Friday, September 18, 2009

Yes we have more kufiyas

Ayad Alkadhi is an Iraqi artist, one of many, many Arab and Muslim artists who have used Arabic calligraphy in their work, who has done some interesting pieces using calligraphy and kufiyas. These are from his "I am Baghdad" series. He says about the series: "I view the portraits as interviews, wherein Baghdad citizens express their feelings about post-occupation Iraq." What do you think this citizen is saying?

Is the kufiya here a mask? A blinder? A restraint?

And what about this one?!

In the middle of the skull are the words, عودة ذاكرة الكفاح or, "Return of the memory of the struggle," circled in red. Thoughts?

Kufiya kitsch.

Thanks to Arang Keshavarzian for these photos of kufiya bracelets, on sale right now at the Chelsea Art Museum in New York City. Chelsea! Someone please buy one and send it to me. I'll pay you back!

What the Chelsea lacks, unfortunately, are green kufiya bracelets, for wear at rallies in support of the Iranian democracy movement. Hopefully, someone will fill the gap.

Kufiya out of plastic handcuffs.

This item from Yves Gonzalex-Quijano, author of the invaluable blog, Culture et polititique arabes. (He also publishes a blog in English that translates some of the original French material.) It's a photo of an installation (?) by Rana Bishara, called Kuffiyah for Prisoners, made of out plastic handcuffs that are used for prisoners. It's part of a great exhibit of contemporary Palestinian art, currently at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris. Check out the other work too, by Kamal Boulatta and Emily Jacir, among others. I particularly like the stunning still from Sherif Waked's video, "Chic Point: Fashion for Israeli Checkpoints."

Sorry, it's a bit hard to make out the kufiya image in the Bishara piece. But you get the idea. Go here for another view.


This is the name of a leftwing Swedish prog/folk band that released an album of Swedish folk-rock/Palestinian music in 1976, called Palestina mitt land (فلسطين بلدي) or "Palestine is my land." You can download it here. Give it a listen. I am fairly familiar with Swedish roots music and with Palestinian "folk" music, and I'm not really convinced that the mix works all that well. I like the Swedish folk instrumental bits the best. A little to earnest sounding at times.

I've not been able to find out much about Kofia, except that it was from Göteberg, and that it released 4 albums. Palestine solidarity was very big on the Swedish left, and the European left in general, during the sixties and seventies. And Palestine solidarity is of course still strong in Sweden. I was told that for Swedes, the word kofia simply and unambiguously means Palestinian scarf.

Bajah + The Dry Eye Crew: Hip-Hop from Sierra Leone

Kufiyas aren't just about hipness and/or Palestine solidarity in the US and Europe and Jamaica, it seems that they are also big in Sierra Leone. At least that's what I conclude from these photos I ran across on The Afrobeat Blog. Bajah + The Dry Eye Crew are hip-hop artists from Sierra Leone. Did they get the idea of the kufiyas from US hipsters? From Palestinian freedom fighters? From US hip-hop artists? From the Jamaican scene? All of the above?

Please check out their mixtape. And read about them here and here.

Bajah has an album reportedly coming out soon in the US, including kufiya-spotted guest ?uestlove. And Talib Kweli, who must have put one on at some point, right?

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.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Y.A.S., "Arabology"

Y.A.S. has been getting a fair amount of publicity for its album Arabology, which reportedly has gotten a good buzz in France and Belgium. Check out the video for the first single from the album, "Get It Right." The video features images of space travel, numerous shots of familiar sights/sites in Cairo, lots of chatting on the mobile phone, dancing in a posh Arab disco, and the statuesque singer of Y.A.S., Yasmine Hamdan, who could certainly be a fashion model if she weren't pursuing a career in music. It is really beautifully filmed, a sure sign of the fact that Universal Music is putting a lot of money into backing Y.A.S. It's directed by Stephane Sednaoui, well-known photographer, music vid director (R.E.M., Björk, Massive Attack, Tricky, Beck...), and man about town (linked romantically to Björk, Kylie Minogue and Laetitia Casta, among others).

