By Russell Contreras
The Associated Press
WAYLAND, Massachusetts (AP) — Artwork from India’s Punjab state decorates the Ray family home. A Johann Sebastian Bach statue sits on a piano. But in the basement — cluttered with wires, old concert fliers, and drawings — 25-year-old Arjun Ray is fighting distortion from his electric guitar.
For this son of Indian immigrants, trained in classical violin and raised on traditional Punjab music, getting his three Pakistani American bandmates in sync is the goal on this cold New England evening. Their band, The Kominas, is trying to record a punk rock version of the classic Bollywood song, “Choli Ke Peeche” (Behind the Blouse).
“Yeah,” said Shahjehan Khan, 26, one of the band’s guitarists, “there are a lot of contradictions going on here.”
Deep in the woods of this colonial town boils a kind of revolutionary movement. From the basement of this middle-class home tucked in the woods west of Boston, The Kominas have helped launched a small, but growing South Asian and Middle Eastern punk rock movement that is attracting children of Muslim and Hindu immigrants. However, the movement is drawing scorn from some traditional Muslims who say their political, hard-edged music is “haraam,” or forbidden.
The artists say they are just trying to reconcile issues such as life in America, women’s rights, and homosexuality with Islam and old East vs. West cultural clashes.
“This is one way to deal with my identity as an Arab American,” said Marwan Kamel, the 24-year-old lead guitarist in Chicago-based Al-Thawra. “With this music, I can express this confusion.”
The movement’s birth is often credited to the novel “The Taqwacore,” by Michael Muhammad Knight, a Rochester, New York-raised writer who converted to Islam.
Knight coined the book’s title from the Arabic word “Taqwa,” which means piety or God-fearing, and the word hardcore. The 2003 book portrayed an imagined world of living-on-the-edge Muslim punk rockers and influenced real-life South Asians to form their own bands.
At the time of the book’s release, Basim Usmani and Khan were already experimenting with punk and building the foundation for The Kominas, which loosely means “scoundrels” in various South Asian languages.
Usmani contacted Knight, who agreed to buy a bus on eBay for $2,000 to help launch the first “Muslim punk rock tour” in the United States in 2007. Kamel, the son of a Syrian father and Polish mother, bought a one-way ticket to Boston to join the tour, and Canadian drag-queen singer Sena Hussain met up with them along the way.
The musicians performed at various venues but were notably kicked off stage during an open mic performance at the Islamic Society of North America convention in Chicago. Traditional Muslims at the convention decried the electric guitar-based music as un-Islamic, while others were upset a woman dared to sing on stage. The episode was documented by Pakistani Canadian filmmaker Omar Majeed in his new documentary “Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam.”
“These guys are not prophetizing or preaching anything specific about Islam,” said Majeed, whose film is set for release in the United States later this year. “They just happen to be young and Muslim, and they write songs and do art that expresses that idea.”
Imam Talal Eid, executive director of the Islamic Institute of Boston, said some traditional Muslims may object to such music because they focus on its sexual attraction rather than its use for spiritual enjoyment. “But I think we can come up with a moderate opinion that distinguishes what is forbidden from what is not,” said Eid. “It’s a new issue among Muslims.”
Most band members hold full-time jobs, so tours are sporadic. Usmani works full-time at a call center and writes occasionally for the Guardian newspaper in England. Ray is a medical researcher at Harvard.
The groups have toured since that first Taqwacore trip, playing in small clubs, in basements at parties, and in Hispanic cultural centers. Typically, The Kominas and Al-Thawra say they play in front of 50 to 80 people.
Alan Waters, an anthropology professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, said it should come as no surprise that young Muslim and Hindu immigrants are expressing themselves through rock or that their music would strike a chord with other “disenfranchised” populations in the United States, such as Latinos and other children of recent immigrants.
“If they’re touching or singing about identity, it’s going to make a connection,” said Waters. “Punk rock is very American, and this is an assimilation through a back door.” He called the bands “a good opportunity for stereotype-smashing.”
The Kominas, who sing mostly in English, are now trying to break the image that they are just a “Muslim punk band,” especially since one of their founders, Ray, is Hindu. On their next album, Ray said the band will have songs in Hindi.
Ray’s father, Rahul, said he supports his son’s artistic efforts, even if he doesn’t fully understand the music. “It’s just very hard to make a living through music,” said Ray, who is a cancer researcher at Boston University. “But they are getting attention for some reason.”
Usmani said he grew up as a “nonreligious” Muslim American, so his journey into punk caused few problems, although he admits his family doesn’t like the drinking and smoking that pervade the music scene.
Usmani said despite their obvious ironic messages, he fears that his band and others like it will keep getting “stupid questions” about subjects like Sept. 11.
For example, Usami said a reporter once questioned him on how he felt about some Muslims being terrorists. He responded by asking her how she, as a white person, felt about the African slave trade.
“We have people asking us about [stuff] that has nothing to do with the chords we want to play,” Usmani said while smoking a cigarette. “Or how loud we want to be.” ♦