Saturday, September 26, 2009

Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam - interviews with Omar Majeed, Shahjehan Khan, and Sena Hussain

The Kominas, by James Moreau-Drew. Not to be used without permission.

A brief synopsis of the film Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam (official site here), playing October 3rd and 5th at the VIFF, is in order; as I have said elsewhere - in a post below and in an upcoming review in The Skinny - it is by far the most exciting, fresh, funny, and rewarding film I have been able to preview (number one on a list of about thirteen movies I've looked at). The interview-and-performance rich film charts the rise of a new, young, and vibrantly energetic punk community among Muslims in the US and Canada. All of them are dissatisfied, to varying degrees, with the conservativism of traditional Islam (by which even playing things like guitars is haram - forbidden). All of them are dissatisfied with the intolerance, prejudice, hatred and confusion with which Muslims are greeted in the United States and Canada. All of them like music, mostly punk (tho' their musical backgrounds are as varied as their takes on Islam). And all the bands shown in the doc kick ass; there is some great stuff performed (my faves were some of the Noble Drew songs and Secret Trail Five's "Hey Hey Guantanamo Bay.")

The Taqwacore "movement" was drawn together by - and took its name from - a book by Michael Muhammad Knight, a Christian-raised convert to Islam. The novel The Taqwacores imagines a highly varied Muslim community - including potheads, a straight edge conservative Muslim, an exuberant Indonesian with a fondness for Sham 69, an African reggae fan, and a feminist named Rabeya who always wears a burqa - living together in a punk house. Based on the third I've read, it's funny and smart; the tone is not far off that of Zen monk and Zero Defex member Brad Warner's books, though there is less of an attempt on Knight's part to proselytize his beliefs (since, in the book, his narrator seems mostly confused and frustrated and unsure of himself, trying to figure out where he fits. There are also a lot of words in Arabic, where Warner's books tend to feature phrases in Japanese). Another author comparison is due: as with the earliest books of Vancouver's Chris Walter - who just launched his newest memoir, the very funny and readable Punch The Boss - early editions of The Taqwacores were ring bound and self-distributed, in true punk DIY fashion. Knight says in the film that he wrote the book out of "extreme loneliness," not realizing that across the continent other punk Muslims (or Muslim punks) would actually pick it up, get in touch, and end up embracing his book as a sort of foundational text.

They have done. The film charts the coming together of various bands and artists around Knight: The Kominas, The Secret Trial Five, Al Thawra, and Omar Waqar (formerly of Diacritical, now with Sarmust), all of whom end up on tour together across America, in a big green bus with Taqwa - "God consciousness" - spraypainted in yellow on the front. "Blue Eyed Devil" Knight aside, it's kind of like a brown Hard Core Logo: these guys are punks, messy, silly, playful, at times angry and difficult, and often rebellious and inclined to stir up shit, as when they attempt to perform at an ISNA convention (a very conservative, "mainstream Islam" convention) - my favourite section of the film, in which Omar Waqar gets a group of 12 year old girls singing along to a chant of "stop the hate" before the plug is pulled. (Sena Hussain of Secret Trial Five had gotten the boot previously, simply for being a female singer - "female vocal cords are haram," she says afterwards as the band members try to process their experience in the parking lot). The film is also laugh-out loud funny - as when Basim accidentally (?) damages his family car, with his father on hand to have his reaction captured. The second section follows Knight and two Kominas, Basim and Shahjehan, to Lahore, Pakistan - where Knight had studied as a younger man, and where Shahjehan and Basim's families come from; there, Basim and Shahjehan form a ska-punk band, now disbanded, called Noble Drew. They try very hard to get people to come to see them play. Eventually they succeed.
Basim of The Kominas, by James Moreau-Drew. Not to be used without permission.

I was able to do some email Q&A with Shahjehan and filmmaker Omar Majeed (and briefly, ex-Vancouverite Sena Hussain; she'll get the last word).

Allan: What's your favourite part of the movie and why?

Omar: For me, my favorite scene is when Michael goes on his spiritual quest in Islamabad and in Multan. To me that is when the film moves from punk provocation to serious spiritual reflection. In the west, we tend to homogenize Islam into being one thing. I think Michael's real strength comes in seeking out all kinds of Islam in the world - whether it's the Five Percenters in Harlem or the Sufis in Multan. Although it is a close tie with the scene at the ISNA convention, where I think The Kominas, The Secret Trial Five and the other bands really did something brave and bold. That moment, of them crashing the stage, with hijabi girls chanting along to their songs, is the true birth of punk islam. Taqwacore just became real at that moment. I've seen people come to tears watching it.

