IASPM-US/POP Conference Preview: Wendy Hsu

by justindburton on March 19, 2012

In the coming weeks, we will be previewing several papers that will be read at the 2012 IASPM-US/POP Conference in New York. This preview is courtesy of Wendy Hsu, whose paper “Transforming Diaspora: The Kominas’s Translocal Socio-musical Geography” is scheduled for the Indie Rock and the Translocal session, 2:15-3:45pm on Saturday, March 24 in KC 808.

The Kominas is a South-Asian American rock band known for its iconic role within the punk-inspired Muslim-affiliated grassroots music culture self-labeled as “Taqwacore.” Since 2006, The Kominas has been vigorously creating a transnational social terrain via face-to-face interactions through touring and online social networking. Members of the band have crossed the borders of more than four nation-states including Pakistan, United Kingdom, Canada, and the U.S., leaving their home in northeastern United States to perform in three continents of the world, and establishing friend networks across North America, Europe, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia. The Kominas’ transnational sound and worldview, I argue, are linked to, if not a consequence of, the feeling of lack of national belonging and social comfort experienced by individuals of South Asian descent (Maira, 2009). Responses to the events on September 11th, 2001—Islamphobia and the War on Terror—brought this collective state of melancholia into relief. The members of The Kominas have experienced discrimination and alienation, similar to many individuals of South Asian, Muslim, and Arabic heritage living in the U.S.. In their everyday lives, they juggle the consequences of neo-Orientalist and ‘civilizational’ (Polumbo-Liu, 2001) discourses that partition the world into two opposing halves, namely, Muslim and Western. Their songs suggest that they never feel quite ‘at home’ when they are home. Their song ‘Sharia Law in the USA’ questions the racializing surveillance upon individuals assumed to be of Muslim descent. Another song ‘Suicide Bomb the Gap’ subverts the ‘terror’-infused imagery of South Asian and Muslim masculinity that is rampantly portrayed and circulated in mainstream news media.

This paper, however, does not elaborate on the overt instances of the band’s resistance against racializing media and surveillance. Instead, it focuses on how the members of the band have asserted themselves in reclaiming their own spaces across national boundaries, in the context of post-9/11 geopolitics. Looking at The Kominas’ music, this paper seeks to articulate the band’s self-made geography. The band deploys the punk sound and do-it-yourself social-networking to re-territorialize and re-embed itself into a world partitioned by ideology, politics, and migration. In doing so, The Kominas decenters the Anglo-American domination of punk and rock music with the creation of an alternative community, a new home away from its physical home.

Through my song readings, I will chart out The Kominas’ seamless movement between a conventional notion of diaspora—migration of people away from an ancestral homeland—and a minority-centered, multi-diasporic space. This unique transnational, disaporic space embraces a multiplicity of racial, ethnic, and geographical signifiers—such as South Asian, brown, Muslim, Pakistani, Afro, and black.

For this post, I will provide one of the two musical examples discussed in the conference version of the paper. This musical example, however, contains an additional video plus analysis. It is a fuller song analysis than the conference version of the paper.

‘Par Desi’ is track six on The Kominas’ debut album. The title of the song ‘Par Desi’ illuminates an ethnic aspect of transnational soundscape. ‘Par Desi,’ in Urdu, literally means ‘of the country,’ or ‘from the motherland.’ ‘Desi’ is a term used by individuals of South Asian descent to refer to their heritage and culture. The song’s title figures explicitly the South Asian diaspora. Vocally and lyrically, the song evokes an ethnic and geographical quandary. Basim’s voice shivers as he sings the chorus line, ‘In Lahore it’s raining water, in Boston it rains boots.’ The subject in the song defines his physical home in Boston, where he experienced an assault by skinhead punks. He sings, ‘They tried to stomp me out, but they only fueled the flame.’ The song narrates a history of migration and the emotions of displacement. It raises the questions, ‘Where do I point to blame, when men scatter like moths? /…  how’d I get here, from a land with long monsoons?’ Local alienation fuels the nostalgia for Lahore, a home far away from home. This song describes an emotional geography—a spatial containment in Boston (and by extension, the United States) in juxtaposition with a safe refuge in Lahore, Pakistan, remotely located on the South Asian subcontinent.

