In the early years of Coke Studio, when the music series – still produced by Rohail Hyatt (seasons 1 to 6) – was at its pinnacle of success, it was Rohail Hyatt who had said – and I’m paraphrasing here – that the show’s biggest competitor is its past because when successful, he would be asked how would you surpass this? That was and will always be the show’s real challenge.
When season ten concluded, having opened its doors to multiple producers, it was a hodge-podge season, one that ushered in a change at the top. If Rohail made the show what it was, Strings took it to a commercial scale while establishing the idea that was floated around for years, both within industry ranks and outside of it. The fact that it led to some terrible songs only goes to show that Coke Studio is not a beast that everyone can manage.
We have now seen the conclusion of Season 11 and before we delve into the terribly unkind, let us first acknowledge what was certainly a much more improved, newer effort.
For one thing, Coke Studio 11 was preceded by Coke Studio Explorer that went across Pakistan and opened a window into the lives of the people. Four of the five songs and artists were absolute gems, including Amrina, 15 and Ariana, 14 (‘Pareek’, Kalash Valley); Vishnu and Shamu Bai (‘Faqeera’, Sindh); Qasamir (‘Ha Gulo’, Kashmir) and Mangal, Darehan, Shayan from Balochistan who introduced some, if not all of us to Nar Sur (throat singers) via ‘Naseebaya’. The idea included a merger of folk with electronic elements. It was folk music, circa 2018.
The season that followed got a lot right compared to the season that preceded it. In addition to Strings bowing out after four seasons, Ali Hamza and Zohaib Kazi – two artists with unique strengths – were roped in as co-producers.
Under their run, the house-band was shrunk; veterans like Babar Khanna, Omran Shafique and Kamran Zafar were joined by Kami Paul and Rufus Shehzad with Haniya Aslam playing multiple instruments in a variety of songs.
Most of all, the show was turned on its head as much as a show like Coke Studio can be. I’ll explain that, in a moment.
As Rohail Hyatt would say: Coke Studio is both an art and a science. What you see on the show is therefore both. A great deal of heart, idea and innovation but it has to be backed up by much bigger entities.
The presence of several mainstream names in this year’s season, such as Aima Baig, Sahir Ali Bagga, Shuja Haider, Abrar ul Haq, Asrar, Asim Azhar, Momina Mustehsan (whom we will get to) is in a sense a trade-off to make room for newer, hipper names with musical credibility to back them up. But multiple appearances from the established lot of artists on a platform as big and national is a point of contention between Coke Studio and the rest of our dysfunctional music industry, one that Coca Cola must think about. Why? Because there are any number of artists who have never been invited even as they have struggled and continue to do so due to lack of enough local initiatives.
However, we must also remember that at the heart of Coke Studio lies certain ideas: collaboration, comebacks, fusion and folk. Those ideas have not been broken this year but by achieving a great deal of firsts, Coke Studio 11 has made its mark.
The many ‘firsts’ in the season
The feminist track, ‘Main Irada’, composed by Haniya Aslam and featuring – for the first time in the show’s ten-year history – an equal number of men and women on the Coke Studio floor. And the idea to say that we must celebrate the empowered women amidst us.
The first-time appearance of Lyari Underground, Young Desi, representing Pakistan’s burgeoning rap scene via the song ‘Rap Hai Saara’.
A collaboration between Jimmy Khan and transgender duo Lucky and Naghma (members of Pakistan’s marginalized LGBTQ community) on the song ‘Balkada’.
The collaboration between Riaz Qadri, Ghulam Ali Qadri and international EDM duo, Krewella on ‘Runaway’.
The first-time appearance of music groups like Khumariyaan, Chand Tara Orchestra, Sounds of Kolachi and Mughal-e-Funk, two of whom are instrumental groups primarily. We also saw the return of the formidable music group, The Sketches.