Shahjehan: Favorite part: The very end with the mosh pit in the old city of Lahore, I will never forget the feeling we all had that day that we had actually succeeded in our goal of bringing some form of punk to Pakistan. We had all been through so much emotionally (and would continue to after the filming was over) and were on the verge of giving up. We really didn't think anyone was going to show up, there were a number of issues during the concert (power outages etc...)...The film doesn't exactly show that we ended up doing 3 separate sets that night (there was one other local band that played for about 20 min), but the first set we were literally playing to no one. I remember one guy who I specifically invited (while we were handing out flyers the night before on 'Food Street' in Lahore) that turned out to be from the same village where my father grew up. The energy was incredible that night, you could tell that people had never really experienced that bond between audience and performer that is the essence of punk rock. I also enjoyed both of Omar Majeed's montage sequences (the beginning of the US tour, and the train footage in Pakistan); he did a great job with this film.

Allan: What are the best Taqwacore CDs and how do my readers buy them?

Shahjehan: The Kominas; Diacritical; Al-Thawra.

Omar: I think The Kominas CD Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay and Al Thawra's Who Benefits from War? are exemplary, both musically and in terms of its lyrical content and themes. They are true Taqwacore relics. Omar Waqar's former group Diacritical has a great album, but I'm not certain he would describe it as Taqwacore - although I believe that it is, in its own way. His song "Ignorance" speaks a lot to issues facing young Muslims. Omar's new project Sarmust looks like its going to a great mish-mash of Punjabi, Indian, Punk and Qawalli styles and that's very Taqwacore.

Allan: Any plans for a soundtrack?

Omar: There are currently no plans, but its an interesting idea. Know any labels who may want to put it out?

Allan: Given the number of people that got together around Michael's book - what do you think the effect of the movie will be?

Omar: The Taqwacore scene is a small but burgeoning one. In the three years plus that I've been working on this film, I've seen it grow from something happening around three friends, to something that much larger - with people all over the states, and even some in Pakistan and the Mideast all part of this scene. The impact of this movie, as well as the upcoming Taqwacore fiction film leads me to believe that the Taqwacore is going to grow and evolve. And that's how it should be, I believe.

Shahjehan: I hope the movie will open up this music and story to the world and that kids will start their own bands, be it in Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, or the US. That's ultimately the goal, to really have a scene so that we can all tour together, have our own crazy festivals, record labels, media, everything.

Allan: How do I make bhang lassi? (This is a kind of cannabis milk that Noble Drew and company make in Pakistan). Is it potent?

Omar: Yes it's very potent...and actually quite delicious. I only had a sip. Unfortunately, the guys AND MY CREW had glasses of it. This made for a very interesting shoot in which we were harassed and shaken down by mosque security when we visited a shrine, but that is another story...

Unfortunately I don't know the recipe, other than milk, cardamom, cinnamon, and lots of fresh ground pot.

Shahjehan: Bhang lassi is INSANELY potent, and I will not be responsible for giving out intoxicant related information ;)

(Allan's note: when further attempts to ply Shahjehan proved futile, I resorted to Google).

Allan (to Shahjehan): What's the current state of The Kominas and Noble Drew? How do people find your music?

Shahjehan: We are about to run out of the first 1000 copies of Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay, there may still be some available (and by some, I mean less than 8!) on CDbaby. You can get digital versions on iTunes, Amazon etc...Noble Drew does not exist anymore, however we do still play that music live and plan on re-releasing it on our next album. We came back from Pakistan because we were itching to re-invigorate The Kominas. We are self-distributing at this point, but will have a new Kominas/Sarmust EP available at the Festival de Nouveau Cinema on October 8th with some new tracks...We encourage you to bootleg our music!

Allan (to Shahjehan): If I could ask about a few of your songs - what's the background of "Rumi Was A Homo (But Wahhaj Is a Fag)," "Shariah Law In the USA?" and "Thaleo vi Chimro" ("Grind It Down").

Shahjehan: "Rumi" was written when we found out that an imam was saying very homophobic things in regards to a gay-friendly mosque being built somewhere in Canada. "Sharia:" Pure shock-value fun about what it was like after the Patriot Act, that is to say that our freedoms were being/are being taken away day by day, and we might as well have sharia law! "Thaleo vi Chimro": Daily frustrations about living in Pakistan, no girls, corruption...

