In Conversation: Fatima Al Qadiri

"Imagine if David Lynch is marrying Enya in the Alhambra..."

From the sinogrime dislocation of 'Asiatisch' to the angular, metronomic "protest music" of 'Brute', Fatima Al Qadiri's solo works interrogate social and historical mores through labyrinthine sound design. The Senegalese-born Kuwaiti musician ventures even further back in time for her latest full-length 'Medieval Femme': ten sensory compositions transporting the listener through paradisiacal gardens mythologized and decadently described in Quranic verses.

Fatima's affinity for ambient Arabesque melody, realized in her work scoring the Mati Diop-directed film 'Atlantics', takes on a more perfervid form on 'Medieval Femme', charting states of depression through sybaritic shades of experience, suspending the listener in an indeterminate trance between the past and the future.

The title track sets the tone for a project that luxuriates in something fragrantly evocative, synthetic lute and Fatima's digitized spoken word echoing like an incantation. On the penultimate track 'Tasakuba', featuring a recitation of a couplet from seventh century poet Al-Khansa', despair is morphed into intense rapture, yet the album closer 'Zandaq' offers up a portal to a kind of closure, Fatima manipulating the mood from desolation to sweet resignation. 

Clash spoke to Fatima Al Qadiri about how malaise and melancholy formed the basis of her latest full length, channelling her own pandemic angst into her work, the beauty and tonality of spoken word and the medieval Islamic period which birthed the original polymaths…

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'Medieval Femme' dropped on the day of Eid ul Fitr, what a lovely gift! Was that planned? 

No, it wasn't planned! But I'm always shocked by the lunar calendar and how fast Eid comes around. I'm in LA, so I'm even more out of the loop. Everything feels alien when you're not home. 

I want to start by talking about the majesty that is 2017's 'Shaneera', this vampish, brazen and reverberant exploration of regional queer identity. What did that era represent to you? 

There's a word in Egyptian Arabic, "shanee'a", it's used as a term of endearment and also a backhanded insult at the same time. It's like calling someone an evil Queen; you really admire them but are also put off by them, there's a darkness and light to them. I personally admire evil Queens: to be evil is to have a shield, it's an armour. 

We were trying to teach our American friend how to say "shanee'a" and he couldn't pronounce it. He would say "shaneera" and we became obsessed with the mispronunciation. We'd use it as a kind of code around other Arabs and they wouldn't get it. When we would see an evil Queen out and about we'd say "shaneera!" or someone who has the presence or persona of a "shaneera". I say to people a cat could be a 'shaneera', you know? 

It's runs deeper then, like a spirit…

Like a spirit. An evil spirit. I needed to make a record about this persona I've been obsessed with, my friends have been obsessed with. The friends who introduced me to the term became my core collaborators. The recording sessions were the most fun I've ever had in my entire life. It was recorded at a friend's apartment, he was about to move to London and we caught him at the right time. We were in tears from laughter, the whole experience was incredible. I had so much material to play with. I had to censor a lot of it because there was some really explicit stuff in there. My Mum was around at the time listening and saying:"you're not thinking of putting this record out?" My wise Mother!

The record integrates a lot of Grindr chat, for people that know they'd recognise it. It's a lot of dry comedy. 'Shaneera' was such a joyous record to make. And the cover shoot…

The cover art is insane! I read your visual reference for this drag-esque character was Kuwaiti fashion, which has its equivalent in South Asian and Desi fashion as well…

This was a trend in the mid-2000s that stretched from Egypt to Pakistan. It was a huge hijab trend because the face had to do something, it had to stand out! I was obsessed when the trend started. Me and my bestie would buy beauty magazines, these covers were very drag-inspired and it slowly filtered into the mainstream. 

So you're currently based in LA. How are you finding this insular bubble? 

I got here in March 2020 right before lockdown. It was terrifying to land in a place and not have any security. The Kuwaiti airport shut down almost immediately, I couldn't even go home. I had no health insurance and I didn't know what was going to happen. 

I was very lucky as I was subletting a composer friend's loft and he had two of the best speakers I've ever worked on. So, I channelled all of this anxiety, all of this angst into my work. By May, I moved to my own place; it had its own garden, a hiking trail around it. It was still isolating and very suburban. Honestly, I've been in a strange existence but things are opening up again and I'm starting to feel hopeful again. 

