When Coke Studio first arrived on our television and computer screens eight years ago, it captivated Pakistan. It changed the way we consume music. But most importantly, it made classical and folk music approachable and dare I say, cool.
What happens when a group as popular as Noori, with its urban audience, collaborates with a folk genius like Saeen Zahoor? Those who tune in to see Noori become curious about Saeen Zahoor. Similarly, Saeen Zahoor fans may find it in their hearts to look up Noori and on and on, this circle of music discoveries. This crossover appeal was and remains Coke Studio’s single greatest strength.
That said, over the years, the show has gone from being Pakistan’s most loved music show to Pakistan’s most criticized.
Part of it has to do with the birth of other shows. Another major reason is perception. The show was never designed as a platform for pure classical or folk. It was always about discovering the sound of the region and yes, making it palatable for a young audience and not just those who love and cherish eastern music in its original, unadulterated form.
What we continue to forget is that in a country like Pakistan, where music channels don’t exist and bands publish their music themselves (just ask Noori brothers who are burning CDS for their new album because of lack of manufacturing facilities), a show like Coke Studio forces us to take music seriously.
Coke Studio has single-handedly changed the audience for many of its brilliant artists. In a press conference, Farid Ayaz confessed that post-Coke Studio, young people came up to them all the time, asking for a rendition of ‘Kangana’. Kamran ‘Mannu’ Zafar, one of the quiet stars of Coke Studio told me that post-Coke Studio, they find themselves in places as diverse as Australia and India, where people just seem to know them and recognize them from their Coke Studio stint.
Purists maintain that Coke Studio has butchered classics and they may be right. But the show has always been a combination of originals and covers. At its heart, Coke Studio excels because of its collaborative nature.
Some maintain that the melodies and the music is now a tad monotonous. But that’s just one way of looking at it. If, after eight years, the show manages to find one song – just one – that appeals to a listener, it has done its job.
So, here, then, we dissect what the season 8 got right and what didn’t work.
Coke Studio Season 8 opened with the minimal and nostalgic ‘Sohni Dharti’ that featured the entire line-up from the new season, led by the amazing Farida Khanum. It was the perfect opening – wonderful and breathtaking.
In fact, the invitation extended to Farida Khanum at this stage of her life and getting her on the show was a monumental feat. Her rendition of ‘Aaj Jane Ki Zidd’ is beautiful and Strings deserve a big round of applause for keeping the focus strictly on her. The addition of pictures from her youth in her performance video was a masterstroke. We never realize how much artists like her mean to us collectively until it’s too late. Bravo.
Then there was Mai Dhai – the other voice of the soil. She made two appearances on the new season – first with Karam Abbas on the celebratory ‘Aankharli Pharookai’ and later with Atif Aslam on ‘Kadi Aao Ni’. In both songs, Mai Dhai stole the show with her rich, voice of the desert vocals and that inimitable character. Getting her on the show is yet another sign that Strings are well aware of other musicians in and across Pakistan who deserve to be on this platform that serves music because it is designed by musicians.
One unforgettable high point of the show this year was Atif Aslam’s 10 minute long rendition of Ghulam Farid Sabri’s ‘Tajdar-e-Haram’. This particular cover reflects his growth as an artist and as a singer. It’s a courageous move to cover a qawwali as popular and iconic as this. For Atif Aslam fans, this song will last forever. And those calling for his head are those who continue to underestimate his ability and popularity. The Jhankar Beat feel towards the middle of the song is slightly off-putting but then, that’s just personal taste.
The incomparable Ali Azmat made an appearance with ‘Rangeela’, which felt like an ode to the glory days of Junoon. It’s playful and catchy and makes you want to go to an Ali Azmat concert. Good choice.
Ali Zafar, meanwhile, spoofed his own movie star lifestyle in ‘Rockstar’ – a song that captures the performer inside him. It’s fun, bouncy and just very colourful. You have to give this song a chance and if you do, you realize that music can be fun, frothy and dare I say, frivolous without being offensive.
Strings also managed another first this year: getting the excellent and irreverent Mekaal Hasan Band on the show. ‘Sayyon’ and ‘Kinarey’ reflect the maturity, ability and soul of MHB. It is never easy to create a song that stands out on a show like Coke Studio because it features many, many names. But MHB manages it without difficulty. Both of their songs have that timeless quality that has made this band such a powerful entity in music.
Kaavish, one of Pakistan’s most underrated acts, staged a stunning return with the poignant ‘Neun La Leya’. Jaffer Zaidi can do no wrong when it comes to singing it seems and on this particular Hamid Ali Bela composition, he is in complete control and commands attention. Jaffer’s singing has heart and soul and it stays with you and does the trick every single time.
Similarly, the Bakshi Brothers sizzle on ‘Khalis Makhan’ – they are a curious quartet and in this debut, we have found one act that continues to mystify us.
Ali Sethi’s debut performance in ‘Umraan Langhiyaan’ had flair, personality and explosive verve. Nabeel Shaukat, on the other hand, was completely overshadowed by Ali.
The final act from Coke Studio Season 8 that demands our attention is Malang Party. A band of this stature deserves our unflinching attention because they continue against all odds. The band made its debut with their original composition called ‘Dil Jaley’ and got a Coke Studio makeover, full of grungy riffs and that zany attitude. It’s a fantastic performance – one that is full of promise that this band will do what it does best without getting lost in transition.
Two things stood out on Coke Studio this year: the number of covers and the number of collaborations. Unfortunately, a lot of it just passes you by because the balance is not right.
Take Mai Dhai’s debut – she makes two appearances and is accompanied by another singer both times. It’s not that Atif Aslam is bad or Karam Abbas for that matter. But a voice like Mai Dhai deserved a solo number because she is worth that effort.
The balance of collaboration is both a science and an art. This season, the collaborations fizzled out for several reasons. There were too many of them. Several songs were just covers and it felt excessive. The show is about striking a balance. And that balance was tipping.
Ali Sethi for instance completely overshadowed Nabeel Shaukat. Ali Haider’s debut was a hit and a miss and did nothing for him. Siege made two appearances and made little impact. Their cover of Mai Bhaagi’s ‘Kharhi Neem’ was abysmal. On their claim-to-fame song ‘Armaan’ which paired the group with Alycia Dias, they sound loud, garish and cringe-worthy, to be honest.
Artists like Qurtulain Baloch, Mai Dhai and Sara Haider have enough talent and perseverance to merit solo tracks, which for some reason didn’t happen this season. Instead, these incredible voices were paired off with others.
Over the years, Coke Studio has served as one platform where women shine almost as much as men. We’ve seen plenty of solos starring Meesha Shafi, Zeb and Haniya, Zoe Viccaji so it made little sense as to why female acts didn’t get solos.
In terms of covering songs, there were several efforts but most of them don’t stay with you for long. Noor Jehan’s ‘Hina Ki ‘Khushbu’ by Samra Khan and Asim Azhar failed to evoke a positive sentiment and so goes this circle.
As the show ends this year, there are several questions that remain unanswered. Will the show find the right balance next year? Can it survive when new music shows like Lahooti Live Sessions have stunned us all with its simplicity and faithfulness to folk music in its original form? Can Strings manage another season that strikes a balance? Will it improve as the years go on or fizzle out in entirety? We don’t know yet. In the end, the show is not competing with another rival show but its own successful past. So here’s to another season, one that strikes a balance between the new and old, and continues to pave the way for artists like Mai Dhai, Malang Party and many, many others who haven’t been discovered just yet.