Back in August, I squeezed myself into a crowded Brooklyn bar full of hip brown kids and maybe a dozen white people to attend Function, an event showcasing some of the dopest South Asian American acts on the scene today including bae-in-chief Riz MC. As I worked my way to the more breathable area towards the front, I realized the band playing was not only fronted by a woman with some serious pipes, but they were playing punk covers of iconic Bollywood songs.
Awaaz Do is a Desi—people of Indian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi descent—punk band out of Boston that’s here to recontextualize classic Indian songs in a cheeky but earnest tribute to the Hindi-language B-sides of our collective childhood soundtrack.
The band is the brainchild of Tanya Palit, a singer-songwriter who performs under the moniker Saraswati Jones, an homage to the Hindu goddess of wisdom, education, music, and the arts. In 2013, Jones, noticing a dearth in rock covers of classic Bollywood songs, endeavored to create a punk band of all Desi women. “I would always complain that there were no Desi women in rock,” Palit told me over the phone.
Despite an enthusiastic response, Palit was unable to find Desi women who were also rock musicians, so she changed her course and decided to include men and other women of color.
Along with Palit, Awaaz Do consists of lead guitarist Jagdeep Singh, guitarist and dhol-player Sapan Modi, bassist Azhar Husain (he and Palit are married), and drummer Leilani Roser. They’re all of Indian descent, with the exception of Roser, who is (in her words) “half Filipino, half white guy.” I chatted with most of the band over the phone last week while they were at practice.
“It was supposed to be one night only,” Husain said.
“There kept being a next show and there has never not been a next show,” Palit added.
In a way, Awaaz Do’s music embodies the first generation South Asian experience. Their sound is definitively rock, and they cite groups like Rage Against the Machine and POC bands like Fishbone and Bad Brains as inspiration. But if you listen deeper, there is a real push and pull of rock subgenres interacting with the Hindustani music styles of their source material. “It’s a dynamic group of people that one minute can play straight up punk, one minute can play in the pocket funky groove, and the next minute it’s like '70s style metal,” Palit said. “Sometimes it’s surf rock and sometimes it’s Vedic chants.”
The band dropped their debut EP Kite Fight in July, a five-song tour of their eclectic sounds in the form of a heavy rock interpretation of a Hindu prayer, Bollywood covers that range from a straight rock take on "Kuch Kuch Hota Hai" to a fast-paced (with some groovy breakdowns) cover of "Roop Tera Mastana," and their original upbeat punk song, “Kite Fight.”
“It was one of those things where it was like too many cooks…make it better,” Roser said of their composition of “Choli Ke Peeche” a hit from the 1993 film Khalnayak, which has also been covered by The Kominas, a Boston-based Pakistani-American punk band known for their subversive songs that critique Islamophobia and America’s post-9/11 obsession with terrorism.
“It’s like that article that kept getting regurgitated by everyone about flavor complimenting in South Asian cooking. If you analyze the chemicals in the odor compounds of the spices in an Indian dish, they are more diverse from each other from neighboring spices in the dish than flavoring patterns in dishes from Europe,” Roser explained.
“We’re actually creating a new market or a new genre,” Modi said. “I grew up listening to punk rock and also listening to Hindi music, and I never really imagined those two would come together the way they have with Awaaz Do.”
For an almost entirely Indian band fronted by a woman, occupying a space in the largely white and largely sexist punk scene has the potential to be fraught with complications. “To me, even when we play a hard show, and it’s late, and we all have to work in the morning, and you’re tired, and you’re like, ‘Why am I doing this again for $50 or whatever,’ having that one woman of color come up to you after the show and be like, ‘Oh my god, I just—‘ and I’m like, ‘Oh my god I know,'" Palit said.
“What I’m learning this year is that [women think that] anger isn’t okay to feel, rage isn’t okay to feel, and women are socialized to be super nice and super chill,” Palit said. “I hope that some part of being free and liberated and disembodied for a moment in the music can be powerful especially for women and particularly for women of color.”
“I think they’re radical,” Palit says of Awaaz Do’s politics. Punk is, after all, political. “I hope they’re radical. and I hope they’re exploratory and trying to talk about issues of race and talk about issues of post colonial identity and liberation.”
“What moves us is music, and what moves me to take music a little more seriously is how we live in a time where artists have an opportunity to help pave the future,” she continued. “I think in many ways, from the Black Lives Matter movement to what’s happening in India with the Dalit Women Fight and other organizations that are talking about caste injustice, I feel deeply moved by that and music is the way that I speak to that personally.”