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In Conversation: Fatima Al Qadiri

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When did the initial ideas about 'Medieval Femme' start to crystallize? Talk me through your timeline.

One of the very first tracks I recorded is 'Tasakuba', the penultimate track on 'Medieval Femme'. It's the only song with a sample of classical Arabic poetry by a seventh century poet, in fact she's the most famous female poet in classical Arabic poetry. She wrote elegiac poetry. 

But the idea came to me in 2016, that I'd integrate classical and modern poetry written by women but I started first with classical poetry. As I started sampling them, it just didn't work and flow, except for 'Tasakuba'. Something wasn't fitting. Then 'Atlantics' came into my life and the project was put on hold because we were essentially on a world tour. 

After that concluded, I started working in earnest on these instrumentals: I recorded my Mother reciting poetry, my best friend and so forth. I needed to be a bit looser about it, so I recorded myself reciting poetry and it felt more natural. In Kuwait, they have these weird nature programmes, they have this person narrating God's creations, this recitation of God's wonders. I feel they a Pakistani equivalent…

We do and I think I know what you're talking about. Urdu is the most poetic, evocative language in the world by the way…

There's a reason Bollywood songs are sung in Urdu. I was so taken aback by that! I'm sure Hindu nationalists aren't happy with that. 

But you're right, it's all about tonality: the tonality in these monologues are sensual, it's ecstatic, it's quasi-religious but not quite Quranic. I'm not sure what the genre even is. But it's funky! Classical poetry has this recitation. I needed to bring this kind of morbid sensuality to the record; this persona that is repellent and extremely attractive. 

It's internal, it's psychological, it's about the transformative state of depression. Broadly speaking West Asian culture and I'm including Pakistan, is really obsessed with and elevates melancholy as the highest form of art. When I see Kuwaiti theatre, it's all tragic comedy. 

That's beautifully expressed and I agree. I see this kind of ritualistic melancholy – sometimes repressed but not always – in my Mum, her Mum and my aunties. 

Yes, there is this extreme fascination with melancholy and melancholic longing; not being able to have what you want – unrequited love for example. For me, I've struggled with depression most of my life. I started to realize that depression is desire; you wanting so much that you can't breathe, you can't exist, you can't function. There's something primordial about that state, you log off from life. I would daydream all the time, in order not to deal with my pain. It happened when I was quite young, I wouldn't know how to process it until my thirties when I got therapy. 

I wanted to imbue this record with the melancholic longing I found in the words of these women and their poetry, in this era. If 'Shaneera' is a persona, 'Medieval Femme' is a mood, a mood that descends on and possesses you. You're taken into something that is not quite the past, not quite the future but definitely not the present. 

The experience of 'Medieval Femme' is unrelenting. It follows the same tonal pattern which in turn makes it more seductive and trance-like. You can easily get lost in it. 

Absolutely. I wanted it to it feel as if you've entered my daydream. I've always been obsessed with history; my Father was a history teacher and I really have always been obsessed with time travel and the past – fantasizing that I'm a character from the past. I wanted that illusion to be audible in the record so I avoided using live instruments. Every sound is derived from virtual instruments. Some people assumed I was using live instrumentation but it shows you how sophisticated technology is becoming, that it could fool people! Even the process of production had to be an illusion. 

The medieval period provides the backdrop of this work – the Islamic and the Arabic world in hubs across Spain like Cordoba and Seville, and of course the Middle East. These places were centres for progressive learning, theorising and coexisting. This world existed and it completely repudiates the archaic view of the Arab world as this homogenous, barren wasteland. Did that play into this record? This historical context and how it's influenced our world today? 

Absolutely! I haven't really bothered to explain it to any other writer but you get it. It's definitely a medieval experience. The way I would describe it to people beforehand was imagine if David Lynch is marrying Enya in Alhambra. I became obsessed with Islamic Gardens, which came to a climax during the Medieval period in places like Spain. 

This was the height of Islamic civilization – the Iberian Peninsula. I always fantasized about this period because the mere idea that Muslims ruled the world is impossible. You can hear the cultural legacy and this period left a lot traces in the world; you can it hear in Flamenco and Fado in Portugal. This is the environment of my fantasy. I would love for there to be some massive Hollywood scale movie taking place in this period. It's such an unexplored part of history. 

