Tag Archives: The Kominas

building research

A multimodal musical analysis: visualizing diaspora

Since I work in the CDLR, I get to raise all kinds of wild questions that don’t fall into the purview of traditional, disciplinary bound scholarship. To prepare for my presentation at the Pop Conference (instituted by Experience Music Project in Seattle), this year combined with IASPM-US (International Association for the Study of Popular Music), I became preoccupied with the question: “How do I visualize a music analysis about space and place?”

My paper extends my dissertation work on The Kominas, a South Asian American punk band tied to the alternative Muslim subculture self-labeled as Taqwacore. In this paper, I chose to focus on the band’s music. Through a couple of song readings, I investigate the form and content of diasporic spaces as articulated by the band’s music. I argue that this unique geo-musical formation discursively moves seamlessly between a conventional notion of diaspora—migration of people away from an ancestral homeland—and a minority-centered, multi-diasporic space. Through a recent engagement with multimodal scholarship, I challenged myself to think beyond writing, a mode that conventionally represents academic work. I already use the concepts such as cartography and mapping as metaphors. Why should I limit the expression of my ideas to text only? Why not create a map of my music analysis especially since it’s about space and place?

Visualizing a musical analysis is nothing new. Music theorists have used music notations to represent sonic patterns key in their interpretation. More recently, theorists and information scientists used computational means to process sonic materials for patterns. Visualization became a way to explore patterns, bringing sounds into a (visual) domain that were previously inaccessible with the human senses.

My paper, however, does not engage with the use of the computational technologies to process sonic materials. It does something rather old-school. It simply draws several points on a map and then links them. It does not overlay demographic or musical data. It displays a couple of different geographical formations that illustrate the changing contour of a musical diaspora, a geographical space comprised of lyrical, sonic, and choreographic references. [I deployed Josh Kun’s concept of “audiotopia” to argue for the social and cultural effects of this geo-musical space.]

I began with a hand-drawn map. I used the Penultimate app on my iPad.

I quickly realized that my hand drawn diagram is not only messy but almost illegible. Through searching and playing, I settled with the web-based mapping program Scribble Maps to map this unique diasporic spaces. Using features such as vector graphics, media imports, and baselayer settings, I created a couple of maps that best approximate the geo-musical entities for which I argue in my analysis.

This map articulates The Kominas’ worldview. I positioned South Asia in a visually central spot, with the cultural region of Punjab and the city of Lahore highlighted. The song “Par Desi” articulates this geographical formation:

The song’s title explicitly figures the South Asian diaspora. Vocally and lyrically, the song evokes an ethnic and geographical quandary. The singer and bassist 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?’

The song’s references to traditional bhangra, a dance music genre that originated in Punjab, further complicates this geo-musical formation. In my analysis, I argue that the band projects a transnational bhangra-punk sound:

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. Continuing the triplet pattern of the bhangra sample, the band transforms the bhangra rhythm 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.

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This bhangra-punk aesthetic is projected from a South-Asian- or desi-identified ethnic space: imagined somewhere between Punjab, 1970s punk England, and present-day home in the northeastern United States. The Kominas, I contend, 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.

I discovered a different but related diasporic configuration in “Tunnnnnn.” This song articulates a minoritarian, multi-diasporic space.

The Kominas alludes to the original roots reggae version of the song (“Armagideon Time” Jamaican artist by Willi Williams). In doing so, the band resituates their version of the song into a Rastafari time-space. The Kominas locates its own battleground, while borrowing from the Rastafari visions of Armageddon.

I hear The Kominas calling for its own ‘Armagideon,’ in the new lyrics written in Punjabi. According to Basim’s translation, the first verse states: ‘We will only drink that / That they are drinking in Iraq / We will only drink that / that they would drink in Karballah (sic).’ It is not a coincidence that both Iraq and Karbala are iconic battle sites both in the past and present. The War in Iraq after the events on September 11 has been a topical preoccupation by The Kominas since its first album (entitled Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay). The band has made clear its stance of castigating the western world, in particular the United States, for waging a war motivated by Islamophobia, militarism, and imperialism. Following the Punjabi lyrics, Basim evokes the overthrow of 21st century Babylonians. In English, he sings the lines, ‘A lot of people won’t get justice tonight / A lot of people wont’ get no supper tonight / Just remember to / Kick it over / And praise Jehovah / And kick it out.’

