My favorite boy band is back with a punk new edition.
“A South Asian mother’s worst nightmare,” The Kominas is a Boston-based Bollywood punk band. Band members range in age from 22 to 30 years old and are a hodgepodge of middle-class, frustrated but fun-loving musicians, chemists, journalists, college dropouts (and graduates) who are trying to find their place in society. [Wiretap]
Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay, The Kominas first full length EP dropped last month on CD Baby as well as on iTunes. I’ve been listening to the album on repeat while at the gym and have found myself jaw dropping on more than one occasion as the album took me on a lyrical journey intertwining Islam, politics, and profanity. The album is polished, with a clean sound and reflecting a range of punk sounds and complicated influences. Wild Nights reminds me of a NOFX album in composition — up beat crass punk while subliminally highlighting social and political complexities. But in The Kominas case, the added spice of intersectionality between Islam, American, Desi, South Asian, and punk rock.
I had previously introduced the The Kominas to the Mutiny, and Abhi blogged about a punk benefit concert that the halal punkers did for a Hindu temple. I like them, their music, and what they represent – they are a bunch of desi kids wreaking punk rock havoc internationally. Currently two band members are based in Lahore working on a new band, Noble Drew. For our Indian Mutiny, the guys plan on crossing the border to India for a punk rock blitz in New Delhi at the end of December, so be sure to check them out.
I sat down (virtually) with The Kominas band member Basim Usmani (a fellow blogger and SM reader) for a long talk about the album, what it’s like to be a Muslim punk, and the Taqwacores growing movement.
How would you describe The Kominas?
Like Madhuri’s belly during the Choli Ke Peechay Kya Hain video.
In a previous interview I did with your band mate Shahjehan, he mentioned that you guys met at the mosque and he didn’t grow up on punk rock. He said that you made him a mix CD called Punk 101. When and why did you start listening to punk? When did you start playing music?
It was 9th grade in this Suburb called Lexington – and high school was weird. I had an accent. I was unpopular. I wanted to go to big arena concerts all the time…but my parents thought they were a den of decadence. I was only allowed to attend local shows at VFWs and veteran halls, which were incidentally crust punk and d-beat shows. The first concert I saw was a band called CLASS ACTION, and the singer had the ‘charged’ liberty spikes. People were pogoing, stomping, circle pitting, and the charged singer let me get on the mic for a few songs. Suddenly I had cool friends, I cut class and took the train, I saw all-ages shows (most non-Punk shows are 21+ in Boston). I had friends who thought being foreign or unique was cool. I was no longer unpopular. I was legion.
The ‘Taqwacore‘ is what this “Muslim punk rock movement” is popularly referred to, based on a book by that title written by Michael Muhammad Knight. How would categorize your music? How do you think that this genre of music â€“ Taqwacore â€“ compares to Christian punk rock, like MXPX?
Michael Muhammad Knight saw our music as a cultural no-fly zone. Most people in Boston don’t have the background we do, and we were creating a cultural space for ourselves where there was none. With no disrespect to MXPX, Christianity is the dominant religion in America, and will create a cultural space for itself in any genre. It may be radical to American punks that you can be both Christian and Punk, but its really no surprise for anyone else. There’s Christian rap, jazz, classical. All the early rock n rollers of the 1950s were devout Christians. Maybe if there was Pakistani Christian Punk, then we’d be talking about similarities.
You have a couple of non-Muslim Bengali guys now in the band â€“ how do they feel about playing in a band so known for the intersection of Islam and punk?
Arjun and Karna Ray, the Bengali brothers, are like family to me. They understand how Islam has been maligned; Arjun knows more about the Gujarati genocide of Muslims than I do. But together, its about discovering common ground. We always party like it’s 1946.
You went on an east coast tour last summer on a beat up bus with Michael Muhammad Knight and some other Taqwacore bands. How was it? How many desis in the crowd?
Desis in the crowd are still a novelty, which is to be expected. It varies from show to show, but as a rule Desis aren’t really a rock concert going group of people… That said, usually they come out in droves of five or six. We had other bands on tour with us, like the Arabic Al Thawra, and Persian Vote Hezbollah. There are two places we usually see the most brown people: West side Chicago and Brooklyn, New York. It may be a question of demographics, or maybe the fact that Apache Indian makes no appearance on our album.