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In Conversation: Fatima Al Qadiri

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I wrote my dissertation on Ibn Rushd, who existed during the Golden Age of Islamic Spain, who is quite widely documented. As ever, women thinkers and poets, least of all queer women, are not documented in the west – these hidden figures. Where did you go to source these Arabic female poets? A lot of these figures, male and female, are eccentric! 

I looked at this bilingual anthology. My understanding of that level of classical poetry isn't great. I can understand the simple words but that's it. Wallada bint al-Mustakfi – she is a figure! She was the daughter of the Caliph of Spain. She was a very interesting character. Ibn Zaydun was her lover and he was bi. All of her poetry is her attacking his lovers, male and female. There's this collection of angry, sexually explicit poetry and someone needs to make a movie about her: this bisexual drama in medieval Spain! 

A friend of mine introduced me to Ziryab, a singer, composer and teacher who lived in Iraq, then moved to Andalusia. He was a polymath and he was black! He was such a fascinating figure, a true Renaissance man. There are a lot of characters from this period that are worth exploring. Don't get me started on the Mughal period. 

Were there any contemporary influences you evoked when making 'Medieval Femme'? 

The two main records – two supremely influential records in my life – have been the soundtrack to Akira and the soundtrack to the original Blade Runner. These are more general influences. 

But there's an Iranian composer called Dariush Dolat-Shahi, this little-known composer who in the 80s made a record called 'Electronic Music, Tar and Sehtar'. He's a cult figure but should be much bigger! You will have a nervous breakdown when you listen to it. If I had a Top Five list of records, it would be in that list. He's a composer's composer. He fuses electronic music with traditional folk music in a way that's never been done before. I came across it in 2007 and whenever I go on a road trip it's always playing in the background. It's so scenic and you really feel like you're walking into a strange garden and I wanted to touch on this obsession with medieval Islamic gardens. When I think of heaven I think of the garden. Because I come from the desert, the garden is even more heavenly. Kuwait is dry and lacking in greenery, even in LA, the presence of flora is so strange and surreal to me. 

I wanted to revisit your record 'Brute' which by comparison is a modern record, reflecting contemporary themes in the sense it takes on a journey through authoritarian power and the decline of political order. It's still a soundtrack to the world we occupy. What's your view of 'Brute' now? How does it resonate in the context of our current sociopolitical crises?

'Brute' is my own disillusionment with democracy and the civil rights that western propaganda sold to me: it's not so much the decline but the reality of political order. When I was 17, I experienced one of the largest protests that I'd ever experienced against the World Bank and the World Trade Center in '99 – I'd never seen so many cops in helicopters and cars.

It was a very brutal suppression and it reminded me of home. I thought you had freedom of assembly here? I thought it was different? I felt like so much space was given to freedom of speech and very little was given to freedom of assembly, which is a major civil right inextricably tied to speech. That was the main thrust of 'Brute'; that the right to protest in the west was an illusion and the current events of that time were highlighting it. 

I wanted to make something about my long-term observation of this illusion, this disenchantment with the west, this lack of space given to the notion that freedom of assembly doesn't exist unless your position is not a threat. It had been brewing in me for a long time and I bought the western propaganda that it was real.

Right now, people are trying to petition Biden to remove the jail sentences and criminal records from people that were arrested at the BLM protests last year. It's a really sad state of affairs, this notion has escaped conversation, that no progressive, radical movement has freedom of assembly in the west.  

In your work you capture these specific periods in time through sonic world-building. Are you planning your next era? 

I'm very superstitious when it comes to talking about the future but I'm so excited about the next project. I can't wait to have time to work on it. I don't know if it will be out this year but it's going to be so much fun.

Will it be club-adjacent? 

Okay, I'll give you this…yes. 

Fatima, what contemporary music has inspired, influenced or moved you this year? 

I've been listening to South African dance music non-stop. These producers have been around for a long time; they keep creating new genres and new ways of doing it. To me it's the most advanced dance music in the world right now. 

What's the core ambition behind Medieval Femme? What do you want to transmit to the world with this project?  

I'm cautious of projecting something onto the listeners but there's a transformative energy in the record and you can reach a low-level of hopelessness with these tracks, but still find transformative joy and peace as well. 

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Words: Shahzaib Hussain
Photo Credit: Lane Stewart

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