Coke Studio Pakistan – At a crossroads: Nandini Krishnan


Rohail Hyatt, producer of Coke Studio Pakistan

Khabaram raseedah…imshab
Khabaram raseedah imshab kih nigaar khaahi aamad

The words are beautiful; the voices that sing them mellifluous. And yet, I find that instead of being overwhelmed as I usually am by the qawwali of Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad, enraptured by the transcendental waves of their music, parts of my consciousness are held down, niggled. Perhaps it’s the constant drumming and strumming, perhaps it’s the psychedelic sound waves zipping across giant screens, perhaps it’s the acoustics that throw back bits of the singers’ strains at them. But the Coke Studio version of Khabaram Raseedah doesn’t affect me the way even scratchy recordings of live, open-air concerts do.

Well, let me make full disclosure here, thus allowing people who’re already frowning to skip right over to the comments section – I’m one of those purists. Actually, let’s face it, we’re classical chauvinists. My idea of fusion is jugalbandi, you know, the kind where Bhimsen Joshi and Balamurali Krishna would dart alaaps and swaras at each other. So, I began as a sceptic, wrinkling my nose at the spangled headphones, neon outlines and cardboard cut-outs of Coke bottles. But, at one point, Coke Studio was beginning to win me over. After watching Duur from Season 1, where Hussain Bakhsh Gullo was accompanied by Strings, and the mix felt just right, I’d begun to, as a friend puts it, “hope that the people who read Chetan Bhagat will eventually graduate to Kafka.”

Fans of fusion often feel the need to defend themselves. The usual argument is that “the younger generation”, raised on rock music and Western instruments, can be channelled into looking into their own musical heritage, so that folk music and Hindustani classical and indigenous instruments may be stoked back into life, so that they may reach a larger audience. And then, of course, there is the more appealing, less pedantic argument – that there is space for both modern and traditional music, and that it tests the creativity of exponents of both forms when they’re asked to jam.

To me, the tragedy of Coke Studio is what started out as a conversation between two genres of music has got so wrapped up in itself that it has sold out to its image. It is the cool, ‘in’ thing, the trend-setter in the subcontinent. The noble cause it stood for, the lofty ideal of bringing everyone together, breaking barriers of genre, religion, nationality, and to some extent, language, is laudable. And there is no doubt Coke Studio has achieved this ‘bringing together’ of people.

What I find disappointing, though, is that instead of pushing further in search of the not-yet-popular, Coke Studio has begun to corporatise. It has chosen to sex itself up by turning to the likes of Meesha Shafi, Rachel Viccaji and Komal Rizvi – actresses and models whose bodily gyrations win more approval than their vocal acrobatics, who are clearly more comfortable on the ramp than in the studio.

However, they’ve established a fan base that may be responsible for the corporatisation of Coke Studio – and that this is what matters to the programme was obvious from the fact that the fifth season finale was Meesha Shafi’s frequently off-key version of the Iqbal Bano-Faiz classic Dasht-e-Tanhai. The song is a difficult one even for good singers to attempt – the magic of Iqbal Bano’s music lay not only in her voice and style, but the special quality of plaintiveness that would highlight what the words conveyed. Though I was initially baffled as to why Meesha Shafi had chosen such a challenging song, it strikes me as a clever decision now – with the music camouflaging most of her errors in the latter part of the song, it has served to elevate her status as a singer among the public.

One can’t deny that there have been some brilliant renditions of popular songs, and lovely poetry too, in Coke Studio. The likes of Abida Parveen, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Asif Hussain Samraat, Tina Sani and Javed Bashir adapt quite masterfully to the instruments around them, controlling the music and knowing just how much to give the microphones. There have been some incredibly memorable performances, including Arif Lohar’s Mirza Sahibaan from Season 3, and the programme can boast of discoveries like Sanam Marvi, who largely owes her popularity to Coke Studio.

