November 8, 2011

This fall, Fatima al Qadiri released two EPs: Under the stage name Ashay, she recorded WARN-U, an album that explores and deconstructs the sacred Islamic songs of her past by layering eerie vocals and shrill cries over a reverberating drone; as herself, she created Genre-Specific Xperience, in which she reinterprets five sub-genres of dance music: juke, hip hop, dubstep, electro-tropicalia, and ’90s Gregorian trance—which is all the more impressive when you find out she’s being haunted by jinn.

BULLETT: The Ayshay project is inspired by the Islamic prayer songs you used to hear when you were growing up in Kuwait. What was it that you remember feeling when you were listening to them?

FATIMA AL QADIRI: As a child, I used to think, This music is really creepy. They haven’t changed at all, they’ve just become digital and they were analog when I was growing up—they were on cassette tapes and now they’re on MP3s. Some use a bit of autotune, but they’re still mainly a cappella. They’re just as creepy now as they were then—maybe even creepier. More than anything, it was a genre that I wanted to draw from that not many people were drawing from. I was interested in experimentation with voice, too. After I added effects and filters, it was even less pure.

What appealed to you about taking this approach?

I just felt like if I didn’t layer my voice, if I didn’t pitch shift, if I didn’t create some kind of harmonic element, that would be boring. I also liked the idea of creating a deep—and by deep I mean big—vocal, like a man’s voice, using my own voice. These songs are sung by men, and their baritone vocals are what make the songs creepy. Creepy is a terrible word, and haunting seems like a really pretentious word, but it’s true—religion inspires fear. When I heard the songs as a child, I was still fearful of heaven and hell—so they inspired fear in me. And it’s not that I wanted to inspire fear in others, that wasn’t my objective; I wanted to articulate my fear from those songs into music.

In your “Muslim Trance” mix you sample sacred shi’ite and sunni a capella. Were you at all worried that in doing so you might offend people?

Obviously I was afraid, but at the same time I was like, They’re not going to find it. It’s on Dis, a small online magazine—it has a small audience. I was pretty confident it wasn’t going to reach the wrong people. My intention is not to offend anybody. I’m not making a political or religious statement, I’m making a musical statement solely and exclusively.

Do you consider the creation of music to be a spiritual experience?

It’s definitely a ritual, but it’s not a spiritual experience. I’m not a very spiritual person. I’m a very pragmatic person. I usually work from midnight until 5 am when I’m creating, and I usually edit in the daytime. This is one of the main reasons why I leave parties very early, because I get inspired by a track that someone’s DJing, and then I run home to work until dawn.

What is it about that time of night or early morning?

I don’t know, it’s the magic hour.

How much of your process as an artist is planned out in advance?

It’s all an afterthought. I understand concepts after I’ve completed the work, not during. I usually have a glint of an idea, and then I make a track, and I realize two weeks later what I was trying to do—odr I fashion or embellish a meaning for it. Sometimes I’m like, I want to go home and make a Detroit techno track, and obviously what comes out is completely different. I’ll hear something and want to try to recreate it, but I end up not recreating it—I end up reinterpreting it because to recreate something you have to replicate the rhythm and structure and I can’t do that. I ‘m not a fan of imitation—not to belittle imitation—and I don’t understand how beats work, so I wouldn’t dream of trying to recreate anything.

What about when people try to recreate your sound?

Unfortunately, I don’t give too much thought to my audience. I’ve been making music for myself since I was 9 years old, so once it’s out there, it’s out there, and I welcome interpretations.

Can you tell me about your other projects.

My next record is called Genre-Specfic Xperience—it’s also an EP—and it’s five tracks that reinterpret five sub-genres of contemporary dance music. It’s essentially a genreless record, and it has to do with the idea that record labels nowadays like to curate a sound. I just feel like that’s such a funny thing to do, and so I wanted to make tracks that explore the idea of what it is for music to be part of a system of sound, and why record labels curate that sounds. Literally the word is curate, because I feel like there’s a similarity between the music industry and the art world that needs to be explored.

Each record label has its own agenda, but overwhelmingly they try to stick to a sound. It makes sense commercially—people who are fans of this genre can expect to hear more of this genre in the next year, or the following year, but I just feel like it’s very limiting.

As an artist, that’s…

Ridiculous. I don’t want to say ridiculous—let me retract that. Why have limitations on such an arbitrary thing? There’s five tracks on the record, and each track has a video made for it that reinterprets the visual language of the musical genre. The record art is also made by visual artists who’ve worked on the videos, so the imagery is not arbitrary. It’s not like, Oh, this is a pretty design. Every aspect of the record, from the videos to the artwork to the music, fits into this very tight conceptual framework, which is, What is a genre-specific experience? Genre Specific Xperience is going to be launched at the New Museum so October 21, so all the videos will be premiered in the theater and there’ll be a curator.

I’d like to ask you a few questions for our Secret Issue: Do you rely more on logic or instinct?

Definitely instinct. I have a very realistic approach to things. I try not to dwell on illusions. But at the same time I’m very instinctual—extremely instinctual.

Do you believe spirits roam the earth?

Absolutely. They’re called jinn—that’s the Islamic word for spirits in purgatory. It’s something I believe in very firmly. The funny thing is that I don’t feel their presence in the West; I only feel their presence in, like, the Arab world and, say, Africa. In Kuwait, it’s like they’re there, everywhere I turn. It’s so weird.

Do you think it has to do with the history of the place?

Yeah, but also upbringing and education. I first heard about jinn when I was in kindergarten, so I already was scared of them in my earliest childhood memories. I don’t know if it’s a nostalgic fear, but it’s a true fear and a true dread.

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