Ocean of Sound

Theo Spielberg appreciates Fatima Al Qadiri’s haunting score for the 2019 Senegalese film “Atlantics.”

By Theo SpielbergApril 11, 2024

Ocean of Sound

THE FIRST (AND LAST) sound we hear in Mati Diop’s extraordinary 2019 film Atlantics is the low, persistent thrum of the ocean, accompanied by the whistle of the rising wind. The movie—part love story, part ghost story, part detective noir, part geopolitical commentary—takes place in Dakar, Senegal, where Diop casts the ocean as the central embodiment of the collisions in the film. Its fizz often acts as a connective tissue between scenes: though the camera may hop from location to location, the sound of the sea is there, haunting the background.


The film, and particularly its score, has likewise haunted me since I first saw it. The movie begins with a crew of unpaid Senegalese construction workers setting out to sea. A man named Souleiman is among them, tortured that he’s leaving his lover, Ada, behind. In a tale-as-old-as-time setup, Ada is betrothed to a richer man, but she longs for Souleiman. The night before she is to marry, the marriage bed catches fire, and she is suspected of arson. When a detective begins to investigate Ada, the fate of Souleiman and his friends dovetails with the lives of their loved ones. Tidal forces may be at the center of Atlantics’ ethereal nature, but the film never ventures out to sea. Atlantics is an immigrant story told from the point of view of those left behind, a perspectival coup.


The stark juxtapositions of the movie are often held together by composer Fatima Al Qadiri’s fluid score. As an artist, she is capable of great depth of feeling and can braid seemingly disparate elements together into a satisfying plait. Al Qadiri is a member of GCC, an artists’ collective formed in 2013 at Art Dubai that has exhibited at the 9th Berlin Biennale, MOMA PS1, and the Sharjah Art Foundation. She is Kuwaiti by way of Dakar—having left Senegal at age two—and she is well versed in imbuing her art with emotional dissonance. Her 2012 Desert Strike EP references the Gulf War and its surreal personal aftermath for Al Qadiri. She describes “surviving the invasion of Kuwait, the war, and then playing a video game based on those events a year later.” The beats of Desert Strike are sometimes punctuated with the percussion of weapons cocking and firing, and yet the music is oddly calming, hypnotic.


Al Qadiri works in a similar mode throughout Atlantics, with a modest palette, and leverages the same basic formula: a handful of plunked notes, granular electronic wash, grumbling low end and melodic midrange. Somehow, this minimalism services a spectrum of moods: haunting, horny, noirish, exhausted. Each piece accommodates the film’s voracious genre curiosity. In the world of Atlantics, Al Qadiri’s score is a global language with regional dialects, pulling the film’s broad thematic range into conversation.


In a recent call, Al Qadiri told me that she approached the score wanting to use sounds with “some kind of spiritual connection to Senegal that wasn’t a direct use of a West African instrument.” Al Qadiri landed on the Hohner Guitaret, an electric lamellophone manufactured between 1963 and 1965. The gadgety instrument sounds like something between a synthesized thumb piano and a plucked banjo, nostalgia and uncanny valley.


In the film, the first notes of Al Qadiri’s music play over a wordless scene: Souleiman and his friends are driving a just-paved road after being refused four months of back pay for working construction on the futuristic tower dominating the skyline. The Guitaret forms the backbone of “Souleiman’s Theme.” The world is dusty, washed out, and the ocean churns just beyond the highway. The hum of the motor becomes indistinguishable from the crush of the waves, and Al Qadiri’s liquid notes come tumbling out, followed by an ominous electronic swirl. The rumbling engine and the crashing surf commingle with Fatima’s buzz-saw synth on the low end, and her celestial keyboard floats on the high end. The music is expectant—not quite hopeful, not quite anxious. You feel the precariously placed hopes of these young men, about to be crushed by the gears of an unsympathetic system.


The music charges to life during the arranged marriage of Ada and Omar. Diop once again starts with a full frame of ocean, and then suddenly cuts to the pandemonium of the wedding parade. The score swells to a sickening, staticky squall. The whole thing feels vaguely unholy, as if the spiritual realm is rejecting this course of events. The texture of the parade noise, which sits just under Al Qadiri’s score, is a reminder of the diegetic richness in Atlantics. The film is lush with the sounds of car horns, neighbors, street chatter, seabirds. Al Qadiri explored similar terrain in her 2016 album Brute, incorporating live recordings of the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, as well as other pieces of found sound, giving the sonic landscape more textural heft and emphasizing the underlying political implications of her work.


Al Qadiri’s use of the Guitaret and its pervasive timbre establishes the unusual, impossible-to-emulate mood of Atlantics: both organic and electronic, brightened tones and darkened moods. It’s a little otherworldly. “I didn’t want to make a folk score,” she explains. “Even though I was born in Dakar, I didn’t feel like a Senegalese folk score was right for me to make, you know?” Fittingly, Al Qadiri uses virtual instruments, so the sound that eventually makes it into Atlantics is a digital recreation of an electronic version of the folk instrument.


When speaking of Atlantics, Al Qadiri looks back rosily. “This was my first time scoring a film, it was Mati’s [first] feature, it was the producer’s first feature, it was our collective first.” Toward the end of our conversation, Fatima circled back to remember the instrumental origins of her work: “My first experience with a thumb piano was in my house in Kuwait, and it was a thumb piano that my father had bought in Dakar. Literally, it’s one of my earliest childhood memories.” For her, the Guitaret, “as a sound, just has that childlike quality.” Al Qadiri saw the same type of innocence in Diop’s film. “I felt Souleiman was a very innocent character,” she says. “Both of them, Ada and Souleiman, there’s a world-weariness to them, in their socioeconomic circumstances, but ultimately I felt like their souls were innocent.” Al Qadiri wanted to convey both “that innocence and that loss of innocence.”


It’s fitting, then, to return to the dueling sounds of the ocean—the bass of water and treble of wind, the high and the low. It is from the sea itself that the score springs to life, evolving out of the water’s perplexing rhythms.

LARB Contributor

Theo Spielberg is a 2023 MFA candidate at Columbia University and a Felipe P. De Alba Fellow. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Theo received his BA in comparative literature from Yale University. After a decade in music, he is now focused on literary projects.

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