In October, the country’s most anticipated show, Coke Studio, returned to television. Anticipation was running high due to a delayed start, social media buzz over the return of Pakistan’s best drummer Gumby, and a parade of international musicians teaming up with some of the nation’s favourite singers.
After five seasons of what was starting to feel like one too many classic-meet-pop fusions, it seemed like Rohail Hyatt was taking a leaf out of neighbouring India’s Coke Studio book by breaking international, religious and linguistic boundaries.
Despite the flashes of brilliance brought on by seeing faces and instruments from Morocco, Nepal, Bangladesh, Norway, Kathmandu, Serbia and Turkey, and despite promos touting this season as having what all other seasons lacked, the comeback of Coke Studio did not seem to have the desired impact.
Certainly, Hyatt’s aim with changing up Season 6 was righteous. The only trouble is that Coke Studio is now beginning to feel a lot more like a jam session and a lot less like the studio session that it is meant to be. Filmed disparately, around the world with each musician in his own space and our Pakistani vocalists singing in what appears to be someone’s living room leaves the viewer missing the magnificent world of Coke Studio.
The inseparable, powerful house band and the dreamlike way in which the camera has oscillated around the red, white and black studio for the past five years were always part of the pleasure and appeal of Coke.
No doubt, the arrival of international counterparts (a venture best classifiable as a marketing and historical success for Hyatt) is audibly on point. But visually one is left wondering if this season would have stood a better chance collaborating under one roof; visas and travel expenses be damned.
Hyatt, as producer and through his medium of Coke, has always harboured the magician-like ability to create songs that marry lyrics and melodies in a way that gives the impression that each track belongs organically.
Regardless, alterations to the show’s signature sounds, look and feel take away from the Coke experience. With singers singing on piano tracks without the powerful camaraderie of the house band, the emotional magic of the vocals feels amiss. The compositions themselves continue to feature the same old track of popular-culture-meets-traditional-and-folk music.
Things don’t go so audibly wrong. But the impact is not as dramatic as one had hoped. Simply put, the old Coke did what the new Coke can’t.
It doesn’t provide that revered, rounded portrait replete with band, singer and studio studded with dozens of visual goodies — flashing lights, beautiful back-up vocalists and the self-defined, swaggering style of the artist(s) themselves, all bound together in a beautiful, colossal magpie’s nest.
But Coke must harness the originality of its artists more — those who write and perform their own lyrics.
I spent months that lead up to Season 6 envisioning the maestro way in which Abrar or Fariha would rework their popular and original compositions with the aid of an international band and instruments.
Instead, Abrar’s lacklustre Ishq di booti only paled in comparison against Arif Lohar’s now epic track of the same title.
Repetition doesn’t draw. It causes crowds to recede. Perhaps all this remix-fusion-pop/folk regurgitation is what made Ali Zafar back out at the last minute? And perhaps, this same old-same old is what prevented Hyatt from attending the launch of his own creation.
Given Coke’s popularity, to be a musician in Pakistan and not have appeared on Coke Studio essentially means being permanently relegated to a footnote in the history of Pakistani popular music. On that note, I’ll revisit my top five personal favourite Coke hits (listed in no particular order):
- Mori araj suno — Tina Sani & AriebAzhar
One of those songs that must necessarily be listened to with subtitles on, Sani echoes the vulnerability of man, his state and life in the eyes of God perfectly in this ballad. A genuinely talented artist against whose powerful voice no band and no instrument can stand a chance. Sani leaves us teary-eyed and wondering what fountain of youth she’s sipping from that has left the favourite of our parents’ parents looking so good. Arieb Azhar’s soliloquy at the end takes this track to the highest level of craft.
- Alif Allah chambey di booti — Arif Lohar & Meesha Shafi
The quintessential Coke fusion, with over 14 million views on YouTube, this track truly delivers. With the almost heroic Arif Lohar, big fish in the small pond of Pakistani folk music accompanied by his chimtas and Meesha Shafi results in a brilliant reworking of a familiar melody, transforming it into something haunting. The result is a sweet, mysterious yet intimately known rush of nostalgia.
- Tou kia hua — Bilal Khan
Following his viral hit Bachana, Bilal Khan’s commercial breakthrough on Season 4 inspired intense discussion earning him equal parts fans and critics, keeping the social media machine busy. Khan, singing with undulating emotion, both slyly and shyly, captures the currents of love, loss, and the inevitable, bittersweet feeling of apathy towards one’s scorned lover. Using mostly his acoustic guitar accented with drums, bass and piano, a new star was born.
- Kangna — Fareed Ayaz & Abu Muhammad
Fearless entertainers, both Ayaz and Muhammad hold their own in equal parts in this 16-minute track. Their inclusion in the 4th season of Coke was an indication of further success to come, which was later confirmed when a shorter version appeared in Mira Nair’s ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’. Infused with palpitating lyrics, a transfixing on screen appearance and the strength of many voices, this song didn’t only enrich all seasons of Coke but truly completed it.
- Jal Pari — Atif Aslam
The original CD arrangement of Jal Pari was subpart but in the Studio, Atif Aslam managed to transform the new Jal Pari into something haunting. No doubt, Aslam’s vocal abilities are undeniable. And this track is but one example of his ability to resonate with all generations. A combination of his own music and borrowed lyrics, Aslam’s Jal Pari taps in to reservoirs of emotions