Defying the boundaries between music & art, and specific genres, New York-based Fatima Al Qadiri talks to us about her explorative work fusing trance and traditional Islamic songs
Having spent her childhood in relative isolation, in a state bordering on insanity; producer and vocalist, Fatima Al Qadiri opted to build her own fantasy world. A safer, and more liberal landscape. Tired with rules and convention, in the confines of her bedroom, Al Qadiri precariously explored the ideas which would then become her revolutionary musical venture, "Genre-Specific Xperience". A project in which she sought to dramatically resist and reconfigure the boundaries of genre.
Apart from going to school, I left the house like ten times by myself because Kuwait was dangerous if you were a young girl and my parents were very overprotective. So my sister and me kind of lived in this fantasy world in our house. We would make music, draw and play video games the whole time.
Continuing with this goal, her most recent venture, Ayshay, sees her sampling both Islamic anthems and her own vocals; marrying the melancholic tales of massacre with her own poignant experiences of rock bottom. There is an impervious affection to the Kuwaiti producer. Censoring herself to meet the extremes of her rampant perfectionism, Al Qadiri performs with her face shrouded behind a veil, on the rare occurrences that she does perform.
Far from Pitbull or Taio’s tedious narratives of debauchery which dominate the airwaves, Ayshay takes the sacred Islamic songs of her childhood and exposes these unknown Middle Eastern secrets for the 21st century.
Dazed Digital: You use these traditional Islamic songs, there are elements of trance, you’ve been compared to Bjork, what 'genre' would you classify Ayshay as?
Ayshay: I wouldn’t be able to classify it. My mission in life is to identify genres and work beyond their boundaries. To try and work within one vein it just doesn’t make any sense to me. I’m influenced by musical styles and I make my impressions of those styles. It’s about what it means to listen to a genre: what’s the experience of a genre visually, audibly, physically, stylistically, the clothes… etc? Each genre is a holistic experience.
DD: So in the example of ‘Hip Hop Spa’, in what ways would you say you’re using hip hop in the song if not in a traditional musical sense?
Ayshay: I envisioned this soundtrack for a fantasy space; which is a luxury spa for black rappers. So it’s a soundtrack for that. That’s how the song came around. I conceptualised a space and made a soundtrack for it. Obviously it doesn’t sound anything like hip hop. But the use of certain beats creates a kind of effect of hip hop, but it’s not. For Instance, the song D-Medley is my impression of electro tropicalia. It’s not electro tropicalia. So it’s basically a very playful project but it’s also trying to tie in the visual languages of music through the videos that were made for them. They’re both impressions, they’re both dealing with the idea of boundaries visually and audibly. What happens when you pass those boundaries, what do you get?
DD: Many of your songs are based on the traditional Islamic songs of your childhood, what is it about those songs that were particularly powerful or made you want to explore them further?
Ayshay: They’re based on them in the most oblique manner. The Ayshay project came about because I was listening to at the time a lot of religious Muslim acapella and I decided I wanted to experiment with my voice as an instrument.
I thought as acapella pieces they were really beautiful, but I just wanted to give them that extra ‘oomph’. The fact that they’re sacred, the fact that they’re acapella for religious reasons; I just felt that they were under-heard. They’re just not known by the west at large. If you live in a Muslim country and you happen to pass by some religious organisation or you flick through the wrong channel on Arabic satellite you might catch them. But it’s not something that’s in the psyche of the west, and I just thought melodically and vocally they’re so beautiful. The vocalists are really powerful singers, I wanted to sample them and reinterpret them in my own, very loose way.
DD: You perform with your face covered, are you religious yourself?
Ayshay: No, I’m not religious. The reason I have a white cover on my face is basically referencing these Shiite religious plays that happened during the holy month of Muharram. They basically stage the massacre of the prophets grandsons, but the Shiite don’t want to represent them, as they’re members of the holy family. So they place white sheets on their faces. It’s not some arbitrary thing hiding my identity. It’s about tying in this visual aspect of the original music.
DD: It’s at times very dark sounding.