With the presence of legends like Abida Parveen and Attaullah Essa Khelvi, both of whom have appeared on the show in the past, we also saw Riaz Ali Qadri, Zarsanga, Mangal, Darehan and Shayan (with Ali Azmat). And then a comeback of swagger-man Hasan Jahangir with ‘Hawa Hawa’.
Some interesting collaborations did emerge, including ‘Wah Jo Kalaam’ between Asrar, Vishnu & Shamu Bai, the father-son duo, Attaullah Essakhelvi with Sanwal Essakhelvi, Ali Azmat, Riaz Ali Qadri and Ghulam Ali Qadri, and between Ali Sethi and Humaira Arshad.
Of course, some songs didn’t live up to our expectations. It has happened in the past many-a-times but were the firsts not full of enough merit that we at minimum acknowledge the collective effort?
The saga of ‘Ko Ko Korina’
The real problem, one that has created a resentment of sorts, is why must Coke Studio continue to promote the same “mainstream acts” over many other struggling names and give them multiple songs or even one song. For instance, the established Jawad Ahmad whose mediocre song could’ve been done away with; ditto for Bilal Khan.
The second case in point is Momina Mustehsan, who has appeared on the show multiple times even before Season 11 on a show that now has a built-in audience. It zeroed in on her and the numbers keep rising, which raised her profile, whether she wanted it or not. Fast forward to Season 11 and Momina is back again, with a slew of songs, an opportunity afforded to very few. Musicians today have day jobs and many have and continue to struggle with lucrative avenues perpetually non-existent unless one were roped in by a big brand and maybe not even then.
There was nothing too exciting about her songs on Coke Studio 11, but that’s not the problem. It, however, should be addressed when artists are selected in the future.
The crash and boom emerged with ‘Ko Ko Korina’, a classic song from Armaan featuring Waheed Murad and originally composed by Sohail Rana and sung by Ahmed Rushdi. The song is considered to be one of South Asia/Pakistan’s first pop songs. To touch such a historic song is not a matter to take lightly. Therefore, Ahad Raza Mir had auditioned before landing the duet with Momina Mustehsan. Sadly, the Coke Studio 11 version featuring both was just bad.
If only the conversation had ended there. We would rather be debating whether it was okay for a cola brand to touch iconic songs like ‘Hum Dekhaingay’ that served as the season opener and one I personally liked. Or was it okay to give us a bland version of The National Anthem or the monstrosity that was ‘Sayonee’ (Season 10). Was it cultural appropriation and if so, beyond Coke Studio, what platforms could be used to promote music, real music. The conversation for once would have stayed on music, art and social media timelines would be filled with opinions – albeit some deranged, some intelligent – on the present and future of music.
However, what emerged this past week was anything but constructive and has been hard to even keep up with.
Both Momina and Ahad got flak but Momina also received comments on her looks, death threats and a great deal of unkindness that was neither called for nor is acceptable. It was cyber-bullying, trolling at its peak.
A minister also tweeted that she didn’t like the song – which is her right – and Momina reacted in a way she shouldn’t have. However, when you get death threats for a song you did, not everyone can come up with a profound response. Nonetheless, her reaction led to a chain reaction and after that, politicians, a political journalist deeming it a “catfight”, observers, industry names, everybody was in on it. The hate kept on pouring in, almost as if hate for a song can unite us on social media. Opinions must be heard, they must be valued but there are limits – in an age of anxiety, mental illness and despondency – that should not be crossed.
Ahad also responded, first in reactionary manner but followed it with some grace. As Strings told me, if there’s one thing Coke Studio has taught them, it’s how to deal with failure.
As Ali Hamza and Zohaib Kazi told me in an earlier interview, imperfections and mistakes teach you a great deal more than success. They will learn from it. As for brand Coca Cola, they should too. Spouting numbers on how many countries the show is watched in or the millions of hits it gets doesn’t validate talent.
Even more important is what happened to Momina and Ahad. The criticism has gone beyond Coke Studio to a level that is both unquantifiable and horrifying. Maybe Coke Studio needs to rethink its strategy.