Video Link to Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam (2009 Trailer)
“Oh, but I was,” I think a bit smugly to myself when I see promo material for the film “You Weren’t There“, which documents the Chicago punk rock scene of the 1980s. I don’t mind a little pride in that; as the title suggests, it took a certain iconoclasm and fearlessness to reach out to the leading-edge music and culture that was so marginalized and derided at the time. And reaching out is what it was – virtually none of it appeared on TV, and with no passive social networking or digital pipe into the home, nothing sat and waited for me to download it. Punk rock was a small and moving target and I had to hit it by following my ears.
I think of this when I watch (digitally and passively) the trailer for the 2009 film Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam. In it, a group of young American Muslims with guitars, drums, amps and mikes use them in a familiar, noisy and joyous way to distance themselves from the mainstream of their own culture.
Similar perhaps to the 80s, but with notable differences. In that time, I was less explicit about cultural identity shift than I was about the pursuit of loud awesome sounds and art. But the movement the clip details is a very different beast. These punks are Muslim punks. Their art and personas are of their faith – and as such are both willingly defined by and reviled by the customs and faith of Islam.
That makes it hard to draw a comparison to Chicago ’82, because when it came to organized religion, none of it played a role in the scene or bands, short of religion’s place upon the menu of rejected bourgeois mores that went hand in hand with subcultural spelunking. But that class distinction is lost on the Taqwacore adherents (the word Taqwa, more or less means “fear and love of the divine”) whose religious determination is real, if treated with far less reverence than it probably ever has in all of Islam.
For a band, this has special ramifications. Under many readings of the Koran, musical instruments themselves aren’t even acceptable, which leads to encounters such as this one between a Taqwacore band and a devout Muslim. The discussion builds my respect for what these guys are doing, because I know that faced with the same, I would leave such insane, retrograde nonsense behind in a heartbeat, not try to change it.
While it might seem uncharitable, I’m going to lament one more thing: the homogeneity in the music on the trailer clip. Even at its most doctrinaire and boring, Chicago’s 1980s hardcore music could count on its great stylistic distance from preceding and mainstream music to distinguish itself. Not so with Taqwacore – or at least with the band named the Kominas. While I am unexpectedly happy to not yet hear a drum machine in this genre, to my ear the music suffers from the players’ iPods being filled with thousands of hours of instructions on how to be punk. I hope this aspect evolves, and expect it will. If it doesn’t, something sinister in the disappointment will get me wondering if guitars, bass and drums specifically have simply done what they can do in this world and need to be retired as tools of distinction. If you’re going to reject orthodoxy, start at Guitar Center.
Between the Taqwacore scene’s problems taking shit from the various established institutions it chooses to associate with and its struggle to add to rather than take from the world’s repository of music and style, it’s obviously not easy to be part of. That much, I can surely identify with.