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The Kominas’ musical alliance with roots reggae, the music of those in Jamaica as well as the Jamaican immigrants, rewrites the history of the racial dynamics in 1960s and 1970s England. Challenging the history of “paki-bashing” in England, The Kominas’ music prominently figures the South Asian subjectivity. This musical geography has discursively reorganized the racial relations between blackness, whiteness, and Asianness. It also forges a musical alliance between a South Asian American band and the Afro-Caribbeans in Jamaica and the U.K..

In its overlays, these maps bring into relief various sites of geopolitics related to postcolonial struggles. This spatial articulation, I contend, is a minority-centered project of reterritorialization. It points away from the band’s physical home in the United States to re-focus on geographical sites symbolic of resistance. Its identification with loci of anti-white-supremacy and anti-imperialism, I argue, is a response to the post-9/11 social alienation and melancholia. Through the creative adaptations of Punjabi musical roots and transnational routes via the U.K., Jamaica, and Lahore, the band has built a psycho-social home in its music.

Coda: These two maps are extensions of my work at UVa’s Scholars’ Lab where I made a series of Myspace friendship distribution maps of a handful of bands (including The Kominas) featured in my dissertation. I’m happy that I’m in the position to use experimental and digital methods to further my explorations of the relationship between pop music and postcolonial geography. This cluster of ideas and modes of inquiry truly excites me.

 

 

 

 

 

research

Mapping an Asian American Indie Rock Digital Diaspora

My dissertation project investigates the musical and social life of current independent rock musicians of Asian descent. This research looks at the music, interviews, and social interactions of these musicians. How do I do this?

Prior to working with UVa’s Scholars Lab, my method of field research had been participant observation: attending concerts, doing formal and informal interviews, interacting with the musicians’ friends and fans, listening to their recorded music, organizing local performances on their tours…an immersion in these musicians’ multi-faceted musical life. As soon as I began my field research, I discovered that the notion of “the field” has changed because of the prevalent usage of digital social media among the musicians of my study. The Internet, is no longer just a means of communication between me and my informants. Digital social media make up an important site of social interactions and creative expressions. Not only that, it is the key to social networking and community building for these musicians. Thus the “field” of my investigation came to include the digital social terrain that I navigate within the scope of dissertation research.

This post focuses on the map of one of the bands that I study: The Kominas. The Kominas is a South Asian American punk band that spawned in Boston, now based in Philadelphia. Recombining sounds from the Boston ska-and-crust-punk scene with 1970s Bollywood movies and Bhangra music from their parents’ dusty tape collection, The Kominas evokes a radically transnational sonic landscape. [Example “Par Desi”] Since 2006, the band has been vigorously creating a translocal social terrain via face-to-face interactions through touring and online social networking. The Kominas’ do-it-yourself network is comprised of Muslim-, South-Asian-identified, and other taqwacore-inspired musicians, listeners, artists, filmmakers, and bloggers.

In this post, I ask:  What does The Kominas’ “digital diaspora” look like geographically and spatially? First, I will describe the digital methods I used to map this community.

Digital Methods – Web-scraping and Visualization

To create such a map, I designed and executed out a two-phase method. Phase 1 is web-scraping, the process of mining data from the Internet. This process entails first, locating a source of useful geographic data, and then harvesting this information programmatically. I was interested in two sets of data, specifically: the physical location of the band’s performance tours; and the self-reported (physical) location of the friends in an online community. The first set of data, regarding performance locations, was found on The Kominas’ official website. The information regarding friend locations was found in its most complete form on the social networking site Myspace.

To extract and process these data sets, with the help of Joe Gilbert, I wrote a program using Ruby to parse out the relevant information in the source code of the profile pages of The Kominas’ Myspace friends. The Kominas [as of April 2010] had close to 3,000 friends on Myspace. These are all Myspace users who have requested to become friends with The Kominas, or vice versa. Using Mechanize, a Ruby gem, the program extracted all the geographically related text from the Myspace profile pages of 2,867 friends. Using the Geokit, a ruby gem that implements the Google Geocoder, the program translated this information into a set of spatial coordinates, specifically, latitude and longitude.