In a previous interview, Shahj said you were the “cunning linguist” all the songs. Did you compose all the songs on your album Wild Night in Guantanamo Bay as well? I liked how you used all these different street sounds on the album, and mixed different instruments and sounds together. Where did you go to get the sounds of the street samples?
Lyrically, yes I write everything. Musically, it’s all four of us. Many of the samples were taken from raiding our parents’ tapes, Shahj’s father had a cassette of a South Asian musical festival at MIT during the 70s, that was tacked onto the beginning of Sharia Law in the USA. We got the shopping sounds in Wal Qaeda Superstore from a mic, digital four track and a local grocery store. We were asked to leave — its dubious for two brown guys to carry around recording equipment in America. On the album, we used guitar, bass, drums, a three pronged cow bell, tablas, glass bottles, dhol and voice.
On Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay, I feel like there are a range of punk and hip hop influences. I kind of hear a NOFX influence on I Want a Hand Job, and the twanginess on song Layla has a West Coast punk sound. In one song you mimic Slick Rick’s “Oh, ladidadi, we like to party” with the line, “Lailaha, I took the shahdahâ€¦” which is an interesting metaphoric comparison (as if taking the Shahada is like a partyâ€¦). Musically, who do you think influenced this album?
I like ‘Lodi Dodi’ because it’s followed up by ‘we don’t cause trouble, we don’t bother nobody’. I can relate. I think the big influence on us musically was old school NYC hiphop, like Rakim, Brand Nubian, Nas and so on. Just watch the Brand Nubian video for ALLAH U AKBAR. You’ll get the feel for who we consider our peers (I mean that in the mystical sense)… The opening lines of Sharia Law is from the opening lines in Anarchy in the UK. But I can’t give away all the references…
The music Arjun, Shahj and I were listening to obsessively during the Kominas lifespan were as follows: Public Enemy, M.I.A, The Clash’s London Calling, T.S.O.L, and the Dead Kennedys.
So you have three songs named after Muslim women â€“ who is Rabyah, Ayesha and Layla?
Rabyah we wrote and recorded a few days before I was shipped off to a MASH camp in Muzzaffarabad, Kashmir during the big Earthquake. Rabyah is an important name, because Rabia means rage in Spanish…And it reminds me of two Rabyahs; Rabyah al-Basri, the saint, and this girl from the UK who was one of the Kominas earliest fans. She’s twice the saint as al-Basri if you ask me, she gave me a clue about what it was like for her growing up in the UK. Layla’s identity is a little shrouded, purposefully. I changed names to protect the innocent.
Your song Wal Qaeda Superstore draws parallels between WalMart and Saudis oil industry, the commercialization of Mecca, and the president tossing The Kominas’ salad. What is the song trying to say exactly?
The song was a response to this news and I had just enough of it. Why are the Saudis allowed to raze historical sites that should be preserved for the study into the life of the prophet? If they had a problem with shrines, maybe they should take it up with the Ummah.
In Suicide Bomb the Gap, you have lyrics referring to the prophet’s sexual life. Lyrics I’m sure not many will be comfortable with in the Muslim community…?
Prophet Muhammad married a single virgin in his lifetime, which says a lot about attitudes towards chastity. It was a sex-positive anthem to him from us as Muslims living in America — America, the land where the most revered woman is referred to as The Virgin. Islam doesn’t have to become Catholicism. Islam doesn’t have to condemn people who enjoy sex.
Along the lines of lyrics that would not be approved by the mainstream orthodox Muslim communities, how do you think this album is received by the Muslim community? What do you tell people when they say that playing music isn’t Islamic?
I think people need to read more into the life of the Sahabas. Hazrat Bilal was chosen to sing the Azaan because he had the best voice. How would people know he had the best voice if he never sang? You can transpose the Azaan into sheet music. And it pisses me off when I see budding wahabs that swear off music, but play video games and use the internet.
