Asiatisch (German for ‘Asia’), the 2014 debut of Senegal-born, Kuwait-raised musician Fatima Al Qadiri, is described on her website as a simulated road trip through an imagined China. I am intrigued by the idea of sonically imagining a country that you’ve never visited using only the cultural, political and social reference points laid down by other cultures which, of themselves, are not necessarily concerned about replicating the place with any degree of faithfulness.
This album appears to be contributing to a discourse that explores Western popular culture’s appropriation of Asia. Consider the status of martial arts movies in post-war American youth culture; the extolling of ‘traditional’ practices and ancient wisdom (as found in fortune cookies?); anime and comic book fetishism; largely negative/Communist screen roles (from Cheng Zhi in 24 and Lau in The Dark Knight to the tropes that litter Disney movies – although this does appear to be changing as China in particular becomes a more lucrative market).
Al Qadiri makes a good point about what for many Western children is their first exposure to East Asian music/culture, the piano piece ‘Chopsticks’:
“I feel like my first engagement with Chinese culture was either through Looney Tunes or a Disney cartoon, one of the two. Musically, I wanna say probably (laughing) ‘Chopsticks’. You know, I feel like ‘Chopsticks’ is like the consummate imagined Chinese piece of music. Even the title!”
Asiatisch’s overarching aesthetic takes familiar symbols of China – flickers of zither, pentatonic scales, ethereal pipes and percussion – and weaves these into a stark, synthetic vision of a country: a vision that’s cold to the touch. I hear it as a sound that simultaneously invites and distances, that professes authenticity and a spiritual connection with its source material, but then coats every surface with an almost plasticated sheen, the equivalent of an ‘ethnic’ craft shop housed in a sleek, ultra-modern chrome-and-glass shopping mall.
The juxtaposition of expression and remoteness can be heard in the twitchy, robotic/not robotic interjections throughout ‘Wudang’, and most notably on the cover of Prince’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’. A deeply affecting vocal in its most well-known form, Helen Feng delivers it in a Mandarin-flavoured gibberish. It’s worth noting that the title of this version (‘Shanzhai’) literally translates as ‘fake goods‘.
As alien as the music often sounds, it seems natural that the sonic palette for much of the album is derived from sino-grime. A muscular South/East London sub-genre of dance music from the early 2000s, it yielded some great instrumentals by transferring uninformed notions of Eastern mysticism, motifs and instrumentation onto experiments with mutant bass and sparse, glacial synths. On Asiatisch the listener is clearly being ushered into a fantasy-realm of music, but one that asks questions of the West in our handling of China’s cultural assets, our perception of its value.
When I was a music teacher in the UK some years ago, I remember the sharply contrasting attitudes towards the canon of Western classical music – a definitive, sacred, ever-relevant oeuvre – and the facsimiles of Chinese and African music that were all too often presented as the ‘other’: exotic, rudimentary, fossilized. Thompson (2002) expounds on this idea, asserting that:
[the canon represents] a selective and exclusive tradition that embodies certain values, notably Western ideals and standards of truth and beauty. Afforded authority and status over time, it reflects the interests of the dominant groups in society… In contrast, the ‘other’ is a category traditionally associated with limited position and power.
Upon reflection, I now view those experiences of classroom ‘world music’ as an artificial construct, sometimes watered down to the point of near irrelevance. As Al Qadiri puts it, ‘a projection of a dominant culture onto another marginal one’. Yet, even as the music reimagined the countries it represented, to my students perhaps it was unquestionably authentic. This is what draws me to Asiatisch; a place where it’s possible to hear the sound of a cultural and musical identity being appraised and renegotiated from outside of its borders.
Listen to Asiatisch here.
Cliff, A. (2015). Fatima Al Qadiri’s Chinese fantasy. Dazed. http://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/19759/1/fatima-al-qadiris-chinese-fantasy
Fritz, B., and Horn, J. (2011). Reel China: Hollywood tries to stay on China’s good side. Los Angeles Times. http://articles.latimes.com/2011/mar/16/entertainment/la-et-china-red-dawn-20110316
Kelly, D. (2014). Fortune Cookies Aren’t Chinese. Knowledge Nuts. http://www.knowledgenuts.com/2014/01/25/fortune-cookies-arent-chinese/
Rose, S. (2014). Repressed Brits, evil Mexicans, Arab villains: why are Hollywood’s animated movies full of racist stereotypes? The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/apr/06/repressed-brits-evil-mexicans-arab-villains-hollywood-animated-movies-stereotypes
Thompson, K. (2002). A Critical Discourse Analysis of World Music as the ‘Other’ in Education. Research Studies in Music Education, 19(1), 14-21.