The presence of China may loom large over various aspects of western society but its music hasn’t received the attention or been assimilated as much as that of some other non-European countries. That’s where Senegal-born, Kuwait-raised and London/New York-based musician, producer and visual artist Fatima Al Qadiri steps in. On Asiatisch, her debut album for Hyperdub, she has delivered a piece of work that blends influences and musical traits, both ancient and contemporary, from different cultural and social outposts.
On one level she may fit in with the growing group of female artists on Hyperdub but musically she stands separate from the likes of Cooly G, Jessy Lanza and Ikonika and their accomplished, R&B-infused urban soul and pristine, modern electronic creations.
Al Qadiri’s decision to open Asiatisch with a musically faithful, Mandarin language version of Nothing Compares 2 U provides another point of difference, yet it’s a strange opener that feels distanced and divorced from the rest of the album. Any initial opinion of Asiatisch will undoubtedly be shaped and coloured by how this song is personally viewed.
Szechuan represents the album’s real starting point, establishing a sound centred around spidery synths, crisp beats, overhanging backing vocals and airy Chinese flute that never truly deviates elsewhere. Wudang follows in similarly strong fashion, aided by its distorted Chinese vocal, Boards Of Canada-style synth snapshots and denser overall sound. Hints of musical expansion come with the appearance of xylophones on Hainan Island and bells on Shenzhen but these are countered by the exposed sense of space and tight feeling of control which threatens to strangle much of the middle of the album. Exposed, marginalised sounds aren’t new to Hyperdub, yet there are times on Asiatisch where it feels like they are a little restrictive and keep the overall sound narrower than it needs to be.
This could just be an unfair reflection on how some of Al Qadiri’s earlier EPs projected a much more impactful, varied sound. Her 2011 EP Genre-Specific Xperience for example saw her talk openly about how it was her attempt to portray five sub-genres of music – juke, hip hop, dubstep, electro-tropicalia, and ’90s-era Gregorian trance. At no point on Asiatisch can a similar breadth really be detected or appreciated. If anything musical features have been extended from her 2012 Desert Strike EP, a similarly condensed representation of her musical outlook.
Shanghai Freeway provides a late reminder of her ability to dazzle, bass disseminations competing with a glinting, spritely electronic melody to suggest what Kraftwerk may have sounded like had they been inspired by Chinese rather than German transport infrastructure. Gradually however, the feeling emerges that in places Asiatisch may be stronger in concept than it is in practice, and that it may have benefited from a looser approach. But there is still much to admire and enjoy, not least Al Qadiri’s pursuit of an individual, politicised, socially-conscious path that never lacks ambition or self-confidence.