Worshipping Gravity: An Interview with the Kominas


Words & Photos by Alex Miklowski

The Kominas are a punk band based out of Boston, Massachusetts. Founded in 2005, they garnered media attention by their close association with Taqwacore, a genre of punk rock that addresses progressive Islam and challenges institutionalized Islamophobia in the post-9/11 American landscape.  Directly inspired by Michael Muhammad Knight’s 2003 novel The Taqwacores, the movement has since spawned devoted supporters, ruthless detractors, countless articles and scholarly essays, and the documentary Taqwacore: The Birth of Islam Punk (2009), as well as a fictional film based on Knight’s novel. 

The Kominas in Providence, RI at the Columbus Theatre (L-R Basim, Sunny Ali, Karna, Shahjehan). Dec. 20, 2014The Kominas in Providence, RI at the Columbus Theatre (L-R Basim, Sunny Ali, Karna, Shahjehan). Dec. 20, 2014

The band has survived a decade of lineup changes and currently consists of original members Basim Usmani (vocals, bass), Shahjehan Khan (guitar, vocals), and Karna Ray (drums), as well as Hassan Ali Malik (vocals, guitar), a.k.a. Sunny Ali, who joined in 2011.

The Kominas’ sound incorporates elements of punk, reggae, disco, and surf, among many other musical influences spanning the globe. In recent years, the band has continued to grow through their music and expressed cultural, religious, and political views. With members living between Philadelphia, NYC, and Boston, the band continues to work on new music and self-released two new videos/singles in 2014 (a music video for “Bananas”  and one for “Disco Uncle”). 

In December 2014, the Kominas played a series of three shows in the New England area with Providence, Rhode Island’s Ravi Shavi.  They were kind enough to answer a few questions and stand for a series of photographs documenting their shows—a foreshadowing of lengthier tours in the new year. 

All photos shot on Ilford Delta3200, 35mm.

Members of the Kominas take part in a pre-show jam backstage at Providence’s historic Columbus Theatre. Dec. 20, 2014

Members of the Kominas take part in a pre-show jam backstage at Providence’s historic Columbus Theatre. Dec. 20, 2014

What was the first musical instrument you ever picked up? Why did you pick it up?  How did your interest in playing music progress from there?

SUNNY: I have two older bros. The eldest got a cheap Rice Krispies drum set one year for his birthday when we were really young. Middle bro and I apparently poked holes in it. I don’t remember too much from this incident. So yeah, it was drums and I picked it up to destroy it.

BASIM: I picked up viola when I was living just outside the Bay Area, in 4th grade. I sucked at viola, I might have lasted half a year at most in our public school’s elective music program and didn’t pick up another instrument until I got a guitar for my 14th birthday. I could barely play any songs, besides some Indian movie songs, a few Deep Purple riffs. It was seeing music videos for Massive Attack that eventually brought me to the bass, which I have loved ever since.

KARNA: My brother went in fifty-fifty on my first drum set mostly because he wanted somebody to play with in our parents’ basement. We took to the Internet and found the cheapest piece of shit we could find, a burgundy number that came broken and stayed broken. This is the drum set that I like playing the most.

SHAHJ: My parents enrolled me in piano at the age of 7, so I’m pretty sure my first instrument was a Yamaha PSR-300 keyboard. I became a classical piano player and my parents got me a proper piano when it seemed like I was progressing, but I always had an affinity for the guitar.


Basim performs at TT the Bear’s in Cambridge, MA (with Ravi Shavi, Hammer and Snake). Dec. 18, 2014.

What was your childhood and/or adolescence like? Are there any moments from this time that you feel may have come to define who you are today?

BASIM: My childhood was split between three cities, NYC, Kansas City (MO), and the Bay Area/SF. My adolescence was split between Lahore (2nd biggest city in Pakistan, very 24/7 and lively) and Boston (pretty much a snooze fest at the time).  When you’re the only constant, you can accept change pretty easily. Being forced to have to learn different cultures or languages probably made an impact. A lot of my brain and memories feel displaced no matter where I am.

SHAHJ: I suppose a turning point for me was my first rock concert, which actually was in Lahore, Pakistan, at Al-Hamra open-air amphitheater. I was on a visit with my family and they took me to see a band called Junoon, the biggest and most successful rock band in South Asia for a number of years. The idea that somebody that looked like me could be something other than a doctor, lawyer, or engineer was incredible.