But by and large the Uncles and Aunties at the mosque are overjoyed to see a band called The Kominas in an American newspaper. We get a lot of love, a lot more love than we were expecting. And my little cousins all rap, and they record music. They may not be punks, but its pretty clear that The Kominas helped clear a little debris. They can entertain notions of being both Pakistani and Musical without the hang ups we had. Or we can hope.
I’ve always felt that punk was more than music â€“ it’s a lifestyle and a movement in some ways. The DIY aspect, the straight edge aspect, the voicing of political dissent, all of which drew me to this music. In many ways The Kominas has really helped shape how the merging of Muslims and punks came together for the Taqwacores movement â€“ two genres which I find complimentary not contradictory. Do you feel similarly, that it was a natural progression that the underdog religion on the US, Islam, eventually merged with the underdog music genre, punk?
Absolutely. Though I think its unfair to call punk the musical underdog. It’s been water downed, packaged and sold like anything else. Punk was so therapeutic for me growing up, because it was an identity I chose. Muslim, Desi or Pakistani are what I was born into.
When I lived in Cali, a kid named Reggie would come to class every day in the fourth grade with the Bible with him. He’d always tell me I was going to hell for not accepting Jesus as the son of God. I’d always try to tell him I had my own tradition, in my fourth grade way: I’d recite Surah al Fatiha, but the kids would soon just hear the foreign sounding words and make fun of them.
On the other hand, punks were receptive to me being from a different background than them. They told me if anyone gave me shit, they’d stab them. It was a community, and after the policing of our community I felt safer in a circle pit than in our mosque or my parents’ home.
Do you think The Kominas have a broad underlying goal to the music?
That race politics have a place in punk. That cultural sources aren’t just Black American or White, but that they come from all corners of the globe. That we aren’t Sand People from Planet Tatoiine. And to desis growing up in Valiyat: that our culture is a lot more multi-faceted than any of our parents would lead us to believe.
If you could collaborate with anyone on your next album, who would it be?
Chuck D. When Chuck D said rap was going to be a Black CNN, I really took it to heart. He’s responsible for me coming to Pakistan to become a journalist. I base everything I do on him. He’s too black, too strong.
Do you consider yourself a progressive, whether it be political or as music?
Progressive kind of denotes that we have the power to progress things. I think we’re much better described as angry.
You are in Lahore now recording songs in bathrooms and playing rooftop punk shows. How do you think your music is received by Pakistanis? I always felt South Asian music was more rock influenced than punk influenced. But I imagine the transition isn’t too hard for them to switch over to? Have you found a group of Pakistani punkers?
Yeah, you’d be surprised. There’s so many leftists in Pakistan who love populist writers like Habib Jalib, and I’ve put on the Street Dogs’ cover of Billy Bragg’s “There Is Power in a Union”, they get it.
I interview union leaders all the time for work, some are aware of my musical inclinations. I get nothing but love from them. When it comes to lovers of Pakistanis rock scene as it stands they can’t get over the plain white Ts I wear on stage. They’re listening to Bon Jovi with Urdu lyrics, not CRASS in Punjabi. They’re no different than family members who keep asking us “when are you going to get famous? When will you be on bill boards?” They don’t understand these things as goals are anathema to our ethics, our community.
The book The Taqwacores is being made into a movie that starts filming this month in Ohio with Arab director Eyad Zahra and the female lead hottie played by Noureen DeWulf. How does that make you feel? Are The Kominas going to be involved in the movie at all?
It’s really, really fucking nuts that they’re making a movie. And I’m so happy Mike Muhammad Knight was able to find Eyad, and make it happen. We met two film directors before this Eyad, and he’s the first one to understand the group. Hell, we terrorized MSA kids at ISNA together a few years ago…Yes, we’ll be involved somewhere in the sound track, and in spirit. Both Shahj and I have shifted to Lahore as of a year back.
If there’s one thing that you want our readers to take away from you, an inspiring story, a quote, whatever, what would you like to say?
Okay, for those who read Punjabi: Fauji Fauj ich, Gavandee mauj ich. Keep those troops surging, America!
You can follow Basim on his DIY punk rock adventures at his blog, Punkistani, or his journalist endeavors at guardian.co.uk. For more info on The Kominas, visit their myspace page. You can download their album Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay on iTunes or on CD Baby today.