It is difficult (if not impossible) to find one shared perspective on Coke Studio, often referred to as Pakistan’s biggest music show. In its ninth year the novelty factor and the absorbing intensity with which the show was once revered and greeted has evaporated.
Some question the shift in sound. You can find flaws in diction and enunciation. You can blame it on the comeback of films and with it, a slew of soundtracks that have raised the overall standard of music significantly. Or you can find the collaborations dissatisfying or the complete sound design a tad monotonous. But moving past matters of taste, the mixed response does make one wonder if the show’s importance has diminished. Or is it still relevant to the cause of music in Pakistan?
Despite the birth of brilliant initiatives like Salt Arts, Patari, Taazi and sponsored shows like Cornetto Pop Rock, Nescafe Basement, all of whom have paved the way for a new generation of artists as well as the return of big names to the spotlight, music in Pakistan is almost always struggling for visibility. If you’re on Coke Studio, the chances of being seen across the border are sky-high. In an interview many moons ago, Zeb Bangash had explained how AR Rahman knew of Zeb and Haniya because of their stint on Coke Studio.
We now live in an age where albums don’t release as frequently and record labels don’t generate trust in the music community the way they once did. This means that commissioned projects, Bollywood tunes and indie, alternative stalwarts rule the day. Original soundtracks for TV dramas have also added a bit of melancholia.
Mainstream names, in the absence of a system, prefer to release songs as singles. In between, a name like Noori can conjure up an album and provide some hope but the overall feeling in the industry is to release singles until a more constructive manner of release can be achieved.
In such a scenario, some musicians like Farhan Saeed, Junaid Khan and Goher Mumtaz are acting on the small screen while others like Fawad Khan have simply left their musical careers behind for an infinitely more successful film career.
All this means that when Coke Studio appears, it gets the conversation moving and forces you to look at artists more closely and to some degree even helps in redeeming others wrapped in obscurity.
The show is also extremely popular in India and has gained mostly positive press for this year’s season despite the fact that critics in Pakistan are not as impressed. The numbers on YouTube and Facebook also paint a picture; they suggest that fans, in and outside the country, are still watching the songs. And the amount of commentary, both troll-like or drenched in heaps of praise across digital platforms, also points to a commercially successful season, so far.
Nine years ago, when Coke Studio arrived, there was no show like it, which meant that it gained a life of its own and broke new ground, both sonically and visually.
The eastern-western gamble, the pairing of Noori with Saeen Zahoor, Meesha Shafi with Arif Lohar and many others paid off as the show found a loyal audience, one that was not restricted to teenyboppers but spread across all-age groups. Having played home to living legends, contemporary giants, eastern, folk gods and so many more artists, Coke Studio is not only a part of our pop cultural vernacular but is a significant one at that.
That said, the show’s ongoing ninth season has opened up a conversation about its future and whether it is time to call it a day.
The season so far…
After six years under Rohail Hyatt as music producer and another two years under Strings, this season Coke Studio diversified its format in a manner that can only be described as courageous; it opened its doors to six, distinct music names that took on the role of music directors. So while Strings stayed onboard as executive producers, the responsibility of music direction fell firmly on the shoulders of Noori, Shuja Haider, Shani Arshad, Faakhir Mehmood, Shiraz Uppal and Jaffer Zaidi.
The idea of expanding the palette in this particular manner is also not insignificant or new. It happened in India years ago and first propped up post season three.
With Pakistan’s ninth season, if there’s one thing that’s becoming incredibly clear, it’s the fact that tackling the Coke Studio beast, with its celebrated past and confounding expectations, in a way that satisfies the most number of people, is not an easy one. The amount of scrutiny the show inspires is also a marvel.
Though we may be jaded by watching the show (it no longer looks as beautiful and striking as it once did and those illuminated bottles are hideous), perhaps the single greatest news is that, like all previous years, this year too there were those who shone and brought with them some soul, groove and a musical retreat from all that is claustrophobic in this land of the pure and righteous, albeit briefly.
Of the five episodes that have been out while this piece is being written, each contained at least one song, some even two that have the power and potential to cast a perennial spell on you if you let them.
Ali Sethi and Abida Parveen’s collaborative number, ‘Aaqa’ is a moment of devotional glory and is easily one of the most moving performances to have appeared on this season. Shuja Haider, one of music’s unsung heroes, showcases his range as music director with skill.
Noori bros have done well for themselves on this comeback tour of theirs that began last year. While their part-romantic, part-celebratory Zeb Bangash number – ‘Aja Re Moray Saiyaan’ – is enchanting and makes a lasting impression, their rock-laden music production of ‘Baliye’, an original track written and composed by Haroon Shahid (of SYMT) mixed with the classic ‘Long Gawacha’ has this apocalyptic energy and opera-esque vibrancy that’s hard to ignore. It’s almost as if the Noori boys are impervious to Coke Studio’s past and are simply and skillfully expanding on their signature sound. Perhaps the only disappointing part is noting how Qurutulain Balouch, who appears on ‘Baliye’ remains underused by all Coke Studio producers despite her astonishing range and striking voice.
