Sounds from the Ghost Raid: Fatima Al Qadiri

by Babak Radboy


Born in Senegal, Fatima Al Qadiri grew up in a futuristic yet already vintage Kuwait colonized by skyscrapers with lights ablaze round the clock, Japanese manga imagery and shoot ‘em up video games. This was the substrate, against the backdrop of the Gulf War, on which she has developed an advanced mixture of music borrowed and reinterpreted from different cultural contexts and her own unique imaginary. Babak Radboy, artist and creative director of Bidoun Magazine, as well as a long-time friend, met with her to talk about her influences and the way she manages to keep creative control over her original output.


BABAK RADBOY: Kuwait is so American.

FATIMA AL QADIRI: Kuwait is definitely the most American country in the Arab world. Consider the obesity rate alone: after America we’re the number-two fattest country in the world, per capita. There are so many words in the language to describe fat children! Like, six, at least. It’s a real problem in Kuwait: a whole generation of obese children. Kuwait’s rate of consumption is similar to the U.S. but even more absurd.

BR: Kuwait is a crazy mix: a super-affluent country, yet basically a welfare state, though with a super neo-liberal consumer economy.

FQ: We consume vast amounts of everything. Instagram businesses are a big thing in Kuwait.

BR: What’s an Instagram business?

FQ: If you have an Instagram account, you can slap a price tag on anything, take a picture of it, and sell it. For instance, you could take this can of San Pellegrino, paint it pink, put a heart on it, call it yours, and declare it for sale. Even my grandmother has an Instagram business! She sells dried fruit. A friend’s cousin is selling weird potted plants that use Astroturf. People are creating, you know, hacked products.

BR: Having been to Kuwait, I would have to describe it as bizarrely traumatized. The rest of the Gulf is pretty, like, futuristic, but Kuwait reeks of 1993. It’s more 1993 than that year ever really was.

FQ: Actually since you were there, there are probably 20 new skyscrapers. And each one is lit up like a Christmas tree every single day.

BR: Are the buildings full of people?

FQ: I don’t know. I doubt it. Khalid Al Gharaballi did a piece on “clothed architecture” and it made me think of the lights as uniforms on the skyscrapers. It’s the new trend: light them up, all year round, for no reason, no occasion! When something becomes a trend in Kuwait, it spreads like wildfire. There’s this competitive spirit, but it’s based on decisions made by random individuals in a totally arbitrary way, you know? For instance, since the 1980s they’ve used Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker March as the de facto soundtrack for meetings of heads of state. Who chose that? Probably some person who thought, oh yeah, that sounds princely!

BR: Tell me how you got into video games and comics as a kid in Kuwait.

FQ: I became addicted to video games as a child partly because they were so cheap. Each pirated game cost, like, a dollar. With our pocket money, my sister and I were able to buy literally every video game on the market, bootlegged instantly via China to us.

BR: Jeez.

FQ: We had to entertain ourselves any way we could. There was no Internet yet, so for us it was all about manga and comic books and video games and playing music on keyboards. I invented a story called Ballfight when I was 11, and used it to bribe my sister. She did me favors, and I told her more of the story. It was like The 1,001 Nights, and I was Scheherazade! Ballfight was the polar opposite of our reality: it was based in the Amazon jungle, with these Brutalist concrete apartment buildings, and all the characters were hypersexualized, hyper-violent, constantly fucking and killing each other. It was inspired by a lot of the manga cartoons we were watching. You know, those things were completely under the radar of our parents. They never actually picked one up to see what was inside.

BR: It’s hard to look at manga if you don’t really know how. It just seems like a bunch of lines. A scene of someone getting fucked is pretty abstract.

FQ: We started buying it earnestly when we found a bookshop in Kuwait, at the Safir Hotel, selling Japanese comic books from the 1970s. This was in 1992. We were fascinated. We couldn’t read them, but my father had access to the Japanese ambassador, being an ex-diplomat, so my sister and I went to the Japanese embassy and asked them for all their language-teaching materials, and we taught ourselves how to read two or three scripts. As children! My sister actually went on to study in Japan.

