In Conversation: Fatima Al Qadiri on Her Haunted Digital Score for Mati Diop’s “Atlantics”

On her first soundtracking experience, decolonizing art, and why an electronic film score is so unique. 
Film + TV
In Conversation: Fatima Al Qadiri on Her Haunted Digital Score for Mati Diop’s “Atlantics”

On her first soundtracking experience, decolonizing art, and why an electronic film score is so unique. 

Words: Carlos Aguilar

December 06, 2019

“Digital dust” is how Kuwaiti musician Fatima Al Qadiri describes the hypnotically eerie score she created for French-Senegalese actress/filmmaker Mati Diop’s first feature, Atlantics. A supernatural romance set in modern-day Dakar, the Grand Prix–winning film intersperses the unique socioeconomic and religious context of a post-colonial West African nation with the ancient belief of otherworldly possession.   

As intangible as Al Qadiri’s digital sounds may seem, her tracks in Diop’s film transcend geographical context. Listening to her score feels like what being hugged by a ghost probably would—a sensation that is spiritual rather than physical. It’s music of the soul and not the flesh. 

Raised on a pop culture diet balanced with Asian cartoons dubbed in Arabic, video game music, analog keyboards, and a British education, Al Qadiri’s international artistic sensibilities were eclectically molded. She remembers watching anime masterwork Akira when she was eleven years old and realizing she wanted to create music for films—but that dream didn’t come to fruition until Diop reached out to her with an invitation to add a spectral sonic veneer to a movie she was working on. 

Diop has cited two of Al Qadiri’s previous releases, the album Brute and the EP Desert Strike, as the ones that first ignited her appreciation for the musician’s work; and both were present in the director’s consciousness when writing her debut film. This symbiotic pairing, a match grounded on unspoken ideological similarities, has given us one of the most entrancing fusions of sound and image this year. 

How did you and Mati Diop meet? Was there a relationship between the two of you before Atlantics came about? 

She reached out to me via my Facebook fan page, which was really cute. She sent one message to the fan page and one to my website—there’s a contact form—and wrote a very long and beautiful email. I had received so many offers to do soundtracks that never materialized, so I became very protective and thought, “Oh this is not real.” Then a month later her producer contacted my manager, and that’s when I started taking the request seriously, because I didn’t know her. We decided to set up a meeting a year later, after she had written the script. She came to me in Berlin, which is where I lived. We talked for a whole day, getting to know each other, playing each other music videos, her talking to me about her ideas. It was really hard for me to visualize the film from the script, because I had never read a script before. 

Since you’d never read a screenplay before, what surprised you about the way stories are told in that format?

I didn’t realize how dry they were. They don’t really lend themselves to imagination. Maybe for a director, but not for me, because they’re full of instructions. I can’t really visualize the film behind them. But I told her, “Listen, I’m down to do it, but before I can commit, I want to see the first edit. I want to see some footage before I can commit to this project.” And so last year, in October, they had the first edit. She didn’t want to send it to me; she wanted me to come to Paris in person and look at it in an editing suite with her. She wanted it to be very personal, which I appreciate. I got on a plane, I went to Paris, I looked at it, and I immediately knew I wanted to work on it. Her instructions were very delicate. I would have never made a score like this had it not been for her pushing me in a certain direction. 

What direction was that? Was it in opposition to what you would normally do? 

A really gentle and fragile one, because my music has a tendency to be very maximal, even though there is not so much information in my music. The melodies are very maximal, very emotional, and very overwhelming. So she was trying to push me in the other direction, to tame it down a little bit, not to overwhelm the characters. She had a balance, like literally a pH balance for film. Imagine that the music was the cream on the skin, and she had a really specific balance that she wanted it to be that I didn’t really grasp until we finished the process, until I could see the whole thing. It was amazing that she pulled that out of me. 

“Musically, and in every aspect of the entertainment industry, people are coming in from non-Western, non-white backgrounds and reclaiming their stories. That is the main thing about this film—it’s a reclamation of the migration narrative.”

How did you proceed after watching that first cut and signing on to do the score?  

After the first cut I immediately went to Japan. I was on tour. I had a tiny little keyboard that I take on tour with me, and I immediately started working on it. I said, “Listen, let me make a first track for you and see how you feel about it,” just to see if it worked. I also didn’t want to disappoint her. So I made the music for the scene where Souleiman is on the truck with all the other boys, and the sea is going past them. That was the one I immediately wanted to do first.

What did that particular image evoke for you? 

It’s the sea, being in a dusty truck, and having life go through you. The boys are saying protective prayers, because they know the chances of dying that night are very high. That really moved me. I wanted something that sounded like a wave was crashing over him, that he might be seeing the last day of his life, like an omen. And also seeing people fishing and enjoying themselves by the sea, the simple pleasures of life. Psychologically, it was a really dark scene, and I wanted to delve into it immediately. Mati loved it, and then we started in earnest getting on with the rest of the music.

Were there any other images in the film that struck you for their musical potential?

All the sunsets and all the seas are really close to home for me, because they look like Kuwait. Kuwait is just a very flat desert area with a huge sun, a huge sky, and a massive sea. But also, the scene of the girls waking up and crossing the street and going into the suburbs. That scene was definitely one of my favorites, one of the spookier bits of the film I really loved. Also the sunset fever scenes, when Issa is turning, so to speak, into Souleiman. I loved making music for those scenes, because I loved those transformations into the supernatural. 

Was working from images created with a director’s perspective a difficult task?

