Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Even more on The Kominas + Pakistani rock

The Kominas

Something happened to The Kominas since we last tuned in. They went on a nation-wide tour (although, for some reason, skipping Arkansas). And they got sorta...famous. Or at least created a lot of media buzz. And not because they were attracting huge audiences. Someone who knows them told me, there were maybe 50-80 people at shows per night. Interesting...not sure how to explain it. Except that the notion of Islam and punk going together continues to be a novel notion.

An article about The Kominas in the Los Angeles Times (August 12) is notable both because it comments on the rather considerable media coverage the band had received by that point, critiques it, and makes a conscious attempt to go beyond previous coverage. The Kominas state that they like getting media attention, but complain (a) that it focuses on the fact that the band is (3/4) Muslim rather than the music itself and (b) that the reports are formulaic. The formula is to note that the band was inspired by the publication of Michael Muhammad Knight's novel The Taqwacores, and then to mentions notable song titles like "Sharia Law in the USA."

At least the article points in the direction of better coverage--but it doesn't really do the job of analyzing lyrics or describing the music. The best it can muster is to quote Daniel Cavicchi, guest curator of the Grammy Museum's "Songs of Conscience" exhibit, which includes a piece of Kominas memorabilia. Says Cavicchi, "I would hate to see Taqwacore stall in public discourse as a form of exotica...Their songs are actually quite catchy, with interesting dynamics and a variety of sound textures, all of which are a testament to their musicianship." True enough.

The next day CNN published its take on The Kominas, by Azadeh Ansari. This piece more or less follows the formula identified in the LA Times report--it starts with the book, refer to song titles, and so on. Ansari does at least offer a bit of sociological analysis to account for the band's significance. He writes, "For [the Kominas], punk music is a way to rebel against their conservative cultural upbringing and the frustrations of growing up a young Muslim in America." And the article includes some observations by UC-Irvine history professor Mark Levine and author of Heavy Metal Islam, who says:

"These punk, metal and rap scenes - so-called extreme music scenes -- are addressing issues that mainstream music doesn't...[Punk] allows them to rebel against society and their own culture at the same time."

Levine goes on to say,

"It makes sense why punk has been the music of choice for young, politically active Muslims who are musical...The straight edge movement in punk which was about no drugs, no alcohol, was clean yet very intense and political. It's a way for them to rebel against their families in some extreme ways yet still be ritualistically, 'good Muslims.' "

Accompanying the article is a nice slideshow, featuring photos from Kim Badawi's book, The Taqwacores, plus commentary from Mike Knight and band members, and some music.

But alas, no discussion of the music or the lyrics.

In the interest of at least starting a discussion of The Kominas' lyrics, here's my transcription of the song, "Sharia' Law in the USA." The Kominas have just begun to put out videos of some of their songs, which feature just the lyrics, on Facebook. I don't think you necessarily have to be a FB member to see this, so here's the link.

Sharia Law in the USA

I am an Islamist
I am the Antichrist

Most squares don't make the wanted list

But my my! How I stay in style
Cops chased me out of my mother's womb
My crib was in state pen before age two
The cops had bugged my red toy phone
So I devised a plan for heads to roll...
Sharia law in the -- USA (2x)
Sharia law in the – we've had to pay
...for the white man can take with two free hands
Imagine our debts cut in half
Our wives multiplied by the number four
Why the president's daughters couldn't ask for more
One can lick my Afghan's clit
Wife three's ready to help
As I keep screaming
Penetrate me with a strap on dick
While a brother from New Orleans does you anally

Then there is some sampled commentary from a well-known 50s educational film on what to so in case of an atomic attack. "Duck and cover."

Sharia law in the -- USA (2x)
Sharia law or you'll have to pay

Duck and cover

Roll over Sex Pistols, this supersedes "God Save the Queen." The Sex Pistols were waaaay too timid to broach the subject of anal penetration. As I read the lyrics, they complain about how Muslims are demonized in the USA, and imagine sharia law as a way to take revenge. And in addition, sharia law would be a benefit to (male) Muslims, as they'd get 4 wives. Then I'm somewhat at a loss: the wives would lick each other (?) and then--where does the anal sex come from? I don't know. It's nonetheless very clever, the vocals are well-done, not hoarse screaming in the style of much contemporary punk but much more melodious. Punk more in the content of the lyrics than in the musical form. Some kind of South Asian woodwind and percussion opening the song. Nice.