But there are many among the classical musicians and folk singers who are confused by all the new sounds, whose virtuosity is lost in a profusion of beats that their music doesn’t really lend itself to. At times, Coke Studio seems to forget that not every song is made for throaty gasps, high-pitched harmonies, hoarse trail-offs and westernised vowel intonations from backup singers; that one can jam with traditional instruments too, as was done so hauntingly in the case of Moomal Rano by Fakir Juman Shah and his group.

With a dedicated audience, Coke Studio can afford to be bold enough to throw in the odd song which is pure classical, or unadulterated folk. Saieen Zahoor, Akhtar Chanal Zahri, the Chakwal group, Attaullah Khan Esakhelvi, Ustad Naseer-ud-din Saami and the many qawwals who have been featured in Coke Studio sing songs meant for the great outdoors, songs that ought not to be limited by space. Their instruments are muted, just enough to keep time and provide the slightest accompaniment. The Coke Studio performances of these artists have worked best when the accompanists have chosen to exercise restraint, so that the delicate twirls of their syllables weren’t lost in instrumental fervour.

And that’s also why Coke Studio needs to be more careful about picking the combinations of groups and singers who can perform together. To bring Ali Zafar and Tufail Ahmed together is begging for disaster. Performers like Ali Zafar, Zeb and Haniya, Bilal Khan and Noori may be popular with the public, but it takes musicians of the calibre of Atif Aslam, Shafqat Amanat Ali and Strings to hold their own against the doyens of the traditional forms.

It must be acknowledged that, with its excellent sound systems and talented instrumentalists, Coke Studio has often pushed the better musicians to excel. Atif Aslam’s rendition of Dholna is quite unforgettable, as is Shafqat Amanat Ali’s Kuchch Ajab Khel Karatar Ke. And often, the more average performers have made me either seek out, or go back to, the original versions of the songs they pick.

But there is the more dangerous trend of people feeling pushed to come up with something magnificent, and getting “inspired” by iconic bands or songs. One example is ADP’s Sultanat, the guitar riffs of which reminded me immediately of Running Wild’s The Ghost. Another is Karavan’s Kaisay Mumkin Hai, which seemed rather heavily influenced by Led Zeppelin and Kiss. Then, there have been rather awful covers of Aicha, I’m a Believer, and Billie Jean (the last was, admittedly, improvised).

There are times when I feel the artists –some of them, at least – on Coke Studio are better than the programme. The show itself, brainchild of Rohail Hyatt, could well be history-in-the-making in the musical discourse of the subcontinent. It has caught the public’s imagination and has the potential to dig out little known talent and catapult it to fame. There have been interpretations of music that I have gone back to several times over the years. And I probably spend less time shaking my head at modern interpretations of Rabindra Sangeet that look beyond the tabla and harmonium, and of Carnatic that go beyond the mrigandam, flute, violin and veena, thanks to this show broadening my perceptions of what music can be.

However, Coke Studio may have arrived at a juncture where it needs to re-evaluate itself, and figure out which way it wants to go – higher TRPs, or better music. And if it is not to lose sight of the purpose it has claimed to be standing up for, we all know what the choice should be.

(Nandini Krishnan is a journalist in Chennai.)

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25 thoughts on “Coke Studio Pakistan – At a crossroads: Nandini Krishnan”

  1. a company like coca-cola with all their corporate power and money will never be able to reach the horizons of fusion music as discovered by Shakti.

  2. Excellent review. One doesn’t have to agree with everything above but it’s good to have such subjects covered in Kafila.
    And now, Ms Krishnan, when will you write about that other great Pakistani ensemble, Sachal Music/Sachal Studio? Their version of Take Five is arguably the best reworking ever of the Dave Brubeck original.

  3. Nicely written, with some caveats, prime amongst them being this: the unduly harsh comments about meesha shafi and the other ladies could clearly only have been written by a woman. and one seriously miffed at some of the excessive attention they’ve been receiving from, presumably, men. : )

    I say this because that harshness does spoil an otherwise largely balanced review. As a vocalist who has been singing for decades, I can attest that Meesha Shafi, while she may have taken some compositional liberties, was nowhere near off-key in any portion of Dasht-e-Tanhai. And to take compositional liberties with old classics is no sin. It’s been done from Beethoven to Floyd to Noor Jehan, with often decent results.

