Taqwacore: Salat, angst and rock & roll

MTV Desi, August 12, 2010

On a warm evening last August in Oakland, California, a group of young men – relaxed, casually dressed, not all of them freshly showered – stand barefoot on flattened cardboard boxes in the yard behind a scruffy bar on Telegraph Avenue. They figure out which way is East: Mecca is out there, somewhere across the alley and over the hills. Nearby, friends and early arrivals for the evening’s show mill about. Someone has fired up a grill for burgers and dogs. Bottles of Corona circulate. Those who drink, drink; those who don’t, abstain. At the proper moment, one of the worshippers steps forward and begins the ritual of maghrib, the evening prayer. “Allahu Akbar…” drifts out on the California breeze.

The show begins. The Kominas headline. Through their own efforts and a raft of curious media coverage, the Pakistani- and Indian-American foursome has become the flagship band for taqwacore — the genre, or style, or movement, or something, that may or may not be describable as “Muslim punk” (we’ll get to that in a bit). The Kominas have driven cross-country from Boston, stopping to perform in various bars, basements and community centers along the way. A series of opening acts precede them, including their tour-mates Sarmust and Propaganda Anonymous. Sarmust is the stage name of Pakistani-American Omar Waqar, who plays rock inspired by Sufi poetry. Prop Anon is a white kid from New York who hangs out with the Five Percenters, the esoteric Harlem-based movement whose members call each other Allah or God, because the divine is within each of us. He raps about urban politics, broken communities and empty condos. Some local Bay Area acts play too. One is Micropixie, a tiny South Asian woman whose fragile electronic ballads have nothing to do with Islam or politics. And there’s something called the Mujahideen Bernstein Affair, a pierced and tattooed duo who play a kind of modified Indian classical music on odd homemade instruments; during their set, the audience sits, reverential, on the sticky floor.

The Kominas begin; the energy spikes, and a mosh pit forms. The crowd knows the hits: “Suicide Bomb The Gap,” which is about, well, suicide bombing The Gap; “I Need A Handjob,” which in addition to the title subject evokes the martyrdom of Imam Hussein at Karbala; “Rumi Was A Homo (But Wahhaj Is A Fag),” which eviscerates a conservative Brooklyn imam for his homophobic statements; and of course the rousing “Sharia Law in the U.S.A.,” with its Sex Pistol echoes. Silliness ensues. Singer/bassist Basim Usmani, hair ablaze in a glorious purple mohawk, jumps into the crowd and ends up on the floor, under a pile of revelers. People take off their shoes and toss them at the musicians, in the manner of the Iraqi reporter who took a shot at George W. Bush. At some point a few Oakland cops turn up at the bar, supposedly on a routine visit to check liquor licenses. “That never happens,” a local comments, suggesting it’s the Muslim weirdos who have warranted the visit.

A chant greets the cops, using the religious term for unclean: “Pigs are haram! Pigs are haram!” It was pioneered the time the Kominas and friends tried to perform at an open-mic session at the Islamic Society of North America conference, prompting shocked organizers to get security to clear the stage. The Oakland cops aren’t so bothered. They scope the scene, find it harmless, then leave.

Amid the raucous party, a blue-eyed white guy in an Alternative Tentacles t-shirt and red Harvard baseball cap is keeping the mosh pit busy and getting extra love from the band. He is Michael Muhammad Knight, cult author of six books including the 2004 novel “The Taqwacores,” which arguably launched this scene and certainly named it. This Oakland show is doubling as Knight’s bachelor party; he’s getting married the next day to his Indian-American fiancée, and everyone is here to celebrate. Knight and the Kominas are veterans of the original Taqwa Tour, when a bunch of Muslim American misfits, including key members of most of the bands on the taqwacore scene, roamed the land in an old school bus, painted green for Islam, that Knight purchased with his books’ slender earnings. Knight’s novel had imagined a scene of Muslim punk rockers torn between devotion and blasphemous mayhem, living in a group house in depressed Buffalo, N.Y. As the spiral-bound, self-distributed book circulated, actual young Muslim Americans recognized themselves in Knight’s characters, and groups like the Kominas and Chicago-based crust-punk band Al-Thawra surfaced as their real-life embodiments.

In Oakland, the collision of art and life continues: not only are bands like the ones in Knight’s novel performing on stage, but in the crowd are actors from the upcoming feature film adaptation. It’s a great night for taqwacore; everything has come full circle.