I had never worked with a feature film. I had made music for a short film, but not this way. I had given the tracks to the director and he put them in without my input. He put them in beautifully, they really worked, but they weren’t specifically created for the project. The thing about it that was difficult was that it wasn’t my process. It was achieving Mati’s vision. Some scenes I had to rewrite ten times, and I hadn’t been used to that process of feedback from a director, because everything I do is self-directed. I’m really glad that she pushed me, because the end result was much better than my first two or three takes, but also, it makes sense—at the end of the day it’s her vision. She’s also very methodical, and really likes to reflect. She doesn’t make quick decisions about anything. She would say, “Let me sit with it and then I’ll come back to you.” 

Fatima Al Qadiri / photo by Dom Smith

Mati Diop has described your score as a jinn, an otherworldly entity in Muslim cultures. Would you agree with that assessment?

Definitely. Even when writing the music, I was writing it between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. every night, so I wanted to get in the mindset and the atmosphere that was right for conjuring this vibe. I wrote 80 percent of the score in Kuwait. I would stop at 5 a.m. with the call to prayer. The call to prayer was my alarm clock. But it’s very creepy to write at this hour, especially in Kuwait, because it’s very haunted. It’s so haunted; even when I’m walking in my house, I’m scared. There’s a reason I went there to write this. We have several islands in Kuwait, and one of them has Greek ruins from the time of Alexander the Great, and it has ruins from the Bronze Age. There’s some old business in this area, all the wars and colonialism, the Gulf War being the most recent one that’s happened in my lifetime. And equally so, the Atlantic Ocean is haunted, from the slave trade to all the migrations that have happened. There’s mysticism in both countries, and it’s part of the general culture. These are not fringe, niche beliefs. 

Diop has often said one of her unconscious driving forces behind creating art is the idea of decolonizing cinema. Coming from another country that, like Senegal, was a victim of Western colonialism, do you feel the same about your music?

For sure. I went to a British school in Kuwait, and it took me years, decades even, to decolonize all the British education, the education of the empire: how incredible the British Empire was, and how civilizing it was, and how everybody else is a savage. It took me a long time to decolonize my brain, because it really seeps into you, learning this as a child. And musically, it’s incredible to work with other people who have grown up with this, and have rejected it in their lifetime, because some people, they just go through life without realizing that they’ve been brainwashed. I haven’t fully decolonized my brain. I catch myself all the time saying things that have been drilled into me. I definitely feel like musically, and just in every aspect of the entertainment industry, people are coming in from non-Western, non-white backgrounds, and are reclaiming their stories. This is the main thing about this film—it’s a reclamation of the migration narrative. It’s repossession. 

Was the music for Atlantics created entirely digitally, or were there any analog sounds involved? Given that the film takes place in Senegal, did you reference any African rhythms or instruments in the score? 

No, I really loved that Mati allowed me to make an electronic score for this film, because I feel like it’s a very specific director that is into electronic music. Most times they want orchestral scores or they want live instruments, and I feel like electronic music is the current music in every continent, not just in the West. I’m a huge fan of African dance music, and there are so many genres from every country. 

I do feel like there is something very ephemeral about electronic music. It’s like, this file is here and then it disappears tomorrow and it’s gone forever. This ephemerality relates also to life, and there’s something very current about it, the notion of things that are just lost forever, and that you can’t grasp, that are not physical objects. In a way, the machine that creates these sounds is also possessed. You can do anything with it. It’s a tabula rasa, and you can imbue it with whatever you want. 

One of the instruments I did use that has an African feel is the Hohner Guitaret, which is the repetitive melody in the scene with Souleiman on the truck by the sea. It sounds like a thumb piano, but it’s not, it’s 100 percent an electronic instrument—but it has this thumb piano sound, and the thumb piano is a very African instrument. That was the only thing. 

“I feel like there is something very ephemeral about electronic music. It’s like, this file is here and then it disappears tomorrow and it’s gone forever. This ephemerality relates to life.”

I didn’t want it to become too ethnographic, because it wouldn’t have been authentic. It wouldn’t have been authentic to me, and it wouldn’t have been authentic to Senegal. What’s the point of creating this kind of fake sound palette? I felt it was more realistic to make a score using instruments or sounds that I’ve been using for years. I really appreciated Mati giving me the liberty to do that, because initially she felt that my sound was very cold and very digital, and she wanted something more warm and analog, but I told her, “The cold digital sound is my sound.” I actually don’t use analog at all. It’s not my process.

What was the process behind making the track “Boys in the Mirror,” which plays at a very pivotal moment in the film? 

It’s crazy because that track was written for another scene in the film, and I had rewritten the music for that scene so many times, and by the ninth time I was so sad. I thought, “I’m never going to be able to please Mati for this scene.” It was originally for the scene when Ada is walking from the empty nightclub at the end of the night after the boys didn’t appear. 

She had reference music that she ended up using for the final film, a piece by Dean Blunt. I tried for the life of me to replace it and at the end I told her, “You know what, you should keep this. If this is what you want for the scene, keep it. I’m not going to replace it.” But what I wrote on my ninth attempt to change that piece became “Boys in the Mirror.” Mati said, “This track is for that scene,” because we were going through the film chronologically. 

She used reference music for the whole first edit, so I was going through it, replacing each one. We kept 38 percent of the references, and I replaced the other 62 percent. Some of them I also didn’t want to replace; for instance, the music in the nightclub was a Senegalese dance track. I was like, “You have to keep this. I’m not going to make a fake Senegalese dance track.” So I ended up making “Boys in the Mirror” while trying to replace another track—that’s the sound of me being very hurt and forlorn [laughs]. FL