Artwork from the Punjab state of India decorates the Ray family home. A Johann Sebastian Bach statue sits on a piano. But in the basement — cluttered with wires, old concert fliers and drawings — 25-year-old Arjun Ray is fighting distortion from his electric guitar.
For this son of Indian immigrants, trained in classical violin and raised on traditional Punjab music, getting his three Pakistani-American bandmates in sync is the goal on this cold New England evening. Their band, The Kominas, is trying to record a punk rock version of the classic Bollywood song, "Choli Ke Peeche" (Behind the Blouse).
"Yeah," said Shahjehan Khan, 26, one of the band's guitarists, "there are a lot of contradictions going on here."
Deep in the woods of this colonial town boils a kind of revolutionary movement. From the basement of this middle-class home tucked in the woods west of Boston, The Kominas have helped launched a small, but growing, South Asian and Middle Eastern punk rock movement that is attracting children of Muslim and Hindu immigrants and drawing scorn from some traditional Muslims who say their political, hard-edged music is "haraam," or forbidden.
The movement, an anti-establishment subculture borne of religiously conservative communities, is the subject of two new films and a hot topic on social-networking sites.
The artists say they are just trying to reconcile issues such as life in America, women's rights and homosexuality with Islam and old East vs. West cultural clashes.
"This is one way to deal with my identity as an Arab American," said Marwan Kamel, the 24-year-old lead guitarist in Chicago-based Al-Thawra. "With this music, I can express this confusion."
Tied to 2003 novel
The movement's birth is often credited to the novel "The Taqwacore," by Michael Muhammad Knight, a Rochester, N.Y.-raised writer who converted to Islam.
Knight coined the book's title from the Arabic word "Taqwa," which means piety or God-fearing, and the word hardcore. The 2003 book portrayed an imagined world of living-on-the-edge Muslim punk rockers and influenced real-life South Asians to form their own bands.
South Asian and Middle Eastern punk bands soon were popping up across America and communicating with each other via MySpace.
At the time of book's release, Basim Usmani and Khan already were experimenting with punk and building the foundation for The Kominas, which loosely means "scoundrels" in various South Asian languages. When Usmani, now 26, came across the book, he was writing songs and sporting a mohawk — just like the punk rocker on the novel's cover.
Usmani contacted Knight, who agreed to buy a bus on eBay for $2,000 to help launch the nation's first "Muslim punk rock tour" in 2007. Kamel, the son of a Syrian father and Polish mother, bought a one-way ticket to Boston to join the tour, and Canadian drag-queen singer Sena Hussain met up with them along the way.
The musicians performed at various venues but were notably kicked off stage during an open mic performance at the Islamic Society of North America convention in Chicago. Traditional Muslims at the convention decried the electric guitar-based music as un-Islamic while others were upset a woman dared sing on stage. The episode was documented by Pakistani-Canadian filmmaker Omar Majeed in his new documentary "Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam."
"These guys are not prophetizing or preaching anything specific about Islam," said Majeed, whose film is set for release in the United States in 2010. "They just happen to be young and Muslim, and they write songs and do art that expresses that idea."
Imam Talal Eid, executive director of the Islamic Institute of Boston, said some traditional Muslims may object to such music because they focus on its sexual attraction rather than its use for spiritual enjoyment. "But I think we can come up with a moderate opinion that distinguished what is forbidden from what is not," said Eid. "It's a new issue among Muslims."
Sarcasm in 'Sharia Law in the USA'
The musical style of each group varies. Some songs on The Kominas' album "Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay" lean toward the humorous and ironic, including "Suicide Bomb the Gap." In their song "Sharia Law in the USA," the lyrics mock the portrayal of Islamists: "I am an Islamist/I am the anti-Christ/most squares can't make a most-wanted list/but my-my how I stay in style." Their sound mixes hard-edged punk, ska and funk.
Meanwhile, Al-Thawra sings about political events in the Middle East with songs like "Gaza: Choking on the Smoke of Dreams." Their music is closer to heavy metal.
Other bands include the Washington, D.C.-based Sarmust and the Texas group Vote Hezbollah.
Like most punk groups, bands produce their own albums and sell them at shows and online.
Most band members hold full-time jobs, so tours are sporadic. Usmani works full-time at a call center and writes occasionally for the Guardian newspaper in England. Ray is a medical researcher at Harvard.
The groups have toured since that first Taqwacore trip, playing in small clubs, in basements at parties and in Hispanic cultural centers. Typically, The Kominas and Al-Thawra say they play in front of 50 to 80 people.
The bands have noticed Latino punks getting into their music. Al-Thawra recently picked up a guitarist from Mexico City named Mario Salazar. The cover of Al-Thawra's next album will feature the image of the U.S.-Mexico border fused with Israel's West Bank separation barrier.
Alan Waters, an anthropology professor at University of Massachusetts-Boston, said it should come as no surprise that young Muslim and Hindu immigrants are expressing themselves through rock or that their music would strike a chord with other "disenfranchised" populations in the U.S., such as Latinos and other children of recent immigrants.
"If they're touching or singing about identity, it's going to make a connection," said Waters. "Punk rock is very American, and this is assimilation through a back door."
He called the bands "a good opportunity for stereotype-smashing."
The Kominas, who sing mostly in English, now are trying to break the image they are just a "Muslim punk band," especially since one of their founders, Ray, is Hindu. On their next album, Ray said the band will have songs in Hindi.
Ray's father, Rahul, said he supports his son's artistic efforts, even if he doesn't fully understand the music. "It's just very hard to make a living through music," said Ray, who is a cancer researcher at Boston University. "But they are getting attention for some reason."
Usmani said he grew up as a "nonreligious" Muslim-American so his journey into punk caused few problems, although he admits his family doesn't like the drinking and smoking that pervade the music scene. Khan and Kominas drummer Imran Malik, 25, also said they aren't as observant as their families might like.
"I mean, if you put a sword to us," said Usmani, "one of us might pray."
Shoes thrown — for fun
During a recent performance by The Kominas in a Cambridge club, Usmani played guitar while wearing a round-topped hat known as a pakul along with the traditional lungi, a cloth that South Asian men wrap around their waists. An Iraqi woman in a hijab bobbed her head to the music while others slammed-danced in front of the stage. At one point, audience members yelled jokingly that their music was forbidden and playfully threw shoes at the band — an act usually identified as an insult among Muslims.
The bands represent just another example of creative youngsters doing what American kids have done for generations: forming bands and making loud music. The fact they are Muslim doesn't mean there's some hidden message; Vote Hezbollah goes so far as to denounce violence on its MySpace page.
Usmani said despite their obvious ironic messages, he fears that his band and others like it will keep getting "stupid questions" about subjects like Sept. 11.
For example, Usami said a reporter once questioned him on how he felt about some Muslims being terrorists. He responded by asking her how she, as a white person, felt about the African slave trade.
"We have people asking us about (stuff) that has nothing to do with chords we want to play," Usmani said while smoking a cigarette. "Or how loud we want to be."