- The artist's majestic third album channels the desperation, romance and longing of medieval poetry.
- There's a story about the famed Arab poet al-Khansāʾ that is almost as enduring as her work. The beloved poet, who was allegedly a favorite of the prophet Muhammad, was described by her male contemporary al-Nābighah al-Dhubyānī as "the greatest poet among those with breasts." To this, the assured woman replied, "I am the greatest poet among those with testicles, too."
Al-Khansā is regarded as one of the many influential female Arab poets in the Middle Ages who wrote in order to mourn the dead, to entertain the court and to propel steely eyed warriors to martyrdom. These women are documented as regal characters: helplessly witty, defiant and, when placed under the spell of love, impassioned. While these figures are typically neglected in scholarship, careful digging has brought to light hundreds of Arab poetesses who have extracted beauty out of some of life's most devastating moments.
This is a fitting assignment for a composer like Fatima Al Qadiri, whose conceptual catalog addresses socio-historical matters. "I'm personally just obsessed with history and want to try to fit it into everything I do," she once said in an interview with Jace Clayton. "I definitely feel that narrative and storytelling is a feminine activity, and is an oral tradition at odds with Western macho spaces, you know?"
Al Qadiri's latest album, Medieval Femme, courses through the maelstrom of emotions—from the Dionysian highs to the chilling lows—dealt with in the poems written by Arab women from the medieval period. The record is cloaked in high drama, with larger-than-life production that feels like a natural progression from her soundtrack work on Mati Diop's 2019 film, Atlantics. Al Qadiri is no stranger to emotive music, and has cultivated a wide following with her transportive fusion of dark, seductive and melodically lush compositions. She understands that the same feelings and sounds that haunt you can also create beauty and curiosity.
There's a gentleness to tracks like "A Certain Concubine," where dainty strings contrast eerie pads. Like much of the album, this cut is steeped in antiquated melodies but also sounds alien. It's like music plucked from a half-remembered dream. Though admittedly Al Qadiri's setup is simple (she primarily works off her computer), any listener unfamiliar with her work might be shocked to find out she didn't actually collaborate with a chamber ensemble. For example, after a gauntlet of distorted drones in "Vanity," hopeful woodwind synths emerge slowly, like petals unfurling from a flowering branch in early spring. The pastoral "Zandaq" creates a sonic utopia with the aid of harps, fluttering woodwind and the occasional sprinkle of bright harpsichord.
Al Qadiri's appreciation for classical music, as well as her fascination with grime, makes for this distinct mix of styles. "It just sounded like the most timeless music," she once said about her first time hearing grime. "It sounded like someone had taken video game music and advanced it into the realm of classical composition." Her grime influences are apparent on tracks like "Sheba," which could be the work of Ikonika—if she had an affinity for baroque scales.
In addition to its striking sound palette, the record is almost visual in its interpretation of ancient poetry. On "Tasakuba," reverb-soaked vocals appear like hushed murmurs in the shadows of a long hallway, while "Malaak" has an almost villainous narrative arc. Here, Al Qadiri's talents are on display: spooky pads anchor the track while her resonant vocals engage in a back-and-forth dialogue with an ornamental melody. Like an excited peacock fanning out its feathers, a sparse flute adorns the piece towards its close.
The addition of that flute synth, albeit subtle, transforms "Malaak" from a menacing soundscape into something that befits a fantasy film. There's something truly extraordinary about Al Qadiri's constant balancing act of light and dark, and each passing moment brings with it a new thrill. The romance, despair and yearning of Middle Age verses comes through effortlessly in Medieval Femme, where Al Qadiri's own talent as a storyteller is magnificent.
01. Medieval Femme
02. A Certain Concubine
05. Stolen Kiss Of A Succubus
07. Qasmuna (Dreaming)