Phase 2 – geospatial visualization – is the process of turning the harvested data into a meaningful visualization. Using OpenLayers, an open-source mapping program, I created a dynamic map containing all the points of the physical locations of the band’s Myspace friends and performance tours. To contextualize the reading of the physical points, I added various map layers. For example, I added a Google street map layer to label the visualization with the proper name of countries and cities. The rest of my efforts were spent to refine the map, to make it readable and meaningful.

The Kominas’ Digital Diaspora Map: GO!

To interact with the map, click on the above image. This screenshot shows the global distribution of The Kominas’ Myspace friends. The reddish pink clusters represent the friend density in the respective locales. The size of the cluster is an approximate representation of the number of friends in one location.

A baselayer of the world’s regions – marked by various shades of green in the background – helps contextualize the friend distribution across continental boundaries. At a macro level, this map articulates a radically transnational and inter-continental distribution of friends. Areas of high friend density include: North America, Europe, and Asia. The story of translocality becomes more complex as we zoom in on the map to get more geographic detail. In my dissertation, combining maps, music analysis, and interviews, I examine how the members of The Kominas position themselves geographically and ethnically vis a vis this vastly transnational world.

Questions and Concerns

These maps tell a story, a particular kind of story that situates a humanist study of a music-culture within a particular geographic context. In the context of my dissertation, these maps add a spatial texture to the understanding of the translocal social terrain of a U.S.-based musicians of Asian descent. And the visualization process helps me to analyze the musicians’ questioning of their sense of ethnic and national belonging and to situate the ethnographic details of my 24-month field research within a global context.

Here are some more general questions and concerns that I’ve encountered in creating and using these dynamic maps. To express density using a clustering pattern, I used an algorithm that balances point density and readability, so that the contrast between the smallest and the largest clusters is adjusted. In this case, a single-point cluster can be seen and the largest concentration of the friends of the northeast of the United States doesn’t dominate the entire map. This presents the question, am I interested in representing the mathematical reality of this friend community? Or is there some part of the story that I was more interested in telling? Which level of detail is most useful?

I’ve discovered that these maps do not provide any answers to my research questions. They, in fact, present an interpreted reality that generate further useful questions. A map is certainly not a dissertation chapter; but it provides a spatial and geographical context for the musical and social experiences of the musicians in my study.

How I use these maps, of course, depends on the narrative that I want to tell. At a very macro, global level, zoomed all the way out, these maps can look very similar across bands: with large clusters in the North American region, some clustering in Europe, and some but less in other regions of the world. NOT SO INTERESTING…

Of interest to me, in my dissertation, are the patterns of the band’s transnational connections to musicians and fans in Asia. What is the band’s friend distribution in Asia? Is it useful to compare the Asia-based friend distribution across band? I have shown two screenshots of two bands’ friend distribution in Asia. On the top is The Kominas. On the bottom is Kite Operations, a New-York-based noise rock band.

This comparison presents interesting results: These two maps show that The Kominas, a South Asian American punk band has created a social geography much more concentrated in South and Southeast Asia; whereas Kite Operations, with 3/4 of the members being of Korean descent, has stronger friend presence in East Asia, specifically in South Korea. The difference in friend distribution shown by these images can provide a sketch for illustrating a different “Asia” as created through the cultural practice of “friending” on Myspace by American artists of Asian descent.

Combining Digital Methods with “Conventional Methods”

These digital methods seem to have an orthogonal relation to more conventional ethnographic methods. Until these new digital methods become accepted in ethnomusicology and cultural anthropology, I must find a way to integrate the new with the old. [Yes, I have thought-experimented with a set of digitally engaged ethnographic methods.] Here are some ideas for this integration:

  • Showing the map to the musician-informants: Asking them if they are surprised by the results of my study. Asking them questions about how they feel about these places in the world? Personal or musical connections to these places?
  • Toward a Geospatial Music Analysis: Many musicians that I study are pre-occupied with geography. In their lyrics, they often discuss being trapped or living in a limbo between two worlds. They talk about their feelings regarding certain meaningful place and space in their music. It’d be potentially fruitful to juxtapose the musical and social geographies of a single band.
  • Mapping genre/sonic differences: Here I suggest the possibility of incorporating sonic qualities such as tempo, timbre, volume, studio effects, and language/dialect into geospatial information technology and system. Such a tool would be immensely powerful for the study of the world’s music-cultures at the local and global level. For example, the World Musical Map project by Ozan Aksoy based at the New Media Lab at the Graduate Center of CUNY explores the rupture between audio boundaries and actual national borders. Another example is Lee Byron’s visualization of the listening history on Last.FM.

