Fatima Al Qadiri
, May 6th, 2014 09:52
'Shanzhai', the opening track of Fatima Al Qadiri's debut album Asiatisch, takes its title from a Chinese term used to describe counterfeit Western goods. Literally it translates to "mountain village", evoking both the outlaw nature of the industry and the crudeness of its reproductions - copyright-evading spoonerisms of sportswear brands and fast food chains. While such knock-offs are commonplace, there is perhaps more craft and sophistication to some imitations than that definition grants. Electronic giants such as Apple, slow to meet Chinese demand, have had their official stores outnumbered by dozens of simulacra, painstakingly recreated down to the uniform of their employees - to all intents and purposes the real thing. The term has come refer not just to products but lookalikes and parodies more generally, such as the track itself, a cover of Sinéad O'Connor's 'Nothing Compares 2 U' sung in Mandarin, only with nonsense lyrics - a joke at our expense. Much like the Apple stores, we might have never known the difference.
One can see how "shanzhai" might appeal to Al Qadiri, both as a concept and also on a more personal level. She's spoken in interviews of her childhood experiences of living through the invasion of Kuwait, then being in the unusual position of subsequently viewing the Gulf War through the prism of Western pop culture via the Sega Mega Drive game Desert Strike, released only a year after the war's end. On her EP of the same name, videogame music was used as the frame for exploring those memories, together with the geopolitics of Western military intervention.
With Asiatisch, Al Qadiri draws on the parallels between the Gulf and China, the latter having come to occupy a similar place as the Middle East in the Western imagination. The mimicry at work in Chinese facsimiles of Western consumer goods is analogous to a similar process that has been occurring in Western media and culture for decades - the construction of what Al Qadiri terms an "imagined China", the sum of fears and fantasies about the East. It's best demonstrated by the anxieties of financial magazines over shifting economic hegemony and the the trade-agreements-cum-courting-rituals of Western politicians.
As with Desert Strike, the album plays on this concept through interpretations of an existing musical form. In this case it's sinogrime, a trend within grime productions by Wiley, Jammer and others for preset flutes, chimes and synth strings. Like other Western musics that use faux Asian motifs, including new age, exotica and psytrance, sinogrime bears at best a distant resemblance to actual Chinese classical compositions. Al Qadiri's productions are a step further removed; they take the signatures of the sound and reconfigure them in the style of corporate and shopping mall muzak, much like on her Genre-Specific Xperience EP. Surprisingly, the two complement each other well. The HD sheen of consumer mood music lends tracks like 'Forbidden City', with its delayed synth stabs and hollow bass, a certain shallowness - neatly paralleling the emptiness of all those glossy promotional videos attracting Chinese investment in urban regeneration projects.
Asiatisch as a whole works with a limited palette of monastic synth choirs, woodwind and glockenspiel presets and warped bass. They combine to make the album calculated and austere, a fitting soundtrack to the machinations of global capital. Take 'Dragon Tattoo''s vocals, which paraphrase 'We Are Siamese' from Disney's Lady And The Tramp: "I got a dragon tattoo on my arm, and I mean to cause you harm / Speak Chinese if you please" - at once civil and threatening, the lingua franca of international business. The album's highlight, however, is 'Shanghai Freeway', its looping steelpan arpeggios and swarming bass conjuring up endless circuits of elevated expressways.
Not all of Asiatisch's tracks are quite as successfully realised. Some play with a single idea for too long - 'Wudang''s vocal sample of an ancient Chinese poem, for example, doesn't hold enough interest to sustain its minimal and repetitive background instrumentation. Like many of the album's tracks, it's named after a Chinese region, perhaps Al Qadiri's way of pointing out the arbitrary connection between these pieces and their geographical referents, much like the distance between the "imagined China" and its reality. What is more difficult to ascertain is Al Qadiri's relationship to this fantasy. Is there enough distance between the two for the music to work as a critical commentary?
It's telling, perhaps, that she has described the album as a "homage" to sinogrime, which would imply that these tracks are as much borrowing from, as they are adding to, that myth of China. You get the sense that Asiatisch is closer to a pastiche than satire, a collage of orientalist signifiers - the computerised Mandarin voices on 'Loading Beijing', dragon tattoos, that cover of an airbrushed Chinese model - all of which are partly in thrall to the absurd and kitsch image of China which Al Qadiri seeks to repudiate.
As a concept, there is potential here to interrogate what these imaginings reflect about the West, and even return the gaze. Ultimately, however, Asiatisch doesn't offer a corrective of Western cultural mimicry, only an accurate simulation of it, and for that reason is vulnerable to some of the criticisms it sets out to make. But for all its conceptual flaws, Asiatisch is both a pleasurable and an intelligent take on sinogrime - proof that its initial wave of productions was brief not for lack of potential.