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Unveiling Coke Studio Explorer – II

In this concluding interview with Instep, co-producers Ali Hamza and Zohaib Kazi discuss taking a leap of faith with Explorer and their approach to season 11 that is scheduled to release next month.

Unveiling Coke Studio Explorer – II

We’re sitting in the Coke Studio office in Karachi where Ali Hamza and Zohaib Kazi, the new producers of Coke Studio, in between post-production duties as well as managerial ones, are both happy and eager to discuss the new module, Coke Studio Explorer, the five-episode series that recently ended and the upcoming main show.

Having featured five artists with Qasamir from Kashmir being the final name, they maintain that both Explorer and the upcoming show is about finding a healthy balance.

“Because there was a set format, to break that with Coke Studio Explorer was challenging, but when this cycle gets complete, is when the entire plan will initiate,” reiterates Zohaib Kazi.

“It’s not to say that we only want to focus on one side of things; a lot of elements come together, we’ve gone fully commercial [in the main show], but the idea was to have a healthy balance,” adds Ali Hamza. “That was very important because that also represents a certain set of people and we don’t want to deny them or ourselves the right to experience that. It was always about diversity and as much representation so that it really is the spirit of the nation and we can holistically appreciate it. It is not necessary that everything will resonate with everyone but there is something for everyone… as much as we could, we have done that.”

Throughout the course of this two-hour interview, there is an optimism in the room and in the way Zohaib and Ali speak.

Where is this optimism coming from, I ask them?

“When I left Coke Studio, I was pursuing my own journey and Hamza was also pursuing his own journey with Sanwal and then with Coke Studio,” notes Zohaib. “We were exploring ourselves as individuals without any baggage or strings attached. When you’re honest with yourself, there’s a certain optimism that comes with it. As partners, we’ve been honest with each other. We met on a bench in a park; it was Alhamra park bench in Lahore. That’s how it began. And when you know what the end will be, things become easy. And things fall into place.”

Adds Ali: “We also need to recognize that we have emerged out of the same environment, whether it was Noori or Coke Studio and working with Rohail (Hyatt) and all of that. At the end of the day we belong to the same process, mindset and same approach. The environment in which we grew and evolved, it was the same one. It’s just that today we’re building on it in a different way. In fact, come to think of it, us moving out and coming together is consolidating that reality. Everybody is coming together on the same wavelength from a different space, joining hands.”

As for the synergy between Coke Studio Explorer and Coke Studio 11, notes Kazi, “A lot of it was a leap of faith. And yes, there was some pre-planning but we knew that we couldn’t compromise the main show but this [Explorer] was also needed. Five songs in ten days. And we spent two days per location.”

“We also believe in karma, both of us, and intuition,” reveals Ali Hamza. “There is a conscious effort but there are random forces that are bringing the stories together and I think it’s very important to be sensitive to that and both of us genuinely believe that. It is overwhelming, the scale at which you’re working and yet throughout the production, there was magic happening.”

He adds: “Whether it was ‘Aik Alif’ or all the other breakthroughs, the environment has to be slightly open-ended so the universe can interfere and there is room for magic. Imperfections make it more human, more relatable. If you create some perfect, you might lose the spirit. It might look perfect and you may not be able to pinpoint errors but it might not resonate as well.

In commercial spaces particularly, it often happens that you want to celebrate that grand, perfect perception of being but I think even those spaces are converting. As the digital age comes into play, we have to embrace imperfections and accept them. That imperfection will always leave room for you to build yourself on. At the end of the day, there is no such thing as perfect, it’s always a process. Maybe if you’re building a rocket, it makes sense because you can’t afford imperfections. Because human life is at risk, survival is at risk but this is art.”

I ask them about the upcoming season which will be watched and contested and debated upon when it arrives next month. Though a discussion on the selected artists is embargoed at this moment, there are some things we do know.

One, at least two artists who have appeared in Coke Studio Explorer will appear in the upcoming main show.

Another, the house-band is much more intimate this season and while the old guard is still present in the form of Omran ‘Momo’ Shafique, Kamran ‘Mannu’ Zafar and Babar Khanna, new entrants include Rufus Shehzad and Kami Paul, with the latter having participated in the last few seasons but never as such an important component of the larger machinery as this season.

The decision to stay with the old guard has a rationale behind it, according to both producers.“To do this project, you have to come into a collaborative setup,” begins Kazi to which Hamza adds: “it requires certain discipline and capability.”

“It is also about understanding things on the spot, explains Zohaib. “And that is where Omran, Mannu and Khanna matter because they really hold the forte. The one question to ask was: have we extracted the maximum from them and the answer was no so we decided to stay with them.  We have removed them from their comfort zone so they are not doing what they have done for nearly ten years. They are doing what they have not done in ten years. For instance, we asked Omran to make the tones, which means it was not only about him playing the guitar, we were also depending on his capability to understand different guitar tones, so you’ll see he has five different guitars. That’s where his musicianship comes in. Rufus was playing everything that is related to keys, whether it was a piano or harmonium. If he has the capability, why should we limit him?”

“People like Momo (Omran Shafique), Mannu (Kamran Zafar) and Khanna (Babar Khanna) have not only held the forte, they have also helped Rufus (Shahzad) and Kami (Paul) into integrating into this ecosystem,” notes Hamza. “And if everyone had been new, it would have become an overwhelming space. Rufus and Kami have added the new elements into the (overall) sound.”

Another thing the producers agree to is that in this season they left things open-ended. “As producers, we only said what they (artists) shouldn’t do and not what they must only do,” explains Ali Hamza.

As for how much freedom artists were given, says Kazi, “A virtual format has been made. That format is fine. We followed what sounded good. There have been instances when a song was already made but when the artist came in, we asked them to play us something and out of that something really good came out and we scrapped what we had made originally.”

From critical space to a global one to the expansion and amplification, both producers acknowledge the work done by their predecessors, Rohail Hyatt and Strings.

“At one level, we’re lucky because we have that ten-year experience of being closely associated with Coke Studio. In this show, I’ve explored many other dimensions of my musicality. It is a culmination of that experience,” says Hamza.

Adds Kazi: “We know very clearly what our exit plan is and how we will move forward. This is the completion of our journey. We can’t divulge the plan except to say that it will be a complete exit.”

Why have an exit plan? I ask them as we near the end of this interview. Responds Ali Hamza: “So that it keeps going and the cycles run smoothly and this platform sustains for another ten years.”

Maheen Sabeeh

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