The studio recording adds nuance to the geographical question concerning ethnic belonging. The guitar’s fast chromatic sixteenth notes emulate an iktar or a tumbi, a one-string plucked instrument commonly used in the music of traditional bhangra, a music that originated in a cultural region known as Punjab that straddles eastern Pakistan and northern India. This bhangra-like guitar riff sustains the lament in the song’s lyrics in the first half of the song. Basim closes the lament by his last lyric, ‘boots crushing my shoulders / where angels chose not to remain.’ Casting the racist assault into a musical past, an 8-second analog sample of live bhangra percussion comes into the musical present. Immediately, this sample transports me, the listener, away from the emotional space of the lament. The band continues to carry the triplet pattern in the bhangra sample, transforming it into a collective punk-style chanting of ‘la-la-la’ in the final section of the song. This chant rejoices in the form of a Clash-like punk choir, roughly in unison with a distorted guitar. This time, the bhangra guitar sounds heavier and more angst-ridden than before.

This song embodies a ‘bhangra-punk’ aesthetic, a term that I use to refer to the band’s unique process of translating bhangra into a raw, punk-inspired sound. This bhangra-punk is invented out of a South-Asian- or desi-identified ethnic space: imagined somewhere between Punjab, 1970s punk England, and present-day home in the northeastern United States. This transnational dynamic is further complicated by an ethnographic moment that I experienced at the band’s performance in Charlottesville, Virginia. This performance took place at an event that I organized on the band’s national tour in the summer of 2009:

The Kominas’ backup singer Nyle dances to excite the audience. Sporting a freshly cut Mohawk with copper-color-bleached strands, Nyle steps away from the microphone onto the dance floor, kicking his feet apart and skanking to a ska beat. He draws up his left arm while pressing down with his right arm, twisting his body to drummer Imran’s quarter-note strikes on the snare drum. Guitarist Shahjehan plays a syncopated riff and then transitions into a steady chromatic 16th-note double-picking. Meanwhile, Nyle’s movement grows deeper and lower. He turns his hips back and forth. He swings his arms hard and fast. His shoulders bounce up and down, moving to the guitar rhythm. During the last section of the song, Nyle grabs the microphone off the mic stand. He casts his body into the small pit of dancers in the audience, slamming and moshing with the crowd. He screams ‘la-la-la, la-la-la’ in unison with his brother Basim. He pulls his mic cable so vigorously that he disconnects his mic from the sound system. The moshing crowd carries Nyle’s infectious energy into the next song.


Nyle’s side-to-side body rotation and arm-swinging are reminiscent of slam-dancing, common in punk shows, and skanking, the “running-man” move in ska music. But Nyle’s dance, however, reveals a more complex cartography than the South Asian diaspora. His shoulder-bouncing movement indexes a dance movement common in bhangra music. Stylistically, Nyle’s dance crosses four regions of the world: Punjab on the South Asian subcontinent; Jamaica in the Caribbean, the birthplace of ska and reggae; England in Western Europe, known for spawning punk rock music and second-wave ska music; and the United States in North America, the birthplace of hardcore punk and third-wave ska. Nyle’s dance makes into relief how The Kominas uses music to create a multi-layered diaspora.

I argue that The Kominas elides its physical home in Boston and the U.S.; at the same time, the band self-consciously embeds itself into historical punk England to reclaim a new musical home. Precisely what are the interrelationships among these disparate sites on The Kominas’ musical map? Where does the South Asian figure in this vast space? I will explore these questions within the context of a second song analysis in my conference talk on Saturday afternoon, 2:15pm – 3:45pm.

Wendy Hsu received her PhD in Critical and Comparative Studies in the Music Department at the University of Virginia. She is now a Mellon Postdoctoral Digital Scholarship Fellow at the Center of Digital Learning & Research at Occidental College. She is the singer/keyboardist of Dzian!, a vintage pan-Asian garage rock band.

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