SUNNY: I went to a Catholic school during the week (and Islamic school on weekends) from preschool till 6th grade. One of my best and only friends in school was a short, red-headed kid named Jack who could shred on guitar. He was def one of my first influences that turned me on to guitar/rock music. Also the first person I smoked/drank with.

KARNA: In our house, there was a small room with dimensions slightly larger than a large closet that had my mother’s favorite deities arranged meticulously in order from left to right of favor and priority. It was my job to go into the neighborhood to pick the lushest flowers to put at the gods’ feet, flowers that would later be surrounded by sweets, fruits, and ancient candles that were little more than cotton wicks floating in clarified butter.


Karna Ray (left) and Sunny Ali (right) set up the merch table at the Last Safe & Deposit Co. in Lowell, MA. Dec. 19, 2014.

As a child, what kind of music were you raised listening to? In your adolescence, what music did you raise yourself on?

KARNA: I’d pick up musical influences like castoff clothes. Once, when my brother had grown out of the FUBU jacket he’d begged my parents to get him for Christmas, I got it along with a copy of Vol 2… Hard Knock Life.

BASIM: The first music I remember really identifying with was in the early ’90s in 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade. Boyz 2 Men, Michael Jackson’s Dangerous, All 4 One, LOL! As I got to 11 and was more conscious of being “bad ass,” I was in Cali and the West Coast Snoop/Nate Dogg/Warren G thing was inescapable. Coming to Boston as a 15-year-old was when I finally heard punk and post-punk. I was really into Cockney Rejects, the Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and worked my way backwards to the Clash and Misfits and DKs at 19. Today, I guess I am as scatterbrained as they come, listening to the new D’angelo but also eagerly anticipating a new Motörhead album.

SHAHJ: My father is an avid music lover and collector, everything from Johnny Cash and Chuck Berry to the Indian/Pakistani classical music that he grew up with. My earliest memories are of listening to Sufi qawwalis with my family on long road trips.

SUNNY: I remember my older brother convincing me when I was pretty young to buy the VHS Nirvana Live, Tonight, Sold Out!! (he probably wanted it for himself), which had a lot of live performances/behind the scenes stuff. It was one thing to hear Nirvana on record but seeing how intense they were live as a young kid definitely affected me. It was that and Bollywood soundtracks/movies that my parents would watch that I kinda grew up on, then started getting into early-’90s hip hop.

Do you consider yourself to be part of a “scene”? What does the concept of a “scene” mean to you in the digital age?  Do you view “scenes” or subcultures from a local perspective, a global perspective, or both? Do you ever feel alienated from local or global “scenes” that you are expected or assumed to take part in?


A Kominas fan holds up her autographed gig poster in Lowell, MA. Dec. 19, 2014.

SUNNY: I feel like the Internet has just made it one big scene. Sure I feel part of a minority of brown kids playing punk rock but I feel pretty good about having a small audience that seems to genuinely care about us. Our fan base is scattered around the globe but we can still connect with them on an intimate level with the web.   

SHAHJ: No, I really don’t. Other than the “scene” of former kids playing music in their parents’ basements that get to play real rock shows, it’s just too universal of an experience. I have had the pleasure and privilege to be welcomed into all sorts of scenes, whether it be punk, Pakistani rock/pop/classical as a session player, hip hop, funk, South Asian, and social justice/activist/POC.

KARNA: It’s difficult to say, mostly because scenes are no longer bound to a locality. That’s really the importance of the question of the digital age in community building, because the idea of a scene has expanded far outside of its definition. It’s very difficult to be presented the entire world of music all at once and be able to hear anything at all. I doubt that we’ll ever have a genre of music so bound up in a place and a local community of people that to hear it come from any other place would be untruthful. On the other hand, a bunch of Thai kids can play Oi punk and all those inconsolable skinhead types can’t say anything about it because they don’t own it anymore.

BASIM: I definitely have always felt alienated by scenes, partially by virtue of having moved so much as a youth. I could never truly kick it with the Lahore-born Lahorees, or the true-blue Bostonians, or what have you. I always had to explain how I got there and who I was. I didn’t have the words originally to express why I thought some elements of Boston’s very white punk and hardcore scenes were kind of whack, which today I can articulate. Overall though, I’ve learned to swim in the pools of whatever the scene around me has.


