very interesting: it's all harmony and Glee, you know? I wanted that clean quality that was in the accappellas of Shiite anthems."
Al Qadiri's second EP arrived in November and was released under her own name. As its title suggests, Genre-Specific Xperience is a formalist project, with each track reinterpreting a different genre - hip-hop, electro-tropicalia, dubstep, Gregorian trance, juke - both sonically and visually in accompanying videos. But it also has a visceral, physical impact.
The central melody of Hip-Hop Spa hangs in the air, cycling back on itself over and over again as though it has all the time in the world to luxuriate in its own notes. On D-Medley, melodies ripple over each other like waves lapping at a shore.
Things take a tougher, darker turn on How Can I Resist U, from the vocals pitch-shifted to resemble demon children to the urgently zigzagging synths and the rumbling bass, which are Al Qadiri's nod to a now long-gone era of dubstep. Corpcore uses the frantic footwork rhythms of Chicago juke to underpin its digital chords; its accompanying video cuts up footage of corporate offices and gyms to link the work ethics of club, office and exercise.
House fans will be long familiar with dance floor exhortations to "work": despite the ostensible opposition between club hedonism and gym asceticism, at root they share the sweat that comes from pushing one's physical limits. Similarly, Al Qadiri's visual interpretation of juke draws parallels between the corporate culture of mainstream Chicago and the work ethic of the city's underground juke producers. "Most of them have, like, 70 albums they can release today," she laughs. "They have this stamina and determination, almost like the nine-to-five ethic. But operating at different hours."
The EP's highlight is Vatican Vibes - another example of Al Qadiri's knack for making outré connections. Ushered in by a two-second snippet of Gregorian chant, it's a track that traps the listener inside a video game-cum-hall of mirrors, a prism of sounds and melodies wherein beats and synth voices bounce and refract off each other. Its superb video carries this idea further, translating Catholicism into an actual video game featuring rules, strategies and levels, complete with references to epiclesis and "commencing consecration".
"I've always viewed organised religion as a means of consolidating power," says Al Qadiri. "And the Vatican is [home to] one of the oldest, most organised religions in the world.
"The incredible amount of mysticism behind it was deconstructed through the use of the video game aesthetic, which is very basic, very obvious, totally lacking in mystery - but still feeds into this notion of power and conspiracy."
The video and music function as an uncloaking of theosophy, wittily and satirically revealing something rather childish about the demands of religious authority. The track itself, though, was inspired more by Al Qadiri's childhood memories of the long forgotten 1990s subgenre of Gregorian trance.
"The most pop version of it was Enigma, and they were huge," she reminisces.
"The first time I ever heard them was at a very memorable moment of my life. We were leaving Kuwait, a month after the liberation of the country, and the oil wells were still burning - a surreal sight in and of itself. My cousin had joined the American military and was driving us through the desert with the fires blazing against this really bleak desert - and he was playing Enigma. It left a very deep impression on me."
Al Qadiri has emerged into an age when any producer with an internet connection can access the most esoteric corners of global music without even having to leave their bedroom. It's a double-edged sword: while the sheer amount of possibilities it opens up can't be denied, there's also something uncomfortably callow in the readiness of privileged westerners breaking down the brightest, shiniest bits of traditional, underground or street culture and reducing them to mere pretty sounds. The willingness and capacity to be more than just a magpie sets Al Qadiri out.
As a sideline, she blogs about music from around the world in her Global. Wav column for DIS magazine - but her approach couldn't be more different from the idea of "world music" that western music fans have. Al Qadiri scavenges the internet for "random assemblages and montages of different styles" - mostly YouTube, which she sees as "the new vinyl" in the way it lends itself to hunter-gatherer techniques of discovering unheard gems. "It's a wormhole, it's very time-consuming," she admits in much the same way an old record collector might have spoken about second-hand music shops. "Let's say I type in 'Mongolian rap' - I'll literally have to view 100 videos before I find something good."
In an age when global culture has never been more accessible, Al Qadiri demonstrates the kind of skilful mastery needed to shape it into something meaningful: she understands that to recontextualise a genre successfully, it is necessary to first understand it from the inside. The intellectual curiosity displayed in this quest for knowledge is, after all, the key to unlocking the most resonant connections.
Alex Macpherson is a regular contributor to The Review.