Coke Studio, the premier music show in Pakistan, is now in its eighth season, which means that the novelty factor has certainly worn-off. After a six-year term under Rohail Hyatt as music producer, the show has moved on to a different team, spearheaded by Strings’ Bilal Maqsood and Faisal Kapadia. And so far it’s been a decent effort. For all the criticism meted out to the show, it’s the one annual event that gets us talking about music, every year.
In a country like Pakistan, putting music on the map is a difficult prospect. It doesn’t matter how good your song is, the press at large, especially the television medium won’t take notice unless and until your name is Ayyan or Salman Khan or Shahid Afridi. Gimmicks matter, talent and perseverance don’t. In such a muddled environment, a show like Coke Studio, though not without flaws, is still relevant because it sheds a light on several artists across multiple genres and reminds us why music is and will always be an integral part of our culture, a fact that is often forgotten as former pop heroes in a fervor of religion denounce music, only to turn back again. Think Junaid Jamshed and his on-again, off-again stance on music, the misogynistic comments, etc.
Mai Dhai steals the show
The first episode of the all-new eighth season got plenty of things right. Mai Dhai, the voice of the desert, is once-in-a-lifetime kind of an artist. Making her Coke Studio debut this season, she performed a beautiful track called ‘Aankharli Pharookai’ and stole the show and our hearts along with it. Sung in Marwari language, the song is supposed to be a celebration of “something good” and Mai makes us believe in it. It’s groovy and delightful. And it has to be said that on this particular song, the whole house band, featuring a combination of old Coke Studio cohorts as well as several newbies (who made their debut just last season) is sizzling. Tanveer Tafu’s rubab and Arsalan Rabbani’s harmonium add such exquisite layers to this incredibly powerful, haunting song. Unfortunately, Karam Abbas is no match for Mai Dhai and is overshadowed on the song. In music circles, the legend of Mai Dhai is enormous. Her stuff at SXSW festival is the stuff dreams are made of. As Coke Studio songs run on channels for the next few weeks, the star of Mai Dhai will rise further as more and we can hope that more people will learn about her and fall in love, like we did, permanently. If you need more Mai Dhai magic, you can check out the Mai Dhai Band and Saif Samejo’s Lahooti Live Sessions.
After Mai Dhai comes Atif Aslam, whose rendition of Ghulam Farid Sabri’s ‘Tajdar-e-Haram’ is gorgeous. Sung as a tribute to Sabri Brothers and endorsed by Amjad Sabri, Atif Aslam takes complete ownership of this memorable, age-old qawwali and runs with it. While purists may hold issues with this particular performance, it must be remembered that Coke Studio’s cross-over appeal is such that it makes you want to revisit the original. Atif’s spin of this classic qawwali reminds us why this centuries old tradition is truly food for our broken, detached, twisted souls.
The third and final pick from episode one is Mekaal Hasan Band’s ‘Sayon’, simply because it is astonishingly good. With no Javed Bashir on the horizon, it was a gamble to reinvent the band with a female singer. But Mekaal Hasan is not new to breaking stereotypes and challenging himself and listeners with it. In the new line-up lies the success of a band that has consistently delivered timeless album(s). And ‘Sayon’ just makes you realize how much more MHB has to offer. Sharmistha Chatterjee has unbelievable range, texture and is brilliant here. Ahsan Pappu’s melodic flute mixed with the folklore of Heer as she awaits her Ranjha will have you from the first hear. And if it hasn’t yet, give it another go. This is a song that will surprise you on every listen.
Everybody loves the Rockstar Romeo
Music critics, film stars on both sides of the border, and the public at large: it seems that Ali Zafar’s playful, bouncy spoof of his movie star lifestyle in ‘Rockstar’ has won hearts, everywhere. ‘Rockstar’ is colorful, it’s tongue-in-cheek and a lot of fun, but most of all, it reminds you that Ali Zafar, the pop musician, is sorely missed and still capable of producing memorable songs. He has range, he can sing across genres and he still has the voice. For a few years now, Ali Zafar’s music is more visible in jingles or Bollywood films. This song is a return to form and hopefully, the positive response to this song from all parties will push the musician, and not the movie star, into the spotlight.
The other pick from episode two of Coke Studio is Umair Jaswal and Quratulain Balouch’s (QB) rendition of ‘Sammi Meri Waar’, a Punjabi folk song that is often sung at weddings. First, let’s just marvel at QB’s amazing, rich vocals that are on full display here. She’s in complete command and is just a revelation to watch. Umair Jaswal, on the other hand, is just decent. It’s not the most complimentary collaboration but works if you give it a couple of listens. Perhaps it’s the folk melody that is memorable or just this rendition. QB is so bloody good that she deserves a solo number on this music show.
Verdict: While the music continues to engage, the show’s set is kind of boring now and truly needs a revamp. The design value of the show has diminished and could do with something less familiar and easy. But as far as the music is concerned, Coke Studio 8 is a lot more promising than its predecessor, circa 2014 and that is reason enough to celebrate, both the show and the artists who make us talk, laugh, think and sometimes, cringe. But let’s save that discussion for later.