The glorious thing about the music of L.A. exotic-punks The Swords of Fatima is that it crosses so many genre boundaries. It’s so difficult to place in a conventional category that it ultimately works as an exercise in how world music across continents and, indeed, eras can collide with the contemporary.
There’s a fun and deliberate contradiction happening: The songs seem so sloppy and certainly impassioned on first listen, but just the slightest scratch of the surface reveals that much is going on — deep glimpses into frontwoman Buko Pan Guerra’s globe-spanning heritage. So the sound covers Bollywood, belly dance, flamenco, Middle Eastern music and a whole lot more.
Guerra played guitar in a band called Lily and the Ladies before going solo to play banjo. She missed the raucous electric vibe, though, so in 2006 she hooked up with drummer Nick Scott, with whom she had played in Project K, and delved into her passion for world music. The Swords of Fatima were born.
“He’s the best person for it so I dragged him in, and he freaked out because he had never played world music before,” Guerra says. “He had no idea because it wasn’t rock music, so he didn’t know what to do. I loved the disco beat that he was doing, so it worked out. Disco beats and lots of rolls. It’s just the two of us. We’ve tried a second guitarist and a bass player, and they even said, ‘You guys don’t need another person, you’re great all by yourselves.’ Why do I need a bass player? If I’m a woman standing there on my own, isn’t that better?”
Guerra was a punk-rock kid, shadowing her skater brother and soaking up every garage sound from the age of 11. She dipped her toes into goth-y waters, which led her in a more experimental direction, and she eventually discovered her passion for world music through Peter Gabriel.
“Any music I bought in my 20s was pre-1960s world music vinyl,” she says. “I knew punk rock in and out, so that was easy, and I wanted to learn. It was just so complicated. I loved classical music, and I would only listen to that sometimes. But world music is just so intricate and your mind can travel in all these directions with different instruments. They do all these weird things. It’s interesting to me too, because they play the same sounds for thousands and thousands of years. This microtonal, spiritual music. It’s really intense, and a lot of it is psychedelic.”
That said, The Swords of Fatima describe their sound as “exotic-punk” after picking up the phrase from a festival MC. Essentially, no matter how far their collective musical minds spread, the duo can’t ever ditch the punk roots.
“I had a mohawk when I was 15, but I really got into the world part so you would never think that,” Guerra says. “But it’s so embedded in our nature, our spirit, I don’t think we could play anything that wasn’t punk-like.”
It’s not only the instrumentation; the band’s lyrics are inspired from ancient folk tales, as well as more contemporary writers.
“One of my favorite bands is The Cure, and Robert Smith always gave these amazing descriptions of the little world that he lives in,” Guerra says. “I used to read Mark Twain, and I remember in school reading James and the Giant Peach, and the English teacher talking about how Roald Dahl would describe even the smells and tastes of the world that you’re in. That always influenced me. I’m trying to create a world. I use a lot of folk ideas — monsters that are trying to attack. Struggle and fight — there’s a lot of that in folklore.”
Live, the Swords try to play a balanced blend of straight-up rock tunes and more Eastern-style songs. Guerra says that people take a while to fully grasp the concept of an on-the-surface punk duo slamming out tribal warrior music. The crowds sometimes need a minute to get a handle on it all.
“Guitar players are always trying to figure out what I’m doing, because I’m playing tuning that they have no idea what it is,” she says. “A lot of people hear it from outside the club and think we’re five people. It’s fun because, when people really understand what we’re doing, they realize they can dance. Let themselves go. People in Europe love it more. People in America will either stand in awe or get tribal with us.”
On Sunday, the band play at Cafe NELA, one of the coolest punk haunts in the city. Guerra says they always have a good time there.
“They have my favorite sound guy,” she says. “He knows how to make us sound amazing. I play in such a low register, but he knows how to bring up the bass a little bit. We’re playing a lot of new songs that aren’t out yet on an album — we’re hoping to finish that this year. I’ve been in between work, and we have our own record label. We do everything ourselves — so if we don’t have any money, we can’t put it out. I think we play five new songs, and our standards that some people love throughout the years. Some old, some new.”
And that pretty much sums up The Swords of Fatima in general. Some old, some new, played in weird registers, spread out all over the place. The music might need a few spins before it sinks in, but this band is well worth the effort.
The Swords of Fatima plays with Yelling Bells, Peg Leg Love, Deadwood Celebration and Ex Party at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 11, at Cafe NELA.