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Nevermind the Islam. The Kominas are punk

The Taqwacore band spreads its socio-political message with brash lyrics and catchy tunes.

August 12, 2009|Raja Abdulrahim

Shahjehan Khan rounded a corner at the Grammy Museum in downtown L.A. and let out a laugh.

Before him was a piece of memorabilia -- a destroyed school bus stop sign -- from Khan's punk rock band the Kominas, showcased in the museum's yearlong exhibit "Songs of Conscience, Sounds of Freedom."

How did it get there, he was asked. Backup vocalist Nyle Usmani, his arm slung over Khan's shoulder, jumped in, giving some sociopolitical context to the Boston-based band's moderate success: "I'd like to thank 9/11. I wouldn't be here without you."

"Yeah, basically we wouldn't be here without," Khan agreed.

Khan, 25, guitarist and vocalist for the Kominas, which is Urdu for scoundrel, was visiting the museum while on a cross-country, 15-city tour that saw the band play several concerts in the Los Angeles area last week. They were joined on tour by another punk band, Sarmust, and free-stylist Propaganda Anonymous, making their way from New York City to Los Angeles and back to the Boston area, all crammed into a Honda and a Volvo.

Since forming in 2004, the mostly Muslim punk rock band (one of the four members is Hindu) -- along with a handful of similar groups that started around that time under the banner of Taqwacore -- has been an irresistible combination for the media. The groups' satirical and brash lyrics and song titles criticize both fundamentalist Islam and post-Sept. 11 ethnic and religious profiling.

Taqwacore is a melding of the term "hard core" with the Arabic word "taqwa," which means piety. It has inspired headlines of juxtaposition and alliteration: "Piety and Punk," "Allah and Amps."

The recognition that the Taqwacore bands have gotten -- and it certainly is more recognition than they would have gotten if they'd been punk without the Muslim twist -- is a Catch-22 for them: While they welcome the attention from both the mainstream media and the blogosphere, they resent that the focus has been more on the Muslim angle than on their music.

"We're not unaware of the fact that, because of the shock value of what we're trying to say, it's easy to get press coverage," said Khan, who, bespectacled and simply dressed, looks more accountant than punk.

The bands have been covered by Rolling Stone, Newsweek, the New York Times and the BBC. The unusual religious-musical genre combination also has attracted attention from News of the Weird, which wrote a brief about their first tour in 2007. The item was listed under "Latest Religious Messages," between news of a Baptist pastor who had urged his congregation to pray for his critics' deaths and Israeli radio stations that had banned a vocalist from their airwaves because he sang in falsetto.

"It's been less about the music than about who we are and how we're dressed," said Omar Waqar, 28, vocalist and guitarist for Sarmust. It would be hard not to note that while touring the Grammy Museum, Waqar was dressed in a black South Asian salwar kameez and a jacket that was hand-painted and stitched with colorful, fraying fabric.

"No one actually gave us an album review; it was always, 'Oh, look at this, it's shocking,' " Khan said. "It's cool something I created is getting attention, and then you sit back and think, 'Well, is the attention getting out the message that I want?' "

The Kominas' drummer-vocalist Imran Malik, 25, said the articles written about the band have followed a common formula: "There's this book, there's this band," referring to the 2003 novel "The Taqwacores" by Michael Muhammad Knight, in which he imagined a fictional world of Muslim punk rockers, thereby inspiring the real-world manifestation of it. And while some of their song titles are mentioned -- most notably "Sharia Law in the U.S.A." and "Suicide Bomb the Gap" -- almost no one has delved into the lyrics, he said.

Though now in the middle of the second Taqwacore tour, and the first to hit the West Coast, Malik sees things changing a bit.

"There are articles where Mike's book is not even mentioned, and that's a start," he said.

It was through the Rolling Stone piece in 2007, which did mention the book, that Grammy Museum guest curator Daniel Cavicchi, who put together the "Songs of Conscience" exhibit, first learned about the Kominas and the other Taqwacore bands. He had already collected the score for "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?," newsletters from the 1940s People's Songs movement and Grandmaster Flash's turntables.

"Taqwacore fit right in," Cavicchi said.

Initially, Khan wanted to submit the black burka they used on the cover of their first album, "Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay." But someone lost it after the photo shoot.

The stop sign, with the word "lies" stenciled in blue, was part of the school bus they drove for their first tour. Afterward, they destroyed it, using a sledgehammer and axes.

"The sign really captured, I thought, the essence of the Muslim punk movement -- a tangible suggestion of anger at ethnic and religious profiling (the sign was bent and gnarled and ripped off its tour bus)," Cavicchi wrote in an e-mail.

Cavicchi said the constant emphasis on the Muslim-punk angle was unavoidable, especially in the context of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"However, I would hate to see Taqwacore stall in public discourse as a form of exotica," he wrote. "Their songs are actually quite catchy, with interesting dynamics and a variety of sound textures, all of which are a testament to their musicianship."

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raja.abdulrahim@latimes.com

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