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It's influenced by everything I grew up on, from American traditions to the Middle Eastern traditions of my father," says Men in Burka's Kamran Khan, describing his group's sound. "I didn't grow up in a mosque. I didn't grow up a Muslim, but I was definitely influenced by that culture. What I wanted to do was bring those two cultures together.
"It's basically like Joy Division meets Omar Souleyman," he continues. "It has that intensity and that aggressive feeling, but it also has that welcoming sense. It's like when Beyoncé dances: If you listen to a lot of the latest hip-hop, it's influenced by Middle Eastern harmonies. When you see their dances, they dance like Middle Eastern women do. We're on the opposite side of that. For me, it's about rhythms: electro meets cultural."
The trio's latest release, War/Magic, is indeed a complex yet coherent blend of various cultural and artistic sensibilities, with songs that draw freely from a broad palette of sounds, rhythms and concepts. "It's like when the Rolling Stones were starting out," Khan explains. "People asked what they drew from, and they cited Son House and Howlin' Wolf — they drew from the blues greats.
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"That's kind of what we do, but in a Middle Eastern sense, with Ravi Shankar and Mezdeke, which is a Saudi Arabian pop group," he goes on. "And we're sample artists. We sample everything. We come from hip-hop, where you can sample anything and lay raps over it. Instead of blues, like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, our roots come from hip-hop culture and house. Detroit, Chicago, New York — that's where it comes from. For us, it's kind of like Muslimgauze mixed with Big Freedia. We try to bring that rootsy-with-that-bass shit."
Men in Burka got its start in September 2012, just as Khan's previous project with Mario Zoots and Kristy Fenton, Modern Witch, was becoming less active. Up to that point, Khan, the son of a white American woman and a Pakistani man, hadn't had the chance to fully express his own mixed-culture reality. But as his involvement with Modern Witch was winding down, he began writing music that was reflective of his background, and he showed it to Zoots and Strange Powers, his longtime musical collaborators, who were both fans of Kahn's '90s-era hip-hop crew, Future Reference. "It was like Denver's Wu-Tang," Zoots says of the act.
"We were like the Beastie Boys, too," adds Khan. "We had a Latino, we had an Arab-American, we had a white guy, we had a black guy, we had a Mexican. We had like seven dudes on stage in the '90s. So when we tried to play shows, they would ask, 'What style are you? East Coast or West Coast?' We said, 'Well, we're from Denver, so however you want to place us, go ahead.' We were like anticon. before anticon."
"Future Reference wasn't just a rap crew; it was a graffiti crew, too," Powers points out. "They were their own Denver style. It was political. It was weird, but it was tough. It was street, but it was super-intelligent. It was artistic, but it wasn't soft."
"Do you remember the Artifacts?" Khan asks. "They were like a hip-hop graffiti group. We were Denver's hip-hop graffiti group. One night we would open for De La [Soul], and the next night [we'd] kill freight trains."
After Future Reference parted ways in 2000, Khan played in bands that explored a broad spectrum of musical styles, from hip-hop to post-punk; there was even a noise-inflected experimental hip-hop outfit with Powers called the Strange Us. These days, of course, Khan, Powers and Zoots are better known as Men in Burka, a group whose handle is intended to challenge established paradigms. "Men in Burka," muses Khan. "When I chose that name, I chose it as a role reversal: If you're a woman in burka, then you need to ask your husband to dress in burka. If you are someone who is oppressed, then you need to rise up and get out of that burka.
"When we have women in burka on stage," he says, "we're not trying to say that those women are dancing in burka because that's what they're supposed to be doing. Most women in burka don't dance at all. So when they're dancing, they're expressing that inner burka. In Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Turkey, any of those countries where they have women in burka, they don't just dress in burka; they actually have really fashionable clothes. They go to the mall. They watch movies. They eat popcorn. Half of them drink beer. They go skiing.
"That's what we're trying to say: The burka can be worn by anybody," he elaborates. "How you choose to wear it or express yourself — that's what Men in Burka is about. Men in Burka is like, get out of your realm and go into this. If a burka is about liberating yourself? Cool. Some people think we just want to be like men in drag because a burka is a female thing. They think, 'Oh, are you guys Men in Burka because it's a drag thing?' Well, no, but kinda yes, because it's very liberating. If you are a Pakistani or a Middle Eastern man, please wear the burka, see what it fucking feels like. Get under that for once."
Clearly, Khan and company have put a great deal of thought into what their name symbolizes. And they've obviously put an equal amount of thought into formulating their sound, which, in the spirit of said moniker, is a study in contrasts. "Whether you watch Al Jazeera or CNN," says Khan, "you'll see the Boston Marathon bombing, but you'll also see this kid who overcame cancer and became this big thing. That's what you're going to see in our album: You're going to get a little bit of tension, but you're also going to get a little bit of liberation from it. You're going to walk away with a question and not an answer. We're not the answer; we're just a book of questions."
Not surprisingly, the outfit's proclivity for defying convention carries over into how the music is recorded. In an era where Ableton has become the norm, Men in Burka uses an eight-track machine and other devices and instruments to compose, giving the band its unique sound. "For electronic music in 2013 to not be composed on a computer?" asks Zoots. "I think that's pretty remarkable."
"We want that warmth of it being composed live," Powers concludes. "Yes, it's electronic, but it's being played organically. It's an electronic thing, but there's this organic feel. Less Ableton-y."