Allan (to Shahjehan): As musicians, what is, personally, the worst shit that you have encountered in the USA from authorities? (When you weren't actually guilty of anything, that is!).
Shahjehan of The Kominas, by James Moreau-Drew. Not to be used without permission.

Shahjehan: Not really because of being musicians, but: on our most recent tour, a bunch of us were at a diner in Wyoming having some incredible food (buffalo-meat burgers, great eggs, etc...) and we started listening in on some of the conversations around us. Somebody was talking about Obama and how he couldn't be trusted, and then one lady goes "As a matter of fact, I don't really trust any colored people at all". We (being a group of brown guys) nearly choked on our food! HOWEVER, ten minutes later, the same woman was having a very friendly conversation with us and telling us about a strip club "The Mustang Ranch"...Also, somebody threw a belt clip at our graffiti-infested trailer in Austin (same tour) that said "Apple Bottoms", we couldn't really figure that one out. I guess the cancelled gig in Hamtramck michigan from the first tour (a scene in the movie) was also kind of lame. For me personally, when I came back from Pakistan earlier this year, I was held up at immigration in JFK airport for 5 hours.

Allan (to Shahjehan): What's the silliest shit you've encountered from the media?

Shahjehan: Newsweek had an article titled "Slam Dancing for Allah." Hahahaha

Allan: Who is the black guy near the beginning of the film explaining that music is haram?

Omar: I don't know exactly who that guy is - The Kominas shot that footage on a camcorder and I got it from them. They were in the mood to go to the Mosque and do prayers, when they encountered this man. I'm not sure if he's an imam exactly, but he seemed to be a person of import at the mosque, and the vibe I get from him is that he is probably a scholar or teacher. In any case, to me he represents the very mainstream mode of Islam that we are constantly faced with. A Sunni, fairly conservative Saudi exported Islam filled with Sharia (Laws) based on a mountain of theological data. A religious bureaucracy that stifles rather than encourages spiritual growth and exploration. In the world of Mosques, Islamic community centers and schools - this guy is the norm.

The Kominas, by James Moreau-Drew. Not to be used without permission.

Allan (to Omar): what's your entry point into the story - how did you get involved in this project? What's your background? Are you a Muslim? Are you a punk? (What was your point of entry into punk?)

Omar: Okay... So I come from a Muslim family. My parents are Pakistani. I was raised in Canada, but spent my teenage years living in Lahore Pakistan. I'm not what you would call a 'punk' per-se...I love music, though and because I had cool older siblings, found myself at the tender age of seven rocking out to The Sex Pistols and The Clash (although the Pistols did scare me a bit). I do think of myself as a non-conformist. Feeling like an outsider in both Canada and Pakistan for different reasons. Religiously, I did flirt with Islam during one of my adolescent phases, but quickly outgrew it via my raging hormones.

My parents weren't very strict or religious, so I never felt compelled towards Islam. After 9/11, of course, it didn't matter what I felt. Whether I liked it or not, I was going to be branded as Muslim by the non-Muslims around me. And although I felt a lot of rage, and dare I say some shame, towards the barbarism of Islamic fundamentalists and their ilk, I was also equally incensed by the gross stereotyping and ignorant questions that I and other Muslims had to deal with. Whenever something would appear about Islam on television, there seemed to be two portrayals - Taliban types or mainstream Muslim organizations saying Islam is all about peace and love. It was so incredibly black and white.

It was then that I decided a film needed to be made articulating the silent majority of Muslims - complex, confused Muslims who maybe ate pepperoni on their pizzas, dated, had doubts about some of the ideas coming out of the Mosque but also didn't want to renounce their faith or culture. Could you not love some things and take other things to task, which is what humans do with just about everything else?

For a year or so, I began researching possible ways to explore this in a film. Through my research, talking to all kinds of alternative-type Muslims out there, one name kept coming up - Michael Muhammad Knight, and his self-published novel The Taqwacores. The whole thing sounded crazy, but I emailed him and we soon met. Michael told me his life-story in three hours, and I basically sat there with my mouth agape. He then told me about the new bands that were forming and getting in touch with him -- that was when I realized I had found the right story to express how i felt. And now here we are.

Allan: Is it the same woman at the ISNA concert - Ingrid Mattison, I think - explaining BEFORE the bands perform about embracing diversity and then talking about no women singers and the need to be "Islamically appropriate" afterwards, or are those different women? If so, have either seen the film or commented?