BR: People don’t realize how much resonance Japanese culture has in the Middle East.
There’s something interesting in all this, because a lot of your stuff is rooted in these childhood experiences. So, let’s talk about music for a bit. When we first met, one of the things that drew us together was that we both hate the Beatles. It felt so good to be able to talk about it with someone.

FQ: Yes, without fear of social retribution. Although you were saying you liked one of Paul McCartney’s songs.

BR: In his late work, he’s got a couple of relatively good songs: “Check My Machine” and “Temporary Secretary.” I like them because, I figure, someone at that point in their career should have the confidence to make simple music.

FQ: Paul McCartney is like Michael Kors, in that he has a couple of good dresses, or a couple of good shoes.

BR: The Michael Kors theory of qualitative analysis!

FQ: The two main paths for musicians are that they start making music for their peers and end up making music for a global audience, or they start out making music for a global audience and end up making music for their peers. I just want to make music for my peers indefinitely. I guess I don’t fit into either the music industry or the art world. The music industry sees me as an artist, and the art world sees me as a musician.

BR: Are there any pop stars you’re into?

FQ: Sure! I’m into Future. He’s a rapper but he’s kind of a pop star. The American pop stars I listen to are rappers. I love Albanian pop stars. I love Bulgarian pop stars. I’m not a fan of the track “Gangnam Style” and I’m not a fan of Psy, but he made music in another language big, acceptable, as pop music. It’s like “The Macarena.”

BR: An international hit.

FQ: Every decade there’s a big foreign-language hit with a new dance.

BR: Where’s the next global hit coming from?

FQ: That’s very difficult to predict. It has a lot to do with luck, and money. Psy is from a wealthy family and was able to make that huge, high-budget video. So, if something sounds like David Guetta produced it, it could be big.

BR: Who’s the David Guetta of Kuwait?

FQ: There’s no David Guetta of Kuwait, really. Gulf pop music is a lot more folksy, more singer-songwriter-y.

BR: Let’s talk about your musical intolerance. By that I mean your refusal to distinguish between something that is bad and something that is irrelevant. I find that totally unique about you. It might be the key to your creative point of view, that you simply cannot see what is good about someone like Bob Dylan.

FQ: I have a photographic memory for melodies but I blank out on lyrics. Maybe that’s why I like rap so much. The words go in one ear and out the other. Whereas Bob Dylan’s music is supposedly about the poetry of his lyrics, and I’m not a fan of poetry. Poetry is a no-no in my world.

BR: Ha, what kind of Arab are you?

FQ: Well, Arabic poetry is another story. 20th-century poetry in English I cannot handle.

BR: What do you think about Madonna?

FQ: I think of her as a role model, maybe. I’ve learned a lot from her journey in the music industry. She went from making experimental music to making mega pop albums. She’s made some good tracks, for sure, in her career. But she’s locked into this “I’m a pop star, and I have to be one for life” thing and probably feels like she can’t make a dignified exit. If I’m afraid of anything, I fear not leaving the music industry with a dignified exit. And also I’m concerned about retaining my creative freedom. I’m hoping and praying I don’t do anything corny in my music career. That’s been a fear of mine since I was a child. My mom instilled this ridiculous idea of authenticity, originality, that was so impossible to attain.

BR: Is that part of your obsession with genre? In genre, there’s implicitly a need to reject so much, in order to define something. The boundaries of what’s rejected and what’s let in involve a kind of xenophobia. Things get so specific.

FQ: For sure. For instance, Grime was made in specific neighborhoods in England. The further you’re removed from a kind of music, the more problematic it is trying to imitate it, so that’s why I feel fortunate that I don’t have any need or requirement to imitate anything. I just want to interpret things. I’ll listen to Detroit techno, say, and then figure I’ll make a Detroit techno track, but whatever comes out is going to be completely different. It won’t even be the same BPM. It’s about inspiration.

BR: In the technical, structural aspects of your music there’s this genre-based mimesis, but what remains very consistent is the melodic style.

FQ: That has to do with my father’s love of Russian classical music. I listened to a lot of Tchaikovsky at full blast as a baby! Those are the most powerful melodies I’ve ever heard, by those 19th and early 20th century Russian composers. It’s beat-free music. The bombast comes from the melodic information. I think as well about all the Japanese video game soundtracks I heard as a kid. The beauty was in the limitations.

