The concept that supposedly underlies Asiatisch must be one of the year’s most compelling. Asked by her friends to provide a “cheap Chinese instrumental” to go underneath a nonsensical Chinese version of Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” found on YouTube, producer and multi-disciplinary artist Fatima Al Qadiri did exactly the opposite; her friends didn’t use it. Al Qadiri used this inspiration as a jumping off point to posit a notion of an imagined China, described to The Guardian recently as something that has been disseminating its way through Western culture for centuries. “The Asia in Asiatisch is a nexus of stereotypes that have been perpetrated, elaborated, embellished and weaved, each time further and further dislocated from the original misrepresentation,” she explains.
Speaking in another interview with Dazed, Al Qadiri explained that the title comes from the German word for Asian, chosen due to her own unfamiliarity with the language. Its something that ties neatly in with what she sees as the key themes of the album – the sense of alienation Westerners feel from Chinese culture, as well as being a critique of the demonisation of Chinese culture itself at the hands of the West. “I’m drawing attention to this notion of ‘what is Asian?” she explains. “Why does this word function the way it does?’ “Asiatisch” makes it even more rarified and more alien and more removed.” It’s this double layer of meaning that makes for such a compelling narrative throughout the album. On this basis at least, Asiatisch might be one of the most thought-provoking albums of the year.
However, in musical terms, Asiatisch is arguably much less strong than its concept suggests. Look back to her earlier work, such as 2011’s Genre Specific Xperience on UNO, specifically the melodic tones of “Hip Hop Spa” and “D-Medley”, and things seem very familiar indeed. The former of those tracks, as Al Qadiri explained to Dazed in 2012, was envisioned as a soundtrack to “a luxury spa for black rappers”, but either could easily be slotted in to Asiatisch without standing out too much. There is no getting away from the fact that Asiatisch sees her tread very familiar musical ground, returning to the grime tropes she has been playing with for years, albeit adopting a slightly more Eastern tonality to fit the theme. Outside of these simplistic musical signifiers however the album as a whole does surprisingly little to justify the lofty concept, offering little engagement with these issues outside of the press release.
Where the music of Asiatisch is successful, is in conveying the sense of alienation the West feels from Chinese culture that Al Qadiri sees as one of the album’s key themes. “Shanzai” begins with the aforementioned nonsense version of “Nothing Compares 2 U”; it’s a shame that its presence has been so widely reported as it’s easily the album’s highlight, mainly due to the surprise it delivers. Eerily familiar yet completely alien, it offers an aural double take which cleverly sets the tone for the album as a whole. The robot vocal of “Loading Beijing” meanwhile hints at a strange kind of virtual China creeping in on the Western experience, characterised by a blank cybernetic stare. The alienation Al Qadiri presents is one of a Westerner presented with a culture fed back to them through Google translate, and when it works it’s undeniably unsettling.
While much has been made of Asiatisch as a “homage” to sinogrime, a sub-genre of grime retroactively named by Kode9 after a body of tracks made by Wiley and Jammer in the early 2000s, Al Qadiri has admitted she had no idea such a thing existed until after the album was finished. As such it’s difficult to take seriously as homage, but the spaciousness of this kind of music, the pregnant pauses, icy textures and detached, extraterrestrial melodies all make the perfect palette for an album which seeks to offer a critique of the demonisation of China. The synthetic choirs and plucked strings of “Szechuan” and “Hainan Island” are both punctuated with well-placed chimes and sinister bass, which perfectly reflect the presumed menace of China; “Dragon Tattoo” is another such exercise, pairing militaristic synth sweeps with a blank-faced lyric inspired by the Lady and The Tramp song “We Are Siamese”. There’s a sense of imperial regality running through these tracks which hints at China’s immense size as seen through the eyes of the west, something best demonstrated on “Shanghai Freeway”, whose brisk steel drum melody and glacial bass pads have enough cinematic dread attached to them to convey that rising sense of threat some quarters of the west perceives from China. It’s these moments where Al Qadiri’s simplistic soft-synth MIDI components become more than the sum of their parts.
If we are to take the concept of Asiatisch at face value, then it is meant to be an album about something that doesn’t really exist, and critiquing it on the basis of its artificiality is difficult. 2012’s Fade To Mind-released Desert Strike EP was similarly defined by artifice, but it was also based around a more personal experience from Al Qadiri’s childhood; the indignity of having her childhood traumas during the Gulf War in ‘90s Kuwait fed back to her in the form of a video game when she moved to the USA a short time later. The music on Desert Strike, specifically the dramatic “Ghost Raid”, littered with gunshots which transcended the recognisable grime association, didn’t need a press release to understand, accurately conveying the trauma of her own experience through the music. Divorced from its conceptual framework, it’s difficult to imagine the music of Asiatisch holding up to scrutiny quite as well.
1. Shanzhai (for Shanzhan Biennial) ft. Helen Feng
4. Loading Beijing
5. Hainan Island
7. Dragon Tattoo
8. Forbidden City
9. Shanghai Freeway
10. Jade Stairs