For a flavor of how the recent Kominas tour went, check out this blog post on the Taqwacore Webzine, from Tanzila Ahmed, who accompanied the band and the rest of the entourage, on tour from LA to Texas. "The first time I had written about the band was over three years ago, and I’d been following the band ever since. It was a blog post where I declared my crush for the boys in The Kominas and how I would fight Ashwairya Rai in a wet sari for them."

Pakistani rock

And then there is Pakistan, ancestral home to 3 of the 4 members of The Kominas--and they've even toured there. Thanks to Shahjehan, I was led to this audio report and this written one, from The Guardian, on Pakistan's lively underground rock scene. One of the bands discussed is Bumbu Sauce, from Islamabad, and their song "Jiggernaut." It's clever and catchy and goofy/serious and you can listen to it, and see the lyrics, here. Alas, I don't get all the references. "Juggernaut" (which I guess jiggernaut is a version of) is derived from the Sanskrit "Jagganatha," one of the names for the god Vishnu. It was incorporated into the English language as a result of a falsehood propagated by (some) British colonialists, who asserted that fanatical Hindus would throw themselves under the wheels of chariots carrying statues of Jagganatha/Vishnu during an annual festival, in order to gain salvation. "Juggernaut" came to mean "unstoppable force" in English--but with a whiff of religious fanaticism. Quite a witty title for a song, then, that deals with the Taliban. Bumbu Sauce is a kind of hot flavoring that goes on packaged noodles. I don't know what the CDA is. Capital Development Authority? Why does the CDA have ninjas? "Why do you act like such a rand?" Again, no idea what "rand" means in Pakistani English. [Update, Nov. 9, 2009: Thanks to an anonymous comment, I now know that "rand" means "whore," in both India and Pakistan.] I do get that the song suggests the possibility that the US struggle with the Taliban in Pakistan might extend to Iran. As The Guardian notes, the song first talks about fighting on the side of the Taliban, and later, fighting against the Taliban.

The report also discusses a song that is rather more earnest and serious in its political critique: "Ready to Die," from the Lahore band, co-Ven. It's here, on youtube, with lyrics for you to read. I can't make out all the bits in Urdu, except for "Iraqi," "Irani," and "Pakistani." The song criticizes the military collaboration between the Pakistani government and the US (i.e., the coalition) and raises the issue of the fact that this military cooperation seems to be having the effect of making the militants multiply. The song could apply equally well to Afghanistan as to Pakistan, and if it weren't for the map of Pakistan on the video, and the fact that The Guardian told you the band was Pakistani, you might think that Afghanistan was in fact the subject.

(Robert Mackey commented on The Guardian's report on the New York Times blog, and decided, for some reason, to focus almost exclusively on the fact that both bands sing in an American accent. He does give us one bit of useful information: the Urdu chorus to "Ready to Die" translates as follows: “The game of chess begins/ And one by one/ Iraqis and Iranians/ Saudis and Afghans/ and Pakistanis.” But why, when the US is involved in such a dangerous game in Pakistan and Afghanistan, you would want to focus on the US accent issue is just beyond me.)

More in the pop vein, stylistically, but much more explicitly political and radical, is the group Laal ("red"). I learned about them, somewhat amazingly, from a report on NPR's Morning Edition. Remarkable because Laal's two leaders are militants in Pakistan's Communist Workers and Peasants party. The guitarist, Taimur Rahman, is getting a PhD at SOAS in London, while the lead singer, Shahram Azhar, is doing his PhD at Oxford. They did music as a hobby, while working on their degrees and participating in Pakistani expat protests against Musharraf. They happened to meet a Pakistani film director, Taimur Khan, who heard them play their song "Main Nay Kaha (”I said”)" at a party. The song is based on a poem by well-known leftist Urdu poet Habib Jalib, and it attacks authoritarianism and political divisiveness. Khan convinced the band to do a video, which he shot in London. The video was a sensation on youtube, and got picked up by the Urdu cable channel Geo TV, and so it was seen, and became popular, in Pakistan. Soon the band was in Karachi, recording their first album.

According to an informative article by James Crabtree in Prospect magazine that focuses on Geo TV, "Main Nay Kaha" quickly became the theme song for the lawyers' movement protests of March and April 2009, that resulted in the reinstatement of Chief Justice Chaudhary. According to Shomial Ahmad's Morning Edition report, the big Laal song of the lawyer's movement was "Umeed-E-Sehr" ("hope of a new dawn"), the title track of Laal's album. Check out the video (with English subtitles) of "Umeed-E-Sehr," whose lyrics are by renowned leftist Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, here. I particularly like this song, "Main Nay Kaha (Musheer)," with lyrics, again, from Habib Jalib.