Noori’s third track as music directors on the show is also their strongest appearance on this season. Collaborating with Indian singer Shilpa Rao and their mother, Noor Zehra (who plays the Saagar Veena) on a song they consider family treasure, Noori have raised the bar for other music directors. Their traditional cover of ‘Paar Chanaa De’ is rich, exhilarating and has beautiful texture. Ali Hamza stands out in particular for his vocal performance.
Keeping the tradition of rock alive in episode four, Noori’s ‘Main Raasta’ featuring Junaid Khan and Momina Mustehsan is a playful anthem and a reminder that Noori can pen friendly, approachable pop rock with sharp clarity.
Similarly, like Noori, another name that has handled the responsibility of music director with great command and a lot of soul is Jaffer Zaidi. His direction of Ali Khan’s ‘Saathiya’ is not only reminiscent of the glorious days of pure pop but is so refreshingly honest that you can’t help but admire both the director and the singer for pulling it off. It’s also one of those understated songs that grow in appeal over time. Zaidi’s stroke of gold in the form of collaboration between Javed Bashir and Ali Azmat is also stuff dreams are made of. In a country that is growing exceedingly intolerant and one where sectarian violence is all too familiar, a devotional song in praise of Hazrat Ali mixed with Ameer Khusro’s ‘Man Kunto Maula’ is deeply powerful. Bashir and Azmat, at the top of their game, sound majestic together while Zaidi’s classic-rock-meets-qawwali structure provides a comfortable ground for both singers. He’s also structured Mohsin Abbas’s debut track, ‘Uddi Ja’ in complete contrast to his other productions and lets Abbas soar.
Shuja Haider’s other track, ‘Khaki Banda’ between Ahmed Jahanzeb and Umair Jaswal, on the other hand, is not groundbreaking or even genre defying. Jaswal is doing what he does best, which is channeling his inner rock hero, although why he’s been paired with Jahanzeb, who could’ve carried the song on his own two shoulders, remains a mystery. It’s a more sprawling rock song and though there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this arrangement, it could’ve been so much more. The song only stays in memory due to its lyrical content and what it alludes to, either consciously or unconsciously.
While Noori and Jaffer Zaidi have gotten several things right, the same cannot be said about Faakhir Mehmood whose ‘Afreen Afreen’ has certainly found a following but remains a production that eerily reminds you of its older but superior original brother.
Others like Shiraz Uppal, Shani Arshad and Shuja Haider have displayed skill but in patches. They are some of Pakistan’s most respectable names within industry ranks. But on Coke Studio past success matters very little. If you listen to the songs in an individual capacity, they are above average, certainly a cut above the film soundtracks that have released this year – each as terrible as the last – and you have quite a few songs to fill your iPod up with. But Coke Studio is not about one individual performance. When you view the season as a whole, it sounds like there is a remarkable shift in sound, a contemporary, peppy shift. The show’s infinitely experimental, slow-burning flavour as well as the strong component of folk, both known and unknown, is all but gone and to be honest, it’s something you will not only notice but miss if you watch the episodes back-to-back, over time.
It’s also obvious that there are too many duets and they’re also not as complimentary or striking as one would’ve hoped.
If in one episode, you have four songs and if three are duets, the level of engagement is not the same. Too many duets make the overall experience a bit jarring and tedious. Plus, they take attention away from those who deserve it, for example Javed Bashir who could’ve flown solo on the song ‘Jhalliya’. The problem with too many duets is that it evokes the feeling of clutter. It’s not Pakistan Idol so the vocal match in every song is really not necessary.
The good news for Coke Studio is that when you have names like Meesha Shafi, Zeb Bangash and Abida Parveen involved, even a mediocre song becomes something special and their presence has, in that sense, elevated the show.
A case in point is Shani Arshad’s tune, ‘Bholay Bhalay’ which emerges as a winner only because of Shafi and the amount of variety and personality she brings to each song. In the traditional cover of ‘Aaya Laariye’, directed by Shuja Haider, Shafi steals the show from Naeem Abbas Rufi effortlessly it seems and also makes the song more memorable. Zeb Bangash is the saving grace on Faakhir’s ‘Dilruba Na Raazi’ and on and on it goes.
In the end, it all comes down to the evolving direction of the show and whether as a listener, it’s a direction, an evolution that you had hoped for. Under Rohail Hyatt’s term as producer, the show was not necessarily about just Pakistan but the sound of this region and the cultures that have past through this land.
The current season has a much more contemporary flavor and whether that’s a good thing or bad is in the end, a matter of choice and taste. How you rate the show in your own mind, is, therefore, a thing of mystery and for now that’s okay.