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The ‘cover’ story

Jimmy Khan, Ali Zafar, Ali Noor and Mekaal Hasan on the trend of cover songs

The ‘cover’ story

A great many people will tell you that original music is dead in Pakistan or is on its last leg. But this statement couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Sikandar Ka Mandar, Zohaib Kazi, Poor Rich Boy, Ali Suhail, Janoobi Khargosh, Alien Panda Jury, Nawksh, Slowspin, The Sketches, Khumariyaan, Mooroo, Shajie Hassan, Sounds of Kolachi, the Mekaal Hasan Band and ESharp are all producing great original music.

Music and tech startup Patari too has backed a number of original projects including Patari Aslis and Patari Tabeer. Chand Tara Orchestra also has plans to ultimately put an EP.

And yet, when it comes down to it, what is most visible in music are cover songs. From folk to ghazals to film songs and pop/rock classics to the national anthem, most of what you see on tv and hear on the radio is variations of interpretations from some of the industry’s most popular names who have made a thriving career out of it.

The prime example is Coke Studio, currently in its tenth season and the biggest music property in the country. Despite the years, the production refuses to halt the cover spree it has been on for consecutive seasons. We’ve also heard covers on the resurrected Pepsi Battle of the Bands that is presently on-air and on multiple seasons of Nescafe Basement though in the case of the former, original music has also been churned out by the bands, which is a healthy sign.

Ali Zafar, who is pursuing an alternative career in acting and has three original albums and a number of cover songs to his name, feels that the popularity of the cover trend is the result of a combination of factors.

So, the question remains: is it simply a problem of perception or is it something more? The answer is a lot more complicated than a simple yes or no.

As Mekaal Hasan, music producer and band leader of the Mekaal Hasan Band sees it, the issue of cover songs sprang for the first time several years ago. Speaking to TNS, Hasan explained the issue with great clarity that comes from years of tirelessly working in the music scene.

“The trend of covers is not new; it has been around for at least a decade and first emerged on the inaugural edition of Pepsi Battle of the Bands,” noted Hasan. “People who used to write original material have either left or moved on to other things. They’re not working any longer. Those who had original ideas that were dissimilar to what everybody was used to stopped getting work such as myself. I can name many musicians who have stopped writing including Rushk, Aaroh, Co-Ven, Sajid and Zeeshan. We all wrote original material. What’s happened now is that a lot of singers from various bands have either found a career in acting or media or working as solo artists. What they lost was the ability to write original songs; you need professional songwriters and producers who have an understanding of music.”

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Hasan added, “Artists who wrote original music are heartbroken. Meanwhile, people who write jingles have become music producers. It’s not that people are not making good music now. There are artistes like Poor Rich Boy, Ali Suhail, Natasha Humera Ejaz and many more. The corporates, however, don’t want to push this music. They feel safer by doing inane cover songs. But there is a market for this music.”

Jimmy Khan, who has attempted covers and also has original music to his credit, views the situation somewhat differently.

“A lot of songs become a part of you. A cover is not about ripping a song or plagiarising,” said Khan. “You relate with a piece of music that you want to give your voice to.” Khan pointed out Kashmir’s rendition of Aamir Zaki’s ‘Mera Pyar’ on Pepsi Battle of the Bands as an example of a good cover song. “Kashmir’s cover was heartfelt. Those are the kind of renditions I’m talking about.”

Khan, however, admitted that trend of cover songs is prevalent particularly in the context of corporate-backed music initiatives in the country.

“A corporation wants an immediate hit; they want virality and immediate resonance to whatever they’re putting out by the public. A cover hits the spot quicker. Folk is also being covered on corporate platforms and it’s an easier process than writing an original song that resonates with people.”

TNS_Jimmy Khan-Madam

Ali Zafar, who is pursuing an alternative career in acting and has three original albums and a number of cover songs to his name, feels that the popularity of the cover trend is the result of a combination of factors.

“One, there is already an established emotional connection you have to a song from the past,” said Zafar. “It evokes nostalgia. The timelessness of the song also plays a big part. For a new song to work, it needs time for people to digest and get used to whereas a folk song already has a built-in audience. It has also survived through the times because it was meant to survive. It is the voice of the land. It will always have an edge over a new song that needs time to grow.”

Ali Noor, the front-man of Noori, noted that we have to do away with the trend of covers and should pursue original ideas instead. “For the artiste, cover is the easy way out because it is familiar to the listener,” said Noor. “I don’t like covers at all. I’m asked to do them and I’ve done it a couple of times and have given it my own spin but I’m done with them.”

Noor has taken it a step further though. In a video released on his YouTube channel this past week, you can see the singer-songwriter taking part in a conversation on music at the Young Leaders Conference in Karachi. Joined by fellow musician, Ahmed Jahanzeb, Ali Noor, while addressing an issue that has affected almost everyone in the music scene, noted that his focus is now on curating new content, ideas, thoughts and music. Having put Noori concerts on hold for the year, Noor is looking to build BIY as a label/company and a space where artists with newer ideas can thrive. Noor also spoke about how listening habits have shifted in the digital age and as listeners we must invest more time and effort in new music rather than shunning it outright.

While Ali Noor has taken this initiative, Jimmy Khan remains cautiously optimistic about the future. “Exciting original work is also happening at the same time,” said Khan on a parting note. “It’s just that it doesn’t have corporate backing like the other stuff that is happening now. The moment anybody grabs that opportunity, puts money behind it and markets it the way these covers are being marketed, I think it’ll take over because eventually people will get sick of covers. It is very important for the music industry to move forward and right now, it’s happening on an independent level and on a smaller scale. Some big gun needs to put in the money and it will become as big as Coke Studio or Pepsi Battle of the Bands.”

Maheen Sabeeh

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