Asiatisch, the first full-length by Brooklyn-based composer, musician and visual artist Fatima Al Qadiri, opens with a familiar melody. Over a bed of female voices, Helen Feng (ex-MTV China VJ and lead singer of Nova Heart) sings in Mandarin to the tune of Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares to You.” Beneath the melody, the choir arrangement shifts and modulates, each voice sampled and replicated into chords. Feng’s words, when translated back into English, amount to nonsense.
Al Qadiri, born in Kuwait and educated at American universities, works in the cracks between cultures, and much of Asiatisch concerns such (mis)translations between West and East. Asiatisch is the German word for “Asian,” while a press release describes the project as “a simulated road trip through an imagined China.” On Asiatisch, as with the Desert Strike and Genre-Specific eXperience EPs before it, uses ready-made sounds and places them in contexts at once expected and improper.
Most tracks on Asiatisch contain samples of a female chorus, a zither or a xiao (a bamboo flute). They sit above the mix, minimally processed. Al Qadiri’s tour through imagined China depends on these presets; they’re how the West imagines Chinese sounds. At times, she plays with these presets and presumptions. “Shanghai Freeway” builds itself on a series of steel drum arpeggiations, weaving in and out of focus. Steel drums, however, originated in Trinidad and Tobago.
For much of the album, it’s difficult to grasp the larger message. Making highly conceptual beat-based music presents a daunting task: Since there’s very little to grasp by way of spoken message, meaning must come from the music’s interaction with its explanation. Integrating these materials into the sounds itself makes Asiatisch a challenging listen. For Al Qadiri, though, there’s something productive in making a record with little sense on the surface. At every moment, she points away from the sound itself. Imagining China requires more than easy listening.