The Kominas have shaken musical and social grounds since 2005. They are not exactly hardcore. They are definitely not straightedge. They are not even “Taqwacore” in any definitive ways, apparently. Originally conceived in Michael Muhammad Knight’s novel The Taqwacores, the term “Taqwacore” represents the intersection of the Islamic faith and punk, taking the Arabic word “taqwa” meaning “piety.” What seems certain is that this Boston-based group vocalizes anthems that challenge the agendas of conservative Muslim Americans and rev against the ethnocentric pigeonholing and racialization of South Asians in the post-9/11 United States and the world at large. Or maybe their music is not intended to be as anthemic as it has been construed by mainstream media.
On my recent trip New England last week, I interviewed the guys in the Kominas at South Street Diner near Boston South Station. The band recounted their experiences with press outlets including MTVdesi, CNN, The Rolling Stone, and Newsweek, while telling stories about their 2007 tour and the social eruption at the ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) meeting. Our conversation led me to see an uneasy dissonance between the hypermedia--surrounding the band’s Taqwacore or “Muslim punk” identity--and the striking lack of attention on the actual sounds and meanings of their music. So I decided to offer a few thoughts on the Kominas’ 2008 album Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay.
The Kominas infuse elements of punk, ska, jazz, metal, Bollywood, and Bhangra, folk music from Punjab, all into a mix with flair. Track 3 “Dishoom Bebe” plunges into the compound meter of 6/8. Karna Ray opens with a polyrhythmic introduction on drums providing a counterpoint with Basim Usmani’s chord-focused walking bass. Fusing hardcore vocals with a complex rhythmic matrix, the song charges forward narrating a scene from a 70s Bollywood classic Sholay. “Dishoom” is an onomatopoeia referring to gun shooting. (Amitabah Bachnan apparently says “Dishoom” while shooting with a finger gun in one of the scenes.) This track screams a blast of fun, adventurous fraternity.
The song that brings out the best of the Kominas’ mixed influences, I would say, is “Par Desi.” It begins with a Bhangra-inspired, chromatic surf guitar riff. Basim sings about living in a social limbo between Pakistan and the U.S. “How'd I get here, from a land with long monsoons? / In Lahore it's raining water, in Boston it rains boots.” Following the second chorus is an 8-second analog sample of a live Bhangra percussion recording. This segment features fast striking on dhols, a two-headed drum used in Punjab, a region in the northern part of South Asian subcontinent. The syncopated bass accents in the sample suspend one’s attention on the 4/4 meter in the first part of the song and enables the transition a series of triplets interspersed by noise guitar. The sample, in short, seamlessly bridges the first and second part of the song, each with a disparate rhythmic articulation. I give these guys props for their compositional sophistication. The song ends a mysterious voicemail recording from Michael Muhammad Knight to Shahjehan Khan.
The Kominas’ music speaks to a desi identity capturing the experiences of South Asians in diaspora. Usmani explained, “With this group, we’re kind of desi. We’ve got a little bit of a South Asian vibe. We’re just trying to put things out on record in English for our little brothers and sisters in the world.” The Kominas consists of four core members: two Pakistani Americans, Basim and Shahjehan; and two brothers of Bengali descent, Arjun and Karna Ray. When I asked about ISNA, Arjun spoke up to elucidate the cultural and geographical differences among the Islamic denominations. The Kominas played for a benefit show in New York to help raise funds to restore a Hindu temple after being vandalized by two Minnesotan teens. Hanging out with them, I get the sense that the Kominas are a family, bonding over their passion for music and shared experiences, desi or not.
In the interview, the Kominas criticized how media pigeonholes them. Shahjehan explained, “Taqwacore is no more than just a few kids that talk online every now and then. People think it’s like we all hang out, we all live in a house. It’s not.” Apparently six of the taqwacore-associated bands have disbanded since the 2007 tour. Shahjehan continued, “Another thing that gets lost in the media angle of taqwacore within the book is that there are different people that have different relationships to Islam. Now within this band, there are different people with different relationships to Islam, or none at all.”
Adding to the commentary, Arjun explicated how the press has blown up and distorted the story of the Kominas by presuming their liberal, diversified “Muslim punk” identity as an alternative to Islam as imagined by mainstream media in the U.S. and Europe. The truth is, Arjun said, “all you mother fuckers are haram. You're not even acceptable for the moderate Muslims.” Basim concurred by clarifying that Islam is incidental to them because it is a culture that they were born into. But they don’t endorse the Islamic faith or any Muslim identities.
Media produces more media. The content of media is lost in the cycle of media reproduction. Karna eloquently described this phenomenon as exemplified at a show in Baltimore. “There were cameras pointing at other cameras. If you think about it, it’s basically like feedback that they’re producing. The input and the output are just the same. And it’s just going around, around, and around creating this immense noise. This momentous fucking structure of noise has nothing to do with us anymore.”
The songs on the Kominas’ album Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay reflect an intellectual and (sub)cultural depth, certainly beyond the novelty “taqwacore” identity imposed upon them by the media-hungry press. Crossing several genre boundaries, the Kominas write songs about social unrest and alienation over intricate musical structures and multilayered satire. The controversy stirred up by their music legitimizes their place on the “punk” map.
The Kominas are now busily creating material for a second album. Here’s my advise: go all the way out experimenting with your smart lyrics and anti-establishment, anti-bigotry, and anti-category musical intentions. Arty irony and absurd contradictions will come rushing your way along with felicity and happiness. Don’t think I'm joking.