Ayshay: It is very dark. I was in a really dark place when I wrote that record. But also the original Muslim tracks have that. There’s two kinds of religious acapella that I’m sampling. One is the Sunni variety and one is the Shiite variety. The Shiite is extremely dark and dismal because it’s referencing this massacre; it’s supposed to make you feel this pain of the holy family as they’re being massacred. Where as the Sunni variety is much more uplifting, its much more harmonic... I called it 'Boys II Men', I refer to that genre, and it does really sound similar to it. When I was making my Ayshay record, 'Warn U', I was in a really dark place. I released a lot of feelings making that.
DD: What do you think about the state of pop music today, there’s a lot of really over used ideas and it’s so explicit – with you I feel like there’s a kind of mysticism, which is really intriguing for the listener?
Ayshay: I don’t think all my music is mystical I’d say it's conceptual. I really wanted to make a record that was in dialogue with contemporary art practices. I’ve honestly not been into pop music since the age of 18 and I’m 30 now. I’m always listening to music from the point of view of a producer, if I can guess what’s gonna happen in the next four bars my brain just shuts down. I’m not interested in going through and listening to it. But I think the state of pop music is sad. It’s been sad for a while. I’m not into it, and I don’t wanna hate on it too much but I’m just not interested.
DD: Could you tell us a little about your background? You were born in Senegal and raised in Kuwait, and now are you living between Kuwait and New York?
Ayshay: No, I live in New York. The reason why I’m in Kuwait now is because me and my friend just got a grant from The Arab Fund for Art and Culture (AFAC) to make this quite ambitious installation that’s going to be exhibited here. It’s a film and a monumental sculpture. The film is going to be projected inside the sculpture. It’s really multi-tiered, as far as meaning is concerned. I only come to Kuwait for exhibitions really. Kuwait is a fascist state, I can’t live here, that’s why I left when I was 17, I really can't live in this country.
DD: What was it like when you were living in Kuwait? You couldn’t really have performed right?
Ayshay: I’ve never been into performance though. I literally turn down daily emails requesting I perform at some gig or some festival. I’m gonna have to make a template for performance refusals, it’s really starting to get on my nerves.
Ayshay: Growing up, from the age of nine to 20 I was happily composing on a keyboard. I left when I was seventeen. Before that I was basically living indoors in my house. Apart from going to school, I left the house like ten times by myself because Kuwait was dangerous if you were a young girl and my parents were very overprotective. So my sister and me kind of lived in this fantasy world in our house. We would make music, draw and play video games the whole time. That’s what I did between the ages of nine and 17. And it got me used to working in isolation.
DD: Were you content with that? Did it never make you angry?
Ayshay: It made me a little crazy... It gave me manic depression! But I had a lot of content that I wanted to get out of my system. If you force a child into isolation for that long, something happens to them, obviously. But it served me well, I was basically progressing at a faster rate than I thought I would, but at the same time when I was 20, a friend of a friend gave me Logic, and it took me seven years to master because it was just so different to composing live on a keyboard.
DD: What were you listening to when you were in Kuwait with limited access to music?
Ayshay: Well luckily for me we would go to London every summer, so I’d just walk into Woolworths as a kid and just buy whatever CDs were in the charts at the time. Which was mostly Eurodance. I had an older sister and she was listening to like Public Enemy and NWA and she had a ton of tips from the 80s. There was this one music store in Kuwait called the Video Club. It’s really funny, I went there a couple of years ago and they still had the same CDs they had been selling when I was there as a child. It’s like it had been wrapped in formaldehyde or something! There was a lot of “Now That’s What I Called Music” compilations and they had some Gangsta Rap, which was also something I love.
DD: What are your plans for the future, are you going to release an album?
Ayshay: I never think about recording albums because I get bored really quickly. I think the EP is my favorite format. I approach music conceptually, I make a statement and then I move on to the next one. To make an album, that normally takes 2 years, I just can’t deal with it, I change my mind a million times. I’m working on my next EP. I’m calling it a Choral Bass record because it features a lot of bass and choir pads, I really wanted the two to marry each other. My style is constantly changing because I’m constantly being influenced by different things. I’m actually going to L.A. in February and Asma, who’s one half of Nguzunguzu; me and her are working on a record together. Or at least make some experiments and see what happens. This year I’m also gonna attempt to apply to a very high profile art prize which I’m keeping under wraps. I’m trying to juggle both careers at the same time, it’s kind of tricky.
Photography by Lyndsy Welgos, edited by Nick Scholl