At the end of this summer, Boston Taqwacore band, The Kominas, wrapped their second tour of the United States. Since catching them during their stop in my hometown of Los Angeles August 5th, their debut album, “Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay” has not left my CD player.
The word “Taqwacore,” a combination of the arabic word “taqwa,” meaning “God consciousness” and the suffix for the punk subgenre “hardcore,” comes from Michael Muhammad Knights’ novel, “The Taqwacores.” Though the book was about fictional Muslim punks, calling referring to the musical genre that it was a catalyst for as “Muslim punk” is somewhat inaccurate, since not everyone involved is Muslim.
As Kominas’ guitarist Shajehan Khan explains, “It doesn’t really account for the fact that some of us might not think of ourselves as Muslim anymore.” Guitarist Arjun Ray, who isn’t Muslim, said the band is trying to focus on taqwacore more as “post-colonial music that channels that type of anger from people who were colonized. That [definition] fits all of the bands we like to play with, and it doesn’t really leave people out in the way the media definition of ‘Muslim punk’ tends to do.”
Though the tracks on “Wild Nights” discuss Muslim American experiences, as Ray emphasized, “You don’t need to be Muslim to get into it.” Usmani adds, “The thing that unifies all of us is that we chose music.”
The album’s lyrics accompany aggressive riffs that embody the catharsis that I love about punk music, but the songs avoid punk’s tendency to be too loyal to the fast, three-power chord standard. “Wild Nights” begins with “Sharia Law in the USA,” a song that starts out with heavy guitars before launching into a snappy, ridiculously catchy verse mocking Islamohobia, “I am an Islamist, I am the anti-christ. Most squares can’t make most wanted lists, but my, my, how I stay in style.” The tempo stays fast through “Chaku,” the ska-ish “Ayesha,” and “Dishoom Bebe,” then slows down at “Par Desi,” a track about getting beat up (“Boots crush on my shoulder, where angels chose not to remain.”). Lead vocalist and bassist Basim Usmani showcases his vocal range as he wails on the love song “Layla,” before returning to his gravely rasp on “Rabyah,” which leads into the also hilariously catchy “I Want a Handjob.” The album closes with the most hip-hop influenced track, “Suicide Bomb the Gap.”
The Kominas were formed five years ago by Usmani and guitarist Khan, after the two met in college. Usmani who cites The Clash, TSOL, and Public Enemy as his biggest influences, introduced Khan to punk rock with a sort of “Punk 101” mix tape. Before that, Khan’s taste had leaned more toward Rage Against the Machine and classic rock like Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. They hooked up with Ray, who has a background in jazz, after a mutual friend suggested him as a drummer. Though Ray recommended his brother, Karna, instead, Khan said they could use another guitarist, as well. Ray says his induction into The Kominas was also his introduction to punk.
The band was put on hold when Basim decided to pursue journalism after blogging about his experience as a volunteer after the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. He says of moving to Lahore to take a job as a crime reporter, “I just realized it was a really awesome thing to go out and do crazy things and write about it…If you ask me, it’s ‘the life.’” (Currently, Usmani writes for The Guardian.) While in Pakistan, he formed the short-lived homage to The Dead Kennedys, The Dead Bhuttos, with current Kominas’ drummer Imran Malik. The band never had a show, and only recorded one song, “Terri Assi Ki Tassi.” (Urdu for “Screw you”)
Basim’s next project was the Punjabi punk band Noble Drew, formed with Shajehan after convincing him to come to Pakistan. Since, as Shajehan explained, “rock music and western music is sort of seen as for the rich kids” in Pakistan, their first show attracted a somewhat “elitist” crowd. As Basim describes it, “We were playing punk rock, [trying to start] a mosh pit, and people were sitting cross-legged, smoking hash.”
Their gig on a restaurant rooftop in Old Lahore was more of a success. In addition to bringing in a more working class crowd, the audience actually moved to the music. Usmani describes it, “People were moshing, people were doing somersaults in the air…That showed me that there’s an audience for that type of music there. It’s just that you have to build it up, which we couldn’t do.”
Though they were able to put on the show with help from the budget of Omar Majeed’s upcoming documentary, “Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam,” it wasn’t an event they could repeat. After Majeed’s film crew left, Khan was robbed at gunpoint, and another festival he and Basim were playing was bombed, so it seemed like the right time to come home. They decided to come back to the States after getting a call to play South by Southwest.
Now that the band are off the road until spring of next year, they’ve been playing a few gigs on the East Coast, including the book launch of Kim Badawi’s book of photographs, “The Taqwacores: Muslim Punk in the U.S.A,” and working on a few individual projects. Khan just finished voice-overs for the audio-book version of “The Taqwacores,” while Malik has been contributing drums for taqwacore peers Sarmust.
They’ve also begun work on songs for a new album, and the band are looking to expand their ideas beyond the more direct songs on “Wild Nights.” Khan says, “The Muslim stuff that we write about is important to us, but we had to get that out of ourselves in order to progress as human beings…You can only make that kind of statement once…You can’t do the same thing again.” Malik adds, “Now that the attention’s been grabbed, we can explore new ideas, and take it to a whole new place.”
As for taqwacore, Ray says, “We would love to see kids who really have to deal with these issues, and have still got all those hormones, and anger, and ‘fuck you’ in them to do something about it [so that it] maybe becomes a scene, instead of like, four or five bands hundreds of miles apart…which is what it is right now.”