    What I Have noticed is, Meesha provokes female ire like few women artists I know. : )

    1. For the record, I am a guy (one amongst, I would think, many many others) who found Meesha Shafi’s version nowhere near comparable to Iqbal Bano’s (and Tina Sani’s). I am not musically trained, but to my ears, there is a great flatness to Shafi’s singing which causes much of the charm, nay, magic, of the original to be lost. Which is not to say that Shafi’s version, as a stand-alone track, is bad (and how could it be, when it is based on Faiz’s beautiful beautiful words and the wonderful tunes of the Bano version). It seems like she tried, but her limitation as a singer is all too evident. And I say all this as a fan of Shafi (she’s cute :P), loosely speaking. I liked her Chori Chori, again from Studio, much more. I think that tracks with uninhibited vocals suit her more than those which require nuanced singing.

  4. Also, just to correct a possible misperception, ADP’s ‘Sultanat’ and Karavan’s ‘Kaisay Mumkin Hai’ were songs created before the inception of Coke Studio. Hence, using them as examples of the show compelling people to ‘come up with something magnificent’ might be somewhat misplaced.

  5. Wonderful write up.

    “But there are many among the classical musicians and folk singers who are confused by all the new sounds, whose virtuosity is lost in a profusion of beats that their music doesn’t really lend itself to. ” says it all. I felt this especially when hearing the Khabaram Raseeda Imshab by Farid Ayaz.. Perhaps, for the novice, who may have heard it for the first time, must not have felt that.

    However, Kangna by Farid Ayaz, was excellent, which makes me think, that instead of repeating the old classics, Coke Studio, should make these stalwarts music maestros create new compositions.

  6. “The noble cause it stood for, the lofty ideal of bringing everyone together, breaking barriers of genre, religion, nationality, and to some extent, language, is laudable. And there is no doubt Coke Studio has achieved this ‘bringing together’ of people.

    What I find disappointing, though, is that instead of pushing further in search of the not-yet-popular, Coke Studio has begun to corporatise. ”

    The show is called COKE studio. What does ‘begun to corporatise’ mean in this context? I am genuinely perplexed. Isn’t COKE studio’s ‘bringing together’ already a corporatised bringing together?

  7. Just a couple of points to make.

    Firstly, I would like to second the criticism made about branding Rachel, Mesha etc as models. Both were lead vocalists for their own bands – Overload for Mesha, and Rachel\’s Plan B for Rachel. There is a much more interesting argument to be made regarding Rohail\’s limitations when working with female vocalists, but I see that the author has chosen to go for the easier argument about how they looked fahaash.

    Secondly, in the larger context of this piece, I am reminded of a quote by Raza Kazim, one of the foremost musical critics and creators in the subcontinent. When he was making his \’Sagar Veena\’ – a brand new musical instrument for Eastern classical music – he remarked that it was only possible to do something like this in Pakistan, since in India classical music is treated with such blind reverence that he would immediately be ostracized. Since Pakistan has such a troubled relationship with its arts, the development of something new in classical music did not bother either the purists or the puritans.

    I feel the author – a self-described purist – has the same reaction. While she is gracious in parts, the overall feeling is that the fusion on display is of a \’lesser\’ quality, one that can be justified via \’exposure to younger generations\’ and \’recourse to gyrating models\’ but not on the basis of the music alone.

    I feel that this view misses the simple fact that what is happening with Coke Studio Pakistan is something unique, something which could only have emerged from this country. Unlike our illustrious neighbors, events inevitably conspire to rob us off our history, of our traditions, of our culture. And yet each time around we persevere to create something newer, something that felt obvious but no one seemed to have been capable of capturing and expressing before. The impulse to fuse the past and the future is the only way Pakistani art has a way of creating a present.