Here’s my attempt to start a digital (ethno)musicology. Are there any other takers?

The Kominas’ Digital Diaspora Map: It’s Your Turn. GO!

Tips:

  • Double-click to zoom in on the map
  • Upper-left: turn on/off various layers: Google Street/Satellite; world’s regions; Muslim-majority countries; clusters (friend density); friends (individual points); gigs.
  • Scroll on the map by clicking + holding + moving the cursor
pop culture & media research

The Kominas Play to the Wilderness of North America

What do I know about the Kominas? They are talented musicians with chops for concocting anthemic songs. As people, they’re individuals of immense passion for humanity. As punk rockers, they play music to defy social expectations, embrace the abject, and challenge global and local status quo.

I first met the members of the Kominas at a diner near South Station in Boston this past May. Bassist Basim Usmani threw his arms open to welcome me. Quickly our interview morphed into a party as the other band members and friends joined in. Beyond a typical “this-is-who-we-are”-kind-of discussion, our conversation was substantiated by their astute commentary on media, politics, and their impact on the Kominas and the “Muslim punk” scene associated with Michael Muhammad Knight’s book The Taqwacores.

Since their first “taqwa-tour” in 2007, the Kominas have created new musical directions and social connections. This summer, the band wrote a new song “Blackout Beach” for Waterboard, a play about torture. Crossing the genre lines, the Kominas performed in collaboration with hip-hop duo the M-Team and slam-poet Amir Sulaiman. In the midst of their recent national tour with Sarmust, they cut up a track with Brooklyn hip-hop freestyler Propaganda Anonymous. The tour ended last Saturday. The Kominas are now in studio working on a new qawwali-punk cover of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s song “I Will Worship You My Love.”

Besides reclaiming what it means to be a South-Asian fusion punk band from the Boston suburbs, the Kominas have been busily building a community of like-minded artists and friends. Usmani said that the band aims to form “solidarity with all people of color, reaching out to those in the wilderness of North America.”


Meeting the Kominas

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This post was originally posted on August 19, 2009 on SPINearth.

pop culture & media research

Memories from the Fourth: The Kominas Collaborate with Like-Minded Hip Hop Artists

I’m still blown away by the memories and sounds left over from that night.

I had the privilege to partake of the intense collaborative moments between the Boston-based Kominas and their para-Muslim-identified compatriot hip hop acts The M-Team and Amir Sulaiman. The event was “the 4th of July New Muslim Cool Screening, Jam Session and BBQ.” An offshoot of the annual meeting of ISNA (Islamic Society of North America), this even took place at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in northwest Washington DC.

Omar Waqar (of Sarmust and Diacritical) played a solo set pouring forth radiant love from his Sufi-inspired lyrical outcry. Basim Usmani came on stage and said, “there is the New Muslim Cool. But some people say that we are the ‘new Muslim bad.” The Kominas had a different lineup that evening with Basim and Shahjehan Khan on bass and guitar, respectively, and Imran Malik on drums. They blasted the church auditorium with spiritual blasphemy. “Par Desi” and “Sharia Law in the U.S.A.” resounded. The Kominas hardcore fans skanked, slam-danced. I spotted some taqwa-converts in the audience.

The Kominas then collaborated with the Brooklyn-based Latino Muslim hip hop duo The M-Team (featured in PBS documentary New Muslim Cool) and the saintly poet Amir Sulaiman from Atlanta. The Kominas backed up the MC’s providing intense live instrumental sounds. The members of the M-Team took turns rhyming contestational words about politics around faith and race. Sulaiman then took center stage pronouncing heavyweight words about spiritual battles and social unrest. The evening ended on an emotional highpoint. A congregation full of social misfits, however defined, shared and expressed life’s discontentment while swaying, dancing, hollering, throwing fists in the air all enveloped within a spiritual cacophony. The spirit was triumphant; the music elated.


Omar Waqar


Imran Malik


Shahjehan Khan


Amir Sulaiman


Basim Usmani


The M-Team

More from this photo set.

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This post was originally posted on July 31, 2009 on SPINearth.