Omar: No, Ingrid Mattson is the woman in the first instance. She's the president of ISNA and also a white-converts. (incidentally, the most famous Imams and religious leaders in America today are all white-converts, this itself would make an interesting documentary). The woman in the second instance is anonymous, but was one of the organizers at that specific Open Mic Night event.

Allan: There are two scenes I didn't understand, that felt like maybe you didn't get full coverage: where the bus is driving away from the Isna show and there's some cop issue, wth someone yelling "the cameras are rolling;" and, in Pakistan, when everyone (I think) is walking around stoned on bhang lassi, there's another cop issue where it looks like someone is being fined "30,000 rupees." What's the story with those scenes?

Omar: So the first part you're referring to is a montage of moments where the police pulled us over, or shut down shows. It's over MC Riz doing his rap/rant "Sour Times" While shooting, there would be various moments when cops would jostle us, but by the time cameras got rolling and sound was up to speed, we'd end up with brief fragments.

It's not like with cops, you can get too in their face with camera equipment. I could of times we were asked to shut off our equipment. So piecing these fragments together over this rap was a way of suggesting that on the tour, this was a part of our reality - and really for all Muslims in America today, there are times you are going to be a victim of some racial profiling. So this was an impressionistic scene, born of necessity, but hopefully gives on the essence of the idea. You act like a Muslim punk, you flirt with the wrath of homeland security.

The second instance is true. We were (me excepted) walking around stoned on bhang lassi. We went to Data Darbar, a legendary Sufi Shrine, around midnight. We were pulled aside by Mosque security - but to say we were 'fined' is polite; this was a shakedown. Customary in Pakistani life, everything - and I mean everything - moves with bribes. Fortunately, our fixer was with us, and had friends in 'high places' so we didn't have to pay the fine. Unfortunately, he was high on Bhang Lassi as well, so it took some time to get ourselves out of that sticky situation.

Allan (to Shahjehan): Any plans for The Kominas to play Vancouver?

Shahjehan: We have never played Vancouver, and would love to! If any bands/ promoters/ venues would like to help us out with a Canadian tour, please get in touch! ...We like to play with/have played with all sorts of musicians. A Canadian tour is a must!

Allan (to Omar): How about distribution for the film in Vancouver? Any word?

Omar: Right now our distributor is looking for theatres to play the film theatrically in Vancouver.

Allan: Thanks!

Omar: It's been a pleasure answering you -- I've been conducting this interview while in our sound mix....the finished film is going to rock. I feel like the movie has been getting a make-over or something...

The Kominas, by James Moreau-Drew. Not to be used without permission.

Secret Trial Five, provided by Sena Hussain

Post Script: a few quick questions of Sena Hussain, of Secret Trial Five:

Allan: Your Myspace says you're based in Toronto. In the film, it's said you're from Vancouver; but *I'm* from Vancouver and I haven't heard of you. Am I just not paying close enough attention?

Sena: I originally formed the band in Vancouver back in June of 2006, but moved to Toronto in August of 2008. My bandmates all stayed in Vancouver so I've had to find new members here in Toronto. They are Sidra Mahmood on guitar and Manal Elawar on drums. Right now we're in rehearsal stage, and I'm planning on putting some new music together with them, which I'm excited about since their musical tastes, styles and personalities are a bit different than what I had with my bandmates in Vancouver. I'm also hoping to update some of the songs politically to keep up with the political climate now.

Allan: Will you (or anyone else associated with Taqwacore) be in attendance at the VIFF screening, that you know of?

Sena: Right now I'm crossing my fingers that a miracle will happen and somehow I'd be able to attend with all my friends and old bandmates in Vancouver, but right now there is no solid plan to go. The film will also be screening in Montreal in early October, and it's more likely that I'll be checking that out since it's closer to Toronto.

Allan: Do you have a comment or quote on your own music (your purpose, your uniting principle) or on the film that you'd like to see in print? If I were to sum up your band in a few sentences, they would be...?

Sena: I hope my music gets through to people, that by seeing us they see that Muslim women aren't what you usually see in the media. Also, I want my music to make people think about how racism is still a very real thing in the West and is used to target communities of colour, and how ignorance can destroy other places and people in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, and so on because it justifies war and imperialism.


Thanks to Sena, Shahjehan, and Omar for taking time to answer my questions! Again, Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam plays October 3rd and 5th at the VIFF. Omar Majeed will be in attendance. I wholeheartedly urge my readers to be there, too, for a most enjoyable and exciting filmic experience...!

1 comment:

James NMD said...

This was a great article, it wasn't the same old stuff I hear about the taqwacores and that means allot!