    You will of course find lots of other examples – particularly in our English literature – where there is an impulse to react to the demands of the market, to the demands of op-ed writers who like to imagine they can successfully generalize entire communities and cultures. And you can see the general quality of the output, which is obsessed with trying to shed off the contradictions it exists in.

    In contrast, Coke Studio\’s triumph is that it exists as an arc over time; as an acknowledgment of what has come, what remains, and what will emerge. It is not meant to be the shining light for Indian classical music, or the launching pad for new pop acts – though it well might assume that status in some eyes. But at the end of the day it exists as a testament, as a record, as a manifestation of a place and a people.

  8. Thank you.

    About Atif Aslam, I’ve only heard him on Coke Studio and his albums. The few songs I’ve heard of his seem pretty good- well, except Billie Jean, which was quite terrible. I really liked ‘Dholna’ I couldn’t listen to his rendition of Charkha Nolakha either, because it simply jarred too much – I think of it as Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s song. :-)

    Maybe those of you who’re more familiar with his music can tell me: are there any other songs Atif Aslam has sung badly?

    About Meesha Shafi, I truly don’t think she’s a good singer. I wouldn’t put it down to jealousy. :-)

  9. @Ammar: I stand corrected. Sorry, I didn’t know those songs had been released before Coke Studio. I heard them for the first time on Coke Studio, and have only listened to those versions.

  10. @KarachiKhatmal: I have acknowledged that I’ve been moved from my purist stance by some of the better performances. I personally prefer classical to fusion, but if you read what I have said on the subject, you’ll see that I don’t subscribe to the idea that anything is a “lesser” music. I’ve only said people who like fusion seem to feel a need to defend themselves.

    I also think we have a shared tradition of Hindustani classical music, which predates Partition by centuries. I wouldn’t want this thread to turn political, and my analysis was based entirely on my perceptions of the show and my understanding of music.

    About Rachel Viccaji, Meesha Shafi and Komal Rizvi, I’m making the argument I consider more relevant. There are plenty of models who sing, across the world, and plenty of pop singers who are better liked for their appearance than their voices. I think Coke Studio is a great concept, and like I said, is at a crossroads from which it can really push itself into making a difference to the musical discourse of our countries.

  11. So I guess one need not even mention the tragedy that is Coke-Studio MTV-India…sigh…even with the “revamped” show with Clinton Cerejo et al…
    even in their most time-tested acts of “gaily-dressed-ethnic-musician” and a preppy contemporary singer/performer, they seem to fall flat…

  12. What i find interesting in this article, and in the exchanges thereafter is the striking absence of a remark on caste, class and the privileged position of ‘purist’. i have pretensions of being a musician myself, and as was the case with several immigrant mixed ethnicity families in south india while growing up, trying desperately to make a claim to belonging to ‘culture’, had training in playing the tabla. my masterji (no, not ‘guruji’) was dalit, and taught me a language of the tabla that my upper caste compatriots several years later would laugh at. it was as though, somehow, my enjoyment of playing music was somehow of a lesser order for not having been ‘pure’.
    Perhaps my release from the tyranny of caste-in-music, or rather the ridicule of not being trained in the pure classical sense came when i started playing the tabla (and other drums) with musicians from other parts of the world, who were unfamiliar with the ‘pure’, and for whom the jouissance of a merging, of a communication beyond language is enough. i could finally sit back and enjoy my music, and laugh at how i was left under-confident by the undermining of the upper caste measurements of music.
    to be clear, i enjoy south asian classical music immensely, and that without ‘knowing’ the grammar of it, or having any technical knowledge. and neither am i completely unaware of the instances where classical music has been the space for performers and communities from underclasses to make claims to resources and social mobility. what i don’t get is the continued insistence of a hierarchy of forms of music and performance.
    there are ontological questions that invariably come up here, especially given the proclivity of those who ‘take music seriously’ to think in a combination of mathematics and aesthetics. but these questions undermine the socio-political,and affective significance of music in my opinion. for instance, why the metaphor of ‘fusion’, rather than the recognition of a new form in and of itself? (Les Back’s work on the significance of the collaboration of Apache Indian and Maxi Priest for the emergence of a new ‘black’ identity in Britain comes to mind here. Back uses the metaphor of rhizome instead…)
    and then there is the fact that this is Coke studio, and the realm of cosmopolitanism etc. There is undoubtedly a political-economy analysis to be done of this form of music, but perhaps that is possible without a re-iteration of a politics of purity.