Basim (left), Shahjehan (center), and Sunny Ali (right) play Lowell, MA (with The Big Sway, Ravi Shavi, and Deacon Bill). Dec. 19, 2014.

Do you consider playing/recording music as your career, your duty, or your pleasure? What other artistic mediums do you use to express yourself with?

KARNA: Yes to all. I’ve found it’s better not to dwell on which best describes your relationship with music, otherwise you feel like you’re letting the rest of it down. I draw and I write and do a few other things and I do consider them as the same expression. Mostly I just do small things around the house and try to convince stray cats to love me.

BASIM: Music is at the very top for me, and it definitely comes to me as both a privilege and a duty. I don’t think many bands do what we do, or connect with who we do. Overall, the indulgence of being able to hit strings and make music that touches people is what brings me back.

SHAHJ: It is an unmerited gift. I am truly blessed and honored to be able to fit into all of those categories. I recently turned 31, and it feels amazing to be a more complete and multifaceted human being than I ever imagined. And I had the pleasure of appearing in my first feature film this past summer with my good friend Zac. It’s called Danielle and will be out soon. I play a boyfriend watching his girlfriend go through a very difficult emotional breakdown.

SUNNY: I’d like it to be all three. At the moment I work a 9-5 at an antique store so I wouldn’t say it’s my career since I’m not living off of it. I like to take photos and use Instagram a lot. It’s fun to distort reality, and I think in this day and age when people’s attention spans are so short,  photos are the new text.


Basim (center, left) hangs backstage with members of Ravi Shavi, including vocalist/guitarist Rafay Rashid (center, right). Dec. 20, 2014.

Are the Kominas an important band?  If so, why should the world know the work of the Kominas? If not, do you ever feel that the Kominas have garnered unwarranted importance?

SHAHJ: I don’t worry so much anymore about the unwarranted-importance stuff that I used to back in my mid 20s when we were first garnering the Muslim Punk/Taqwacore notoriety. It’s all been a culmination of many years of hard work, and it’s amazing that we are still around making music that still rings true for people. I believe that we wouldn’t have been able to sustain ourselves this long if there wasn’t something special about this band.

SUNNY: I know that we are important to a certain demographic of people at least based on messages we receive from alienated brown youth mostly. But people from all backgrounds seem to appreciate us adding some color to the indie/punk scene and not shying away from speaking about world affairs. Some people have said we are “ahead of our time,” but I think we are right on time and you are late.


The Kominas in Providence, RI at the Columbus Theatre. Dec. 20, 2014

BASIM: I think unwarranted importance definitely comes from a media narrative. In 2010–2011 we’d always be getting calls from Newsweek, or the Guardian, or the LA Times, and it was never to do with our music, and always to do with our ethnic identity. That’s cool if they ask you to shed light on how people in the American Muslim community are feeling, but more often than not, those pieces used us as props to prove the writer’s points. Tokenism sucks and is hard to avoid. The worst is when the media would present us as a kind of remedy to radicalization in Islam, as kind of 2 imaginary sides: the backwards fundamentalists vs. the Muslim punks. That really sucked, because it also turned off a lot of cool, intelligent young Muslims to us, because they thought we were capitalizing on a narrative that threw Muslims under the bus.

KARNA: I was 17 when the Kominas went on their first tour, the one in the big green bus that appeared in a documentary and has splashed up in really unexpected corners of my life. I’ll still hear people talking about this documentary that they watched on Netflix about a Muslim kid in a mohawk singing about muhammedian handjobs and burqa fetishism. I frankly couldn’t digest the early media attention. I wasn’t Muslim and I wasn’t particularly punk, outside of being in a punk band and playing a bunch of punk shows. I was out of the band for six years before I realized that we were disserviced in being exposed when we were just barely formed. We hadn’t the discretion to know what exposure would help us build and which would treat us and Islam and punk as a footnote.

If the Kominas were based out of any other country, do you think this band would have still come into existence? Considering the famous quote from German author Thomas Mann, “Everything is politics,” do you believe there is anything in this world that cannot be made political?


Sunny Ali, backstage in Providence, RI with modest-wear model Kendyl Aurora (center) and her sister. Dec. 20, 2014.

SUNNY: It’s hard to say. Only in America probably could we say the shit we’ve said. Anything can be made political I guess. It’s what you make of it.

