"Songs are in mandarin but Hua could hardly understand anything track 10 is an ancient poem sorry cannot be more helpfull." [sic]
A text from my dad, after asking his Chinese wife for help translating the lyrics sparsely scattered across Fatima Al Qadiri’s first full-length album, ‘Asiatisch’. Released on Hyperdub and named after the German word for "Asian", the record is a bold and darkly witty diversion from the NYC-based Kuwaitee artist’s wordless audio critiques of war, hyper-capital and Imperialism via her own experience of being raised in the Gulf. That is, the concerns with Western neo-colonialism are still there, except that this time they happen in a place that Al Qadiri has no connection to.
As her most pop-conscious release to date, ‘Asiatisch’ also happens to be the artist’s most daring. Whether it's in the airy synth wave motion, weighed down by the familiar menace of a simulated baritone squall, in Shanghai Freeway, or the exotic synthesised panpipe ruffling the easy rhythmic patter of Shenzhen, here is a record that essentially apes the idea it criticises.
As a Kuwaitee raised on Disney, Al Qadiri could easily see the problem with a controversial Aladdin theme song that once included the lyrics "It's barbaric, but hey, it's home" as part of its US introduction to the Persian Gulf. That’s probably why it wasn’t hard to identify the racist intonations of the villainous twin cats of The Lady and the Tramp, where the identical Thai felines taunt the innocent American Cocker Spaniel ‘Lady’ with "We are Siamese, if you please." ‘Asiatisch’ responds with the flat and sexless voice modulation of album standout Dragon Tattoo, as it repeats "speak Chinese, if you please", over those recurring sci-fi tones denoting danger. These same motifs – of cosmic synthesizer melodies and hollow alien chorale patches – not only reemerge throughout the album, but they also mimic the insidious nature of global cultural proliferation: children’s cartoons littered with inaccurate cultural references, blockbuster movie villains reflecting the political interests of the day and Battlestar Galactica aliens characterised by the exotic sounds of a genre named ‘world’.
By striking out at a popular cultural heritage built on villainising the exotic ‘Other’ and encouraging prejudice, ‘Asiatisch’ also risks becoming the very thing it derides. Familiar Al Qadiri-esque wind chimes in Forbidden City and her signature bassline undulations of Wudang become a personalised intent, as transposed on a fantastic conception of China. By cradling the Ancient Li Bai poetry of Jade Stairs on the resonant strokes and nervous clicks of an Al Qadiri watermark, the artist is essentially re-constructing this unknown region in her own image.
Here’s where ‘Asiatisch’ is both brilliant and deeply troubling. On one hand, a song like Loading Beijing mimics the 'ching chong Chinatown' jibes of juvenile xenophobia, but on the other, Helen Feng's nonsense lyrics on Shanzhai (For Shanzhai Biennial) (a cover of Sinead O'Connor's Nothing Compares 2 U) invert those racist modes into a perversion of Western pop via senseless babble as it reads to a non-English speaking audience.
That’s why it’s important that the words of ‘Asiatisch’ make almost no sense. Propaganda rarely does.
Hyperdub released ‘Asiatisch’ on the 6th May 2014 (buy).