The next day is the wedding, an Indian Muslim affair with several hundred guests in a strip-mall function hall in immigrant-heavy Fremont. To the rhythm of drums, the punks and actors ceremonially escort Knight, now bedecked in a lavish turban, into the room, then dissolve in crowd of desi uncles and aunties. Enthroned on stage with his gorgeous bride, Knight is the lovely new son-in-law, the handsome Western convert now welcomed into family and community. At the proper time, Kominas guitarist Shahjehan Khan — now clad in a swank sherwani — gives the azaan, the call to prayer. After the meal, Kominas and other male guests engage in lively ceremonial back-and-forth singing with some of the women, before bride and groom disappear into the night. “Just your standard desi wedding,” one guest remarks later, “except most of the groom’s side had some kind of colored hair.”

Taqwacore is a cultural development of our time, meaning that it is at once organic and something of a media-amplified phenomenon. Taqwa bands — the term means religious consciousness, or righteousness — have sprung up across North America; the Kominas and Al-Thawra are the most active, but there’s also Sarmust, Vote Hezbollah out of San Antonio, Sagg Taqwacore Syndicate in Oregon, the queer, all-girl Secret Trial Five in Toronto, and a constellation of bands, bedroom producers and MCs in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere who may or may not call themselves Taqwacore but fit the general spirit. Through word of mouth and MySpace, they have spotted other bands across the Muslim world — apparently there’s an all-girl punk group in Saudi — who feel like fellow travelers.

Basim, Shahjehan, and drummer Imran Malik of the Kominas have all spent the last few years living in Pakistan — where their families come from — and attempted to spark a local punk scene there. Basim and Imran called their first band there the Dead Bhuttos, a macabre local tribute to the Dead Kennedys. It didn’t last, especially after the actual assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the prime minister at the time; so they started another called Noble Drew — after Noble Drew Ali, who believed African-Americans were all of Muslim origin, and who founded the fez-wearing Moorish Science Temple in Chicago in 1913. A 2008 rooftop gig in Lahore by Noble Drew the band, with Knight in attendance, may have been Pakistan’s first-ever full-blown punk show.

That gig is a high point in Taqwacore, the new documentary by Omar Majeed now on the festival circuit. A portrait of the scene with an emphasis on Knight and the Kominas, it follows the protagonists back to Pakistan, where Knight had once spent a teenage summer as a fresh and zealous convert, studying Islam at a Saudi-funded mosque. In the documentary, Knight returns to Pakistan as a heretic, an author and punk maven who has traversed layers of disillusionment – with Islam in particular, and religion in general — and found his way to a personal, fractalized Islam where God is everywhere, women and men are equal and pray together, and the ecstatic teachings of Sufi mystics meet the street wisdom of Five Percenter Gods and Earths. The film follows Knight and the band as they visit mosques and Sufi shrines, and try to inject punk-rock energy into a local rock scene that mainly caters to the local upper class, mixing it up by recruiting random audience members from the street.

The documentary is just one of two “Taqx” movies suddenly hitting the screens. The feature film The Taqwacores, a faithful adaptation of the novel with Knight himself co-writing the screenplay, premiered at the 2010 Sundance Festival. Filmed on a shoestring in an actual punk house in Cleveland whose denizens were kind enough to leave their authentic grime, its credits read like a roster of emerging and unknown second-gen immigrant talent. Eyad Zahra, whose roots are in Syria, directs; Iranian-Americans Dominic Rains and Bobby Naderi play respectively Jehangir, the house’s troubled charismatic leader, and Yusef, the earnest kid who is trying to make sense of it all. Indian-American Noureen DeWulf plays Rabeya, the punk chick who may be the story’s most subversive figure; though DeWulf’s looks have earned her quite the male following, her character here spends the entire film in full burqa.

The near-simultaneous release of both films adds heft to the taqwacore label and in a way begins a reclamation project, as members of the scene put forth their own narrative in place of portrayals by outside media. The existence of “Muslim punk” is catnip to an editor in search of an off-beat story with possibly large implications, and taqwacore has made it to CNN, Newsweek, the Guardian, BBC and more. The artists aren’t upset at being covered, but they’re less than thrilled about the lines of questioning they’ve faced and the resulting stories, many of them trying to shoehorn taqwacore into some kind of ideological mission — street preachers? Islamic reformers? — instead of the plural, disorderly and sometimes ridiculous reality of their lyrics and behavior.