I find it quite exciting that the poetry of a previous generation of revered Urdu leftist poets, which had rather gone out of fashion, is being revived by Laal. (Their music, of course, is great too.) Check out more Laal videos here. The band's official website is here. Go there for more info and to listen to clips from all the songs on their album.

And finally here's an oldie, a clip from the golden days of Urdu cinema in Pakistan. From the 1966 film Armaan, the song is called "Ko Ko Karina" (sung by Ahmed Rushdi). The song's name refers, of course, to Coca Cola. The clip features a huge plastic Coke bottle on the bar, and waiters dance around with coke on their serving trays. This delightful song is an example of the "indigenization" of "Western" rock--it deploys rock elements, especially the electric guitar riffs, but is not straight "rock" in the ways that Bumbu Sauce or co-Ven are. This sort of incorporation of Western genres of course is very familiar from the more famous Bollywood tradition.

Iftikhar Dadi, in a forthcoming article on Urdu cinema, argues that Coke is fetishized by the elite in this clip, as signs of Western modernity. Nabeel Zuberi commented (when I posted Dadi's remarks on Facebook), that "The way the coke bottles are glued to that tray and the waiter's comic gait/dance are surely 'extracting the urine'/taking the piss. At the very least, it's postcolonial mimicry, if not outright camp." I'm inclined toward the mimicry/camp interpretation. (And hopefully Nabeel won't mind me quoting him!)

This "Socio-political History of Modern Pop Music in Pakistan" calls "Ko Ko Korina" "the first ever modern Pakistani pop song." I have no idea whether that is true, but please read this history--an outline, really--more background on Pakistani pop and rock.


Stuart said...

Pakistan has a great history of Rock 'n' Roll. Just nobody knows about it!

You can find a few of the bands from the 60s and 70s - as well as an interview with The Panthers - at

Ted Swedenburg said...


Kaitlin said...

this is right on!

Anonymous said...

"rand" means a whore.
this terminology is used both in India and Pakistan.

Si Pemimpi said...

FYI, "bumbu sauce" is actually not originally Pakistani. It's actually one of Indonesian products. The word "bumbu" itself means "seasoning" and "Bumbu Mi Goreng Asli" means "The Original Fried Noodle Seasoning", which is the Indonesian version of Ramen Noodle (or, considering that Mi Goreng is a thousand times more delicious than Ramen Noodle, I think ramen noodle is the american version of mie goreng :D). Anyways, it's okay if Pakistanis love it. Even the Arabs love it too. It might be unrelated to the whole The Kominas interpretation, but... sorry...

Richard S. said...

Laal is great! I'm not so sure about that filmi song "Ko Ko Karina"...

In old Pakistani film music, Noor Jehan was the greatest singer and promoter of Faiz Ahmed Faiz's poems (as well as a good friend of his), and she also sang a whole lot of western-influenced stuff (composed by great music directors such as Khurshid Anwar).

But for me, one of the most rocking songs she ever did was a classical number from the 1956
Pakistani film Intezar, which reminds me quite a bit of the Velvet Underground and all their imitators. Of course, we know what tradition they got much of their stuff from, so it makes perfect sense...

But there's also a very good swinging, Latin-influenced number in the same film, sung by Kausar Parveen:

I've become a big fan of old Bollywood and Lollywood films just over the couple of years, but from giving this stuff such obsessive attention, I think I have a good idea of what went on in the '40s to the '60s in both countries (and the single country before Partition), and it seems to me that western influences were just as prevalent in 1950s Pakistani movies as in Indian ones - which makes perfect sense, since many people who ended up in Pakistani cinema were part of Bollywood before Partition (one example being Noor herself).

That article seems to say that western-influenced Pakistani filmi pop music started in the 1960s, which seems silly to me.

And the author doesn't mention Madam Noor Jehan until a "revival" of her career in 1984, which I find very odd.

By the way, Noor Jehan is now my favorite singer of all time anywhere. I've known of so many western singers (I used to be a pop/rock critic), but now all those voices pale in my mind and heart next to Noor's. :)

Ted Swedenburg said...

Thanks for all the comments. I'm on the lookout now for bumbu sauce and Mi Goreng. And also for more music from Noor Jehan.

Aarzoo said...

Wow! I didn't know non-Pakistanis liked Pakistani music this much. I'm a Pakistani and I'm impressed on the amount of research done on this article. Great job!