BR: You’re saying that’s why the video game soundtracks were so powerful, because the bandwidth was so narrow?

FQ: Yes, they were just 8-bit melodies. A lot of it was monophonic, so, no harmony. They couldn’t even have two notes playing at the same time. That’s so challenging, it’s crazy! Making a whole soundtrack with one note at a time! But they were crack melodies, meaning I just wanted to hear them again and again and again. The audiovisual experience of playing those video games was about repetitiveness. So many electronic and dance music producers today were huge video game nerds back then.

BR: So that’s what happened to all those kids who were warned that their brains would be rotted by video games?

FQ: Yes, they became incredibly successful producers in the music industry! Ha. Today video games are taking a slightly more sinister path. I mean, the war games were sinister in my time, for sure, but now they’re perfect re-creations of exact wars in Iraq, and it’s just fucked up.

BR: Did I tell you about the video game I worked on? It was set in Dubai, and it was so offensive. I mean, I have no ethical standards, but this was just, like, so bad! The whole purpose of the game is about morality versus ethics but you’re not allowed to actually make choices because there’s only one narrative. So you’ll be, for instance, in a refugee camp and have to make the “hard” decision to kill all the women and children, but the game doesn’t allow you not to. So it’s actually the most corrupt philosophical catastrophe.

FQ: I’ve already said “no” to a bunch of ventures that would have been good for my career and very lucrative, because I felt like it was bad shit.

BR: Well, now you have to name one of them.

FQ: I can’t.

BR: You have to.

FQ: No, I won’t. My dad was a diplomat.

BR: Ha, good answer. What do you think about the career path for people who are making new music today?

FQ: It’s different than before. It’s so tied into the Internet. Universal and Warner Bros. are huge, but what they’re doing is just one aspect of the business. If you’re in a contract with people like that, they own you. For instance somebody from MTV got in touch with me about working together. And I was, like, sure, as long as there’s a contract stipulating that I have 100 percent creative control. And that was the end of that!

BR: They wanted to take a risk without taking any risk.

FQ: That’s the problem with success. The bigger you get, people congratulate you about doing advertising or whatever, things that bring in a lot of dough, but whenever I see someone I really respect in that position, it makes me sad.

BR: You’re such a weirdo. I am all about selling out. I admire that shit. For me that’s the dematerialization. Like Timbaland, who just stopped making music that was even vaguely what he was known for. He dematerialized his process and made it purely a financial transaction. Like a factory.

FQ: Well, it might be interesting from a conceptual and philosophical point of view, but actually listening to that music is another story. I suspect that you only like it as an idea.

BR: I’m just teasing you.

FQ: I totally get where you’re coming from, though. Telfar Clemens has the most interesting views on everything. Show him the corniest, grossest, most disgusting thing on the planet, and he will interpret it in a beautiful, conceptual way. He’s a philosopher.

BR: Tell me what annoys you about how you’re discussed by journalists.

FQ: The thing with journalists is that I’m not a “default” person, meaning I’m not from a background that is easy to write about. So they make presumptions. I was born in Senegal and so many people call me Senegalese, but I’m not. They presume that because I speak English with an American accent, I’m American, but I’m not. Ultimately I feel sorry for them. They don’t have the time, in this fast-paced, constant-updates world, to take a step back and research and formulate thoughtful questions. And there are no fact-checking requirements any more.

BR: Do you feel that the responsibility of hyping yourself is on your shoulders?

FQ: Very few people can afford not to promote themselves these days. It’s also about information. If I don’t tweet where my next gig is, how is anyone going to know? It’s not like we live in an analog world where you paste flyers all over your block and people from your block come see you play! I try to keep it to a minimum, though. I’m not on Instagram, for instance.

BR: I still don’t understand what that really is.

FQ: It’s just a social network for photos. To spy on where people are, visually.

BR: Yuck.

FQ: On Twitter you can lie. You can say, “I’m at the mansion!” But with Instagram, you can prove you’re really there. You’re in Beyoncé’s limo.


Originally published on Mousse 39 (Summer 2013)

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