Part of the pushback is just punk-kid petulance, but most is well-founded annoyance at exotification of a phenomenon that sprang from suburban basements, just kids growing up in America with various migrant backgrounds and flavors of alienation, making music with the materials at hand. That’s why lots of taqwacore songs contain zero Islamic references at all — and why Kominas guitarist Arjun Ray, rapper Prop Anon and any number of other people can identify as taqwacore without being Muslim nor coming from Muslim families. It’s why the musical and lyrical references of taqwacore mine the range of ethnic, political and pop-culture content that brown youth encounter coming up in post-globalization America (and elsewhere): Arabic and Urdu poetry, bhangra, qawwali, mosque and temple etiquette, pious aunties, airport security, terrorist paranoia, hip-hop, video games, Malcolm X, road trips, sex, prayer, skateboards, everything.

Still, if “Muslim punk” is too reductive a term to describe taqwacore, it does get at something important at the heart of this music and emerging community. There’s a kind of experiential investigation of Islam and its heresies going on in much of this music, and the taqwacore kids have brought something to the table in a decade when the public conversation about Islam, if deeply flawed, has had at least the merit of existing. Knight’s original novel, in which many young Muslim-Americans have found something to recognize, respond to or laugh with, stemmed from his own manic whirlwind of faith: a working-class white kid from a broken home finding structure through conversion at 16; a Saudi-style hyper-orthodox phase, alienating people around him and ultimately himself; and deep sorrow at learning of Islam’s early and recent divisions, internal racism and conflict, all the half-truths and hidden histories. All this turned Knight into a collector of Muslim heresies — “queer alims, drunk imams, punk ayatollahs, masochistic muftis, junkie shaikhs, retarded mullahs and guttermouth maulanas” — with a scholar’s attention to their forgotten antecedents in Islamic history.

His quest — recorded in his second book, the memoir Blue Eyed Devil — also made room for the self-styled, mostly African-American movements that sprang up in the last century invoking Allah or Islam: the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation of Islam and its mysterious prophet W.D. Fard, the Five Percenters, the Nuwaubians and more.

If there was any music capacious enough for all of this, it had to be punk — with its embrace of contradiction and its zest for the absurd, the historic and cultural references making energy out of collision like bodies in the mosh pit. The Kominas’ 2008 debut album Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay has it all: intra-Muslim American religious beefs, Punjabi tradition, Five Percenter numerology, foreign policy, anti-consumerism, terrorist jokes. Al-Thawra’s “Who Benefits from War?” bellows largely indecipherable lyrics into a heavy crust-punk storm, but the agenda is political; it ends with “Taqsim,” guitar improvisation in the spirit, if not the style, of Arabic classical music. Omar Waqar of Sarmust calls his music “rooted in angst but ultimately about activism.” He’s as much singer-songwriter as punk rocker; on the side, he also plays a mean sitar.

Taqwacore is still a sub-culture. Despite all the high-end media attention, there aren’t a lot of bands and the fan base is underground. Still, the movement is fleshing out. Both the documentary “Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam” and the feature film of Knight’s novel, “The Taqwacores,” directed by Eyad Zahra, have enjoyed a warm reception at the festivals. Zahra’s film is slated to open commercially in the next few months. The Kominas and al-Thawra have recently returned from a tour of the United Kingdom and Scandinavia that saw them perform not only for the London hip set but also in Muslim and immigrant-heavy English cities like Bradford. The new album from the Kominas, Escape to Blackout Beach, shows a broader stylistic range and a growing melodic emphasis with ska, reggae, and Punjabi and Sufi song all in the mix.

But whether taqwacore grows into a major pop movement doesn’t really matter, least of all to its participants, who tend to be self-deprecating and highly wary of labels in the first place. The music’s real contribution is to feed into a broader phenomenon in which young Muslims in the diaspora — together with non-Muslim friends — are crafting their own adjustments to the faith and its culture, and documenting the results in literature, art, music, and politics. Some are experimenting with women-led prayer; others are forming queer Muslim communities. Student groups, spoken-word poets, bloggers, lawyers and activists are all working it out their own way.

Amid this ongoing reinvention — which is partly about Islam, partly about migration, but mostly just individuals finding a path — taqwacore blows in with its raucous sounds, eclectic supporters and bizarre affinities. Its hi-jinks aren’t for everyone; nor is its irreverence and freedom. But that’s punk rock, right? All noise and possibility.