The Kominas Shake Musical and Social Grounds: Thoughts on Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay

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.


girl.at.the.bottom.of.your.glass said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nick Pope said...

just wanted to add some input form reading the article.

Arjun and Karna are not Hindu nor are either of their parents. SO you may want to edit that. Also a walking bassline is a commonly known term in the music Basim is influenced by so it probably doesn't need to be put in quotations.

I think the Kominas were always trying to be a punk band and not because of controversy in the music. The controversy could have been because punk may write direct attack in music against ideas or people they don't like, sometimes out of anger which the Kominas have done. Plus if looks mean anything Basim's had the 'hawk since before the band.

too bad I didn't get to meet you at the Kominas basement show, I was supposed to be there.

wh said...

Hi James, Thanks for your comment.

Re: Arjun and Karna's identity. This was what Arjun told me that in the interview. Maybe the thing to do is to put Hindu Bengali in quotations. I will fix that once I get a confirmation from them.

I just thought that what Basim does is arpeggiated chordal notes, not really using many passing tones or other notes from the melody or scale. [anyway, this is probably an unnecessary distinction.]

I usually associate walking bassline with jazz. At least this is what i learned from the musicologists. Sigh - I'm sure this is an academic jazz-centric perspective. The term "walking bass" has probably departed from its usage in jazz. Is it used in much punk or ska? If so, what kind? What kind music were you thinking of as being Basim's influences? I'm sure it's beyond my limited knowledge about the fine distinctions between subgenres. So please inform!

I'm sure there will be another chance to meet. Thanks again for your comment!

Nick Pope said...

Hmmm. From a musicologist point of view perhaps walking basslines are specifically a jazz thing. But I understood walking basslines to be used in some early rockabilly and rock 'n roll (or if not walking, a specific bassline you could strut to.) also Basim does incorporate jazz into his playing, perhaps not as much with the Kominas as his last band Malice in Leatherland) where he specifically would announce before one of his songs (Cherub in a Jar) that "this is a latin Jazz song" and he played a fretless because he was influenced by Jaco, and Black Sabbath (where those guys claim allot of personal influence from Jazz). so it may not be the most technically accurate wording, but it's hard to think of a music term being relegated to a genere as music a whole should transcend. But it may have been me being picky, I felt kinda picky when writing that. However, putting walking in quotes seemed strange like there was a point being missed.

If a walking bassline is used in punk, than it could be because of early 50's rockabilly usage which does show up in whatever punk is supposed to be (as it was really just a scene reviving an independent, give music back to the kids and people scene, which of corse now somehow ends up as a specific kind of music.

I'm not trying to be picky about genres, early rock 'n roll and punk are only subgeneres in the limited sense that its all in the rock music camp but really I think of a sub genre as splitting hairs on punk, or metal or something, as usually those kinds of music make them self (while still being rock music, (sort of) pretty distinct and not having much to do with other camps in their overhead genre, this is mostly because of scenes, metalheads and punks don't always hang out together, nor pscyhobillies and goths. So if music is written with an intent to fit into a scene it ends up being rather homogenously distinct.

I think there is allot of confusion between how people identify their lifestyle and what kind of music they claim loyalty to (a silly thing to begin with) but punk should have never been labeled a type of music I think it should have been used to define a group of people who perhaps happened to listen to music or may put on shows. But that's like me arguing Tausaug music should be separated from a group of people. But I'm digressing...

wh said...

I finally got the words from Arjun that clarify A + K's identity. I will revise the post shortly.

Thanks for your information about the use of walking bass in early rock musical genres. I'd be curious to read more about that. If you think of any particular readings or songs that I should check out, please let me know!

Thanks, James.

Nick Pope said...

Walking bass occurs everywhere in rock. Basim as a bassist can really talk about it (probably better than me) but a good start is the Rockin' Bones (or loud fast and out of control ) box set(s) from Rhino records, listen to Link Wray's "Rumble" or Bang bang by Janis and her boyfriends Shakin' all over by Johnny Kid and the Pirates Listen to the first half of Elvis: 30 #1 hits in his Rockabilly stage.

the problem with the early stuff is while there are walking basslines all over the place it was taken for granted and the guitar was the star so it's way in the back so some songs it's hard to hear, but its there

There is a crazy amount of walking bassline, least subtile is Jailhouse Rock but try Heartbreak hotel, all Shook up, hound dog, don't be cruel,
there is one of the first rock songs ever written rocket 88 by jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats which has a clear walkJng bassline

Basim cited Rancid's to the east bay, which Basim cites as special because it's all chromatic yet still a walking bassline. also try Rancid's old friend, I think i got into that song cause of the walk, I probably got into rockabilly because of it. I've always loved moving pronounced bas. I think even Bauhau's Hollow Hills is even a walking bassline, though it doesn't quite stay on the 8th note, so perhaps not. ( i just know most bands with pronounced bass these days tend to use walking basslines and Bauhaus certainly does have pronounced bass) I don't want to sound like i don't know what I'm talking about so I don't think they stick to walking basslines but there is certainly a danceable 8th note but cheating, rhythm in there at times. I guess When there is a funk influence it's not really a walking bassline. Social Distortion really has a big walking bassline feel on story of my life but it's sort of played not quite, you may break your feet walking to it, but it certainly has a walking feel. and Prison bound really has that 8th note feel although there is a repetitive progression that isn't quite.

If Modern Punk has walking basslines they alter them a bit, if they didn't it would probably sound quite retro, Psychobilly is a whole punk genre who thrive off walking basslines, pick up the Meteors in Heaven or listen to Carling Black Label by the Coffin Nails or Zombie Noise by the Meteors try anything off of "Wrecking Crew" to Sling Shot by rev Horton Heat, not all songs keep walking basslines throughout but they certainly use them, you can also find allot of walking bassline guitar licks especially in early cramps where they had 2 guitars and no bass the most obvious is rock on the moon, but or some of their latter day like Haulass Hyena or eyeball in my Martini. give some of my suggestions and tell me if you disagree, you may but also it's punk, don't expect the musicianship to be spot on, the walk could really be in spirit even if its not 100% there.

I've taken the walking bassline for granted and as a given for so long I honestly can't think of a reading,

try the straightforward wikipedia article on walking basslines, and for Jazz's sake try the Dead Kennedy's "We've got a bigger problem now"

I look forward from hearing some input.

CarolC said...


thank you for visiting my blog at blog.nownews.com/carolc.
You have a very cool blog--with lots of interesting things. I will visit it from now on.

I am not sure where I saw the word Taqwacore first a couple of months ago. It was probably from a website about Islamic culture or a univ website.
And then, I just googled and found some interesting videos from YouTube about Muslin punk rock. Hope that answer your question [I just not sure where and when anymore].

Have fun,


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