  13. hi
    listening to meesha sing dashte tanhayee now, not off key, but too kiddish i think, not much depth or feeling, she’s having to focus to hard on singing the song i think.
    but about the comments about women being jealous of her…
    my colleague at work who found her jugni song on coke studio some time ago, said she has figured now that she is bisexual:)
    meesha has become a major object of lust in our women’s organization – cutting across sexual orientations, or rather fuzzing those categories nicely:)
    dont be too harsh on her, and dont be heteronormative!
    but thanks for this review and all the links

    1. quite neatly summed up, Jaya.added the word ‘jouissance’ and ‘heteronormative’ to my very limited vocab.But this woman and male perception of a woman is certainly not the prevail of either.I agree, if you mean’t that !

  14. I was so with you in all that you say…and quite rightly so, till you included Atif Aslam in the list of musician’s with caliber, who can hold their own.

    Full marks largely to Bollywood music director Pritam, the auto tuner(which tunes off key singers on technological gadgetry) and the marketing savvy of Atif Aslam–resulting in his popularity…but to call him a musician of caliber is way off the mark and point that you are making.

    The rest I could not agree more with you.

    What lets me down is not so much Coke Studio Pakistan–they have still held their own…it is Coke Studio India which does the greatest disservice to the richness of Indian Music by conveniently piggy backing on Bollywood music and musicians.

    Is Bollywood music the only music the youth of India will know?

  15. Though i agree with authors view of Rachel, Komal, Meesha a 100%. But putting atif over Ali zafar is definitely unfair. Though i am neither an atif fan nor an ali zafar but i just know that i never listened to Dholna after the first time (yes i found it that terrible) and i have listened to Yar daddi a million times. Though Ali zafar’s rendition of yar daddi had flaws but it’s a difficult song and ali zafar did a good job with it. Also another thing the author has either missed out or they are unaware of is that we have a lot of popular and talented singers that are never featured on Coke Studio, who can sing classical as beautifully as well as pop/rock. Examples are Fariha pervez, Abbas Ali khan, ahmed jahanzeb, Naad-e-Ali, Zara madni and may be a few more. Instead Coke Studio promoted burger bachas such as bilal khan, uzair jaswal (who can’t even sing on key), ADP, Komal, Rachel e.t.c. over genuine singers.

  16. Holy cow! I just listened to Khabram Raseeda, and I feel dazed and even a bit sick. If the non-Studio version is indeed even better, then I dare not hear it.

  17. The Coke Studio platform of curation for independent and talented musicians, less-known singers, varied genres has been quite a talking point.Admittedly it has shaken the defined and sometimes unshakable convictions of purists. It has led them to concede, at least,that a conversation of sorts between the traditional and new, old instruments versus the current technology driven sound has begun.And in the end (whenever that is ) it shall be the better music that shall prevail.
    In a very balanced analysis, Nandini Krishnan talks of the paths travelled and questions posed on such and related matters in the context of Pakistan.Interestingly while one reads through this very impassioned take one suddenly identifies with the familiar excitement and optimism of this musical experiment until some doubts niggle.Questions of sly commerce and the vitiation of the purity of sound and clever camouflage of big names with poor abilities engulfs.Answers never are easily forthcoming for the untrained and unschooled ear of my kind for we are unsure of our own sense of sound.Copycat reverence overpowers.Nandini, however,helps clear some such cobwebs.Read on and recheck the sounds on the links provided.
    And not to forget the interesting and engaging debates in the comment section, too.It is a Plus.

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