I quite like the song, it's infectious, it's danceable--and it has Arabic vocals. It's just counting (wahad, tnayn, tlaata, arba'...i.e. 1-2-3-4...) in Arabic, and the other lyrics are in English. Otherwise there is nothing Middle Eastern sounding about it. But go to Y.A.S.'s myspace page, and you'll get a more Middle Eastern feel if you listen to the extract from the song, "Yaspop"--which has real Arabic lyrics, rather than just chanted numbers. According to Fanoos, "It somewhat denounces occupation and the presence of foreign secret agents, married with the idea of globalization and a capitalist economy." (I need to receive my CD in the mail and listen to the entire song to see whether this is the case.) And be sure to check out the remix of "Get It Right" by noted DJ Felix da Housecat. (Another sure sign that Arabology has some serious backing from its record label.)

An article about Y.A.S. appeared in the Wall Street Journal on August 20--another sign, I think, of a publicity campaign mounted by Universal. And it included this photo, from renowned fashion photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino. It shows the other member of Y.A.S., Mirwais Ahmadzaï, the Paris-based Italian-Afghan producer who has worked with Fischerspooner and Madonna. No doubt the participation of a high-profile producer like Mirwais is key to Universal's support for the YAS project.

The focus of the Wall Street Journal article, and the video that accompanies it, is the issue of Arabic--the fact that Yasmine Hamdan's former band, Soap Kills, were pioneers in the Lebanese rock scene and were responsible making singing in Arabic conventional in Lebanese rock, and the problem of trying to sell Y.A.S. records in the West when Arabic is so "foreign." Soap Kills were a terrific band, who were at the cutting edge of the Beirut "alternative" music scene from the mid-90s til 2005. They were frequently called the Lebanese trip-hop band--not an entirely inaccurate comparison. If you search for Soap Kills on youtube, you will find a number of their songs. I particularly like the song "Aranis," from the album Cheftak, whose lyrics consist of phrases you would hear street vendors and service (collective taxi) drivers yell out in Beirut.

It seems that Lebanese rock bands in fact were a bit behind the rest of the Arab world in switching from vocals in English or French to Arabic. Probably this has to do with the fact that (a) English and French are used nearly as much in urban Lebanon as Arabic and (b) that the rock scene in Lebanon was mostly non-existent from 1975-1990, the years of the civil war. Rachid et Fethi (Baba Ahmed) were releasing rock tracks in Arabic in Algeria as early as the seventies. (They later became celebrated rai producers.) And you can also hear "rock in Arabic" on an amazing album put out by Columbia records in the US in 1967, Hard Rock from the Middle East by The Devil's Anvil. The Devil's Anvil were a band that played around in the Village in New York City in the mid-sixties, were discovered by Felix Pappalardi, who started playing bass for them and got them signed to Columbia, and also included Steve Knight, who went on to form Mountain with Pappalardi. Vocals were provided by Kareem Isaaq, who handled the Arabic. Check out "Besaha"--rockin'! (I hope someday someone writes at the very least an article on rock'n'roll in the Arab world, especially from the 50s to the 70s.)

As for singing in that strange language of Arabic before a Western audience--Y.A.S. is not really in the vanguard here either. The first blow was struck--if I'm not mistaken--by rai star Khaled, with "Didi," his huge 1992 hit--all over Europe, all over the world (except North America) in fact. Since then, rai has become pretty mainstream in France, and Khaled and Cheb Mami and others have had hits sung in Arabic. Natacha Atlas has been successful in Europe as well, and don't forget Rachid Taha, especially his cover of "Ya Rayah."

I love the work of Yasmine Hamdan, in Soap Kills, and I love what I've heard of Y.A.S. I do hope that "Get It Right" is a big hit for them. (According to the Wall Street Journal, YAS is trying to rework Arabology for the US market. So all we can acquire here is an import CD. If you live in the US, you can't even download Arabology from the French site!) But I think Y.A.S. should be seen as part of a larger trend of the growing popularity of Arabic music in the West, not as an unprecedented phenom. (Although a hit in the dance music or rocket circuit--that would be huge.)

Read more about Yasmine and Y.A.S. and Soap Kills in this article by Kaelen Wilson-Goldie in The National. Wow, Yasmine namechecks the Bandaly family! And am I right in understanding that she is romantically involved with Palestinian film director Elia Suleiman?

A final curiosity. Trax magazine claims that Peaches, in her new "Serpentine" video, is wearing the same leather outfit for a few seconds that Yasmine wears in the "Get It Right" video. Can you see it? I can't. But it's worth watching the Peaches video all the same. She hasn't lost a step.