Sight&Sound - 05.2020

(Jacob Rumans) #1
May 2020 | Sight&Sound | 17

Haunted: Mame Bineta Sane in Mati Diop’s Atlantics

melody’s the most interesting thing for me,”
she says, telling me how she improvised
along to looped scenes from Atlantics before
choosing which sounds to use. When I
describe her melodies as simple, she agrees.
“I definitely feel like that has to do with the
child composer inside me,” she says. “I started
writing during [Iraq’s 1990] occupation of Kuwait,
so [the melodies] come from this kind of well of
lost innocence – it’s like this frozen nine-year-
old writing music. Some of it is extremely sci-fi

because what I witnessed was sci-fi. And I feel like
a lot of my music has this longing inside it. Part
of that is Arab culture, which elevates longing
and melancholy as the greatest form of art.”
Al Qadiri was 11 when she first watched
the post-apocalyptic Japanese anime Akira
(1988), the film she says inspired her to want to
compose soundtracks. In the aftermath of the
1990-91 Gulf War, Otomo Katsuhiro’s film had
a particular impact. “I saw it just after surviving
this apocalypse, basically, that had happened to
my country, and seeing these children become
mutants and destroy their city, it made me cry.
It was a religious experience,” she recalls. Even
now, she cannot listen to some parts of the
soundtrack without tears. Yamashiro Shoji’s
remarkable score, performed by the group Geinoh
Yamashirogumi, which numbered more than 100
members, fuses digitally rendered Indonesian and
Japanese musical forms with rock and classical
music to become a kind of mutant entity itself. Al
Qadiri is one of many electronic musicians of her
generation to be influenced by it. “It’s a complete
mash-up of genre – that’s another reason I’m
so drawn to it,” she says. “I’m very interested in
the ideas and limitations of genres while also
running away from them as far as possible.”
A trace of Yamashiro’s hybrid approach can
be heard in Al Qadiri’s commitment to using
virtual instruments, enjoying rather than
trying to mask their inauthenticity. The sound
that drives ‘Souleiman’s Theme’ – recalling a
mbira, a traditional instrument from Zimbabwe
played with the thumbs and one finger – was
made with a digital version of a Hohner
Guitaret, itself an amplified thumb piano/
guitar hybrid from the 1960s. “It’s so removed
from the reality of a thumb piano,” she says.
“What we think of as folk music from around
the world is becoming almost completely
electronic,” she continues. “But also I like
the synthetic sound – it’s my sound. I like
how cold it is, how contemporary it is. I like
how it sounds like pixels and it’s going to
crumble in your hands when you touch it.
I feel like that’s what the world sounds like.
It doesn’t sound like a full orchestra.”
Atlantics is available to stream now on Netflix

By Frances Morgan
In Mati Diop’s Atlantics, ghosts manifest in times
of crisis. A group of young men drowned during
a sea voyage to Spain return to the sisters and
girlfriends they left behind, inhabiting the young
women’s bodies in order to tell their story and
redress the injustice that caused their migration –
a journey that was almost certain to end in death.
Even before its supernatural elements become
explicit, however, the film’s soundtrack hints at
another dimension beyond the daily routines
of work and domesticity it depicts in a suburb
of Dakar, Senegal. The electronic score by the
Berlin-based Kuwaiti musician Fatima Al Qadiri
is hypermodern in sound, yet its melodies have
an archetypal quality, reflecting the film’s shifting
registers between realist narrative, political
critique and the mythical romance of Ada (Mame
Bineta Sane) and Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré).
The music does not unite so much as stand
apart from these distinct registers, coming
to the fore during moments of reflection,
memory and transformation: of day into
night; girls into jinn (supernatural spirits); and
the ceaseless motion of the Atlantic itself.
“The most memorable scores are characters
in their own right,” says Al Qadiri. “They’re
another lead character, so they’re not part of
the ethnographic make-up of the film. They’re
living their own surreal soundscape – it’s
almost as if they’re speaking a language.”
Atlantics is Al Qadiri’s first feature film score,
yet she tells me she has wanted to soundtrack
a film since she was a child. This is not hard to
believe, since the Kuwaiti composer’s previous
recordings have been highly conceptual.
Asiatisch (2014) evoked a futuristic China as
imagined in the West, and Brute (2016) critiqued
police violence and the media landscape that
demonises protest, sampling recordings from
news footage. It was because of the latter album
that Diop, herself a DJ and musician, approached
Al Qadiri with the script for Atlantics.
Diop was keen to include elements of Brute,
but Al Qadiri wanted Atlantics to be something
new, opting for gentler, less percussive and
more dreamlike textures than the “menacing
and threatening” palette of Brute. Yet while the
overall sound of Atlantics is often softly hazy,
reflecting the bleached, dusty colours of Dakar
captured by cinematographer Claire Mathon,
every note is deliberately placed, weighted with
potent pauses and heavy bass frequencies that
point to Al Qadiri’s familiarity with dance music.
Electronic film soundtracks can often end up as a
wash of timbres that, while immersive, can also
dull tension and preclude deeper engagement.
In contrast, Al Qadiri leaves space in her score,
compelling you not to forget the geopolitical
realities that have shaped the magical narrative.
When composing, Al Qadiri says she
focuses on melody as the “guiding force” before
sound design. “I’m obsessed with melody –


Fatima Al Qadiri’s score for Mati
Diop’s contemporary ghost
story Atlantics feels like folksong,
and it feels like the future


‘ A lot of my music has this

longing inside it – Arab culture

elevates longing and melancholy

as the greatest form of art’


In her solo albums and with the group Future
Brown, Fatima Al Qadiri creates hybrid
electronic music that addresses urgent issues of
displacement, globalisation and what she calls
the “illusion” of democracy. Born in Dakar in 1981,
Al Qadiri returned to Kuwait with her family when
still a baby, and has no memories of Senegal.
Yet seeing Dakar through Mati Diop’s lens, she
found that, “In Kuwait you have the sea and these
sandy neighbourhoods overwhelmed with dust;
and the humidity – it was very relatable to me.”
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