Ali Hamza and Zohaib Kazi, co-producers of Coke Studio 11, sit down with Instep to discuss the new module that is Coke Studio Explorer, the intent of bringing hope to people and embracing authenticity and expression in artists.
Come As You Are
Coke Studio 11 is finally arriving this month. The music series that made its debut in 2008 with Rohail Hyatt as producer (seasons 1-6) and later Strings (7-10), is the biggest, most contested and most revered music property in the country. Its accomplishments, including (but not restricted to) the stars it has created, the geo-political barriers it has broken while getting record numbers, the criticism that has followed in recent years, the level of engagement with fans as well as the mark it has made in the history of Pakistani music and culture, cannot and should not be denied.
But you have to ask yourself, after ten years, where do you go? The answer begins, first and foremost with the producing team. For the first time in the show’s familiar history, two different artists, Ali Hamza and Zohaib Kazi, have joined forces to take on the role of producers. Both have a long association with the show, a lot of original music to their credit and different strengths. Producing this season, they have relied on each other’s strengths to create what is quite possibly the most exciting season since season six.
The second answer is Coke Studio Explorer, a deviation from the original studio setup and format that we’re accustomed to. The studio setup, too, exists but that is a part of the main show that will come afterwards.
A prequel to Coke Studio 11, Coke Studio Explorer is a five-episode series that sees the producers traveling to different parts of Pakistan as well as scouring the internet to shine a light on unexplored spaces, the traditions and stories that live in those spaces and the varied talent that deserves to be heard. In other words, it is literally them getting out of the studio.
In Kashmir, they found Altaf Mir, the force behind ‘Qasamir’ that perform folklore tales of Kashmir. In Sindh, they found the brother and sister duo, Shamu Bai and Vishnu, who sing traditional devotional songs called bhajans.
Vishnu, 14, is the youngest artist to debut on Coke Studio. In Balochistan, they found throat singers, ‘Nar Sur’ – deep, cyclic, low overtone vocals – emanating from Mangal’s throat since almost three decades. In Kalash, they found two girls, Ariana and Amrina, who represent the small ethnic community of around 4000 indigenous Kalasha people. The girls’ core inspiration is American pop-star, Ariana Grande, and their love for Ariana runs so deep that Ariana, named Farsi Gul at birth, changed her name earlier this year after the singer. On the internet, they found Mishal Khawaja, who was born in Pakistan, raised in Toronto and discovered on Instagram where she has developed quite a fan base.
The story of Coke Studio 11 is not only the story of the artists featured but also the story of the producers and the vision with which they’ve executed this entire season, beginning with Coke Studio Explorer. The latter will not only capture the five acts (mentioned above) but also form a larger narrative that is about exploring and accepting diversity and instilling hope at a time of great cynicism.
To learn more, Instep sat down with Ali Hamza and Zohaib Kazi in their Karachi office as they spoke about the new module, Coke Studio Explorer and what it means.
“The thing that was established in the first ten minutes was how we were going to end this because once you establish the end, automatically your goals are established and a plan emerges,” begins Zohaib Kazi. “We recognized that Coke Studio has a position of influence and there are two ways to deal with it. You either just enjoy the power or you take the responsibility.”
Zohaib Kazi and Ali Hamza have chosen to do the latter, i.e. take responsibility for the show. How have they done so? Well, in a myriad of ways including not only by introducing the new module ‘Explorer’ but also by introducing new artists to the show.
And though a lot of artists are new to the program, they can be themselves. “Individuals can be themselves and we built on that rather than expecting or encouraging them to be someone they’re not,” says Hamza. “We did not push anyone to a point where they became uncomfortable. It is important in music to have authenticity and honesty of expression. That’s where the magic happens. And people are intelligent enough to recognize that. The audience is very intelligent.”
The ideas on which Hamza and Kazi aligned, tells Kazi, have to do with being human. “We have the power to influence so many people so this year has to mean a lot more than just music; it has to influence people, it has to be about storytelling about people; it has to influence the country and it is meant to inspire people and to recognize diversity and make it acceptable. The broader conversation behind all of it is that for us, beyond a consumer, it’s a human being first.”
Adds Hamza: “That is the first common ground that Kazi and I came together on… that music is a means. It is not the product we’re creating. Our focus is on exposing people and starting a conversation where people have a better sense of identity and feel proud about Pakistan. Coke Studio Explorer is the starting point, which will lay that foundation.”