KARNA: Politics are inevitable to living in a city, playing in a band, picking up a guitar. The kind of butter you buy at the supermarket is an implicitly political decision. The Kominas are actively political though. We make political statements, we comment on politics in public, we’re all there and talking. I really hope that there are transcendent values in music and art that don’t bear the human stain, but at the moment I consider myself agnostic.

BASIM: I definitely agree with the Mann quote, and the Feminist slogan, the personal is the political. I think it depends what country you are in. Being American and Muslim, we kind of combine the dire need for young Muslims to have a voice with American suburban boredom, how surreal it is to have parents who came from nothing but now live with picket fences.

There’s something special about being an American minority because it connects you with all the others. I learned so much good music because of the solidarity I felt with other ethnic communities. Being another person of color, I feel like we can really get a grip on the other POCs in America. If we were just a bunch of Sunni, Punjabi Muslims in Pakistan, we’d be the majority, and maybe not as nuanced in our views of current events.

SHAHJ: I consider politics to be just one part of who we are. We certainly don’t shy away from our opinions, you need only read our Facebook page. Yes, there is a certain amount of implicit political-ness about us just based on how we look, where we live, and what people think about the places our families come from. In a way, yes, everything is politics. BUT I really think that, especially with the current lineup and sound, we have found an appealing and performance-driven way to blend all those parts of who we are.

What would be your ideal Kominas show? 


Marquee, Providence, RI at the Columbus Theatre. Dec. 20, 2014

BASIM: I feel like our show in Providence at the Columbus Theatre was so amazing, and close to ideal. We had a Punjabi uncle, totally drunk, heckling us in Punjabi between songs, and a totally diverse audience of different ethnicities, ages, races. That show still stands out to me. My ideal bill would probably include a Salt-N-Pepa reunion, Odd Future, Barrington Levy, and us.

KARNA: I don’t know, the best ones so far have been totally surprises. Anyone can come and I’ll be happy. Please, anyone, come.

SUNNY: We wanna play on a beach in Indonesia with local punk acts. We’d play a high-energy show then afterwards very low-energy fires on the beach thing. 

SHAHJ: One of our previous shows in Boston at the Paradise opening for King Khan and the Black Lips was a dream come true for all of us. It’s all about the people we meet before, during, and after the performances that drives us. People have such fascinating stories to tell, and it’s an honor to actually have real loyal fans who travel from miles away just to see us play.

Is there any single emotion, cause, ideal, or belief that drives you to create?


Sunny Ali driving to Lowell, MA. Dec. 19, 2014


SHAHJ: I think it’s the same drive/passion/emotion that causes people to make art the world ’round.

BASIM: I think the power of role reversal and inversion has always been a singular driving force for me creatively. To flip the script, whether that’s by writing a lead line on the bass guitar, or switching up gender roles in representation, or rearranging the notes in a guitar chord, inversions and reversals are the name of the game. Society always wants you to grapple with it on its terms, but with punk rock, you can pull a reversal, and pin expectations to the ground.

KARNA: There is a lurching feeling in the gut that is probably something like a creative drive but it might be anxiety or indigestion. An enduring sense of inadequacy around the things and people you love really gets you motivated, too.

From a philosophical standpoint, is there any relation between religion and musical subcultures?


Kominas playing the Columbus Theatre. Dec. 20, 2014.

SHAHJ: Lots of music from all over the world comes from loving/seeking/feeling divine energy, so yes, absolutely.

BASIM: From a historical standpoint there definitely is. Everyone in the band was brought up with the mystical and transcendental traditions in Pakistan and India. Punjabi poetry and the influence of Muslim Desi Qawwali (a form of Gospel) not only has musical rules, but also philosophical ones. It’s about pantheism, the idea that god is everywhere, and in everyone.

Philosophically, I don’t think it’s possible to remove religion. That super-human power you might be worshiping is actually gravity. Religion to me is the belief that there is something greater out there than yourself. You can discount all the holy Hindu, or Jewish, or Muslim stories out there, but I believe with utmost conviction there is always something out there much greater than yourself.

KARNA: “Metal is our religion” —Manowar

SUNNY: Probably. Some people follow music like a religion. People do make the assumption that Muslim punk is like Christian rock, but Christian rock promotes Christianity while Muslim punk challenges Islam.


Check out their video for “Banana” below, created by Eddie Austin.

You can find music by the Kominas on their Bandcamp or on their Facebook page

Or you can follow them on Twitter or Tumblr.

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