Calling it ‘the spirit of the nation’ this year, as opposed to ‘sound of the nation’, comes with the idea that it will truly be about the nation. And Hamza and Kazi knew what that really required.
“We want to promote acceptability. If we’re calling it the spirit of the nation, we have to make it (the show) for everyone including those who exist in a minority. We want to encourage acceptability of each other. It can be through a different language even and it will only happen if we expose people to these ideas,” says Kazi. “People listen to all kinds of music. Coke Studio is telling the story of Pakistani heritage; it’s a strong asset and it isn’t necessary to only tell the story of Karachi or Lahore. We wanted to recognize the white in the flag as well.”
Ali Hamza adds: “We could’ve gone to Southern Punjab and found a few more Bulleh Shahs but we made a conscious effort to look for the outliers.”
As Hamza and Kazi agree, the show has its own baggage, both good and bad. How did they deal with it? By not shying away from it.
“That baggage is relevant because it is indicating that people have a connection,” responds Hamza. “In a show like Coke Studio, people connect with the song, no matter who the producer is. They are invested in the output; I don’t think we want to bypass that baggage. If anything, we value that kind of a response because in a way it’s a good thing. It is indicative of a certain intelligence of the audience as well as the emotional connect. A sense of ownership, which should exist and as people who are putting it together, we should and do have a sense of responsibility that one should feel good about it. Nobody’s perfect and as for criticism, it depends on how you look at it. It really matters and both of us are clear on it that it’s valuable input and it’ll help us learn more and understand the situation and our audience better.”
Adds Kazi: “Change, at first, brings discomfort. And then, after ten years, what do we do? That was a very important question that our fans were asking. Our internal system is designed on the premise that if you do something with the right intent, it will resonate and it is resonating, for example, with people within our team; it’s working.”
Another interesting aspect that Kazi and Hamza point out is that the show celebrates not empowering women but rather recognizing the empowered women who already exist.
“The conversation happening right now is about empowering women,” says Hamza. “We have bypassed that step to say it’s about empowered women, it’s about celebrating the fact that women are there, and it’s a question of recognizing and accepting and respecting that reality and working with it. It is an important point from where we are beginning this story. We have moved from the point of conflict and taken a step towards a resolution.”
Adds Kazi: “Haniya Aslam is in our audio team, for instance, along with Rakae Jamil and Sunny in the post, the clean-up process. The criterion to recruit Haniya was not based on the fact that she’s a woman. The only criterion was whether she has the skills required for the task and she has the skills.”
“We really respect her and are true fans of her skills, as a songwriter, engineer,” says Hamza. “She handles so many sides. She is capable at that level and in our minds we genuinely felt that she was the right person for the job.”
One question the producers have addressed is of the recruitment process that has been subject to criticism for lack of transparency.
“You know that narrative that in Coke Studio there is sifarshi scene. This helps the recruitment narrative because there is transparency; a space that is being developed and as this module develops overtime, anyone who wants to come on this show including from urban spaces can come and could start from here.”
As for the experience of going across Pakistan, from Kashmir to Kalash and beyond to find artists, that experience is captured in Explorer.
“Everyone has heard about festivals in Kalash,” says Kazi. “We went when it was really cold and we were in the middle of producing the season as well. We took some time out and went there. It was snowing and had we been a day or so late, it probably wouldn’t have happened. And people will get to experience all that in the videos. We said to ourselves that it is important to capture them,” says Kazi. “We also thought that people take ownership of Kashmir and we thought that without politicizing anything, let’s just find a human being from Kashmir who can sing us folklore. And we found Altaf Mir/Qasamir.”
“In Balochistan,” recounts Hamza, “we found what are called throat singers; it’s a cyclical way of singing. The group sits in a tent and they sing. If you count, not a lot of them are left. In the world, it is practised in very few territories like Mongolia and Africa, apart from Balochistan.”
“Pieces of the puzzle suddenly came together. There were beautiful accidents,” says Hamza as we come to the end of what is certainly the first of many interviews as Coke Studio Explorer followed by the main show makes an appearance. “There are stories of hope and our intent is to bring people back to optimism,” adds Kazi, on a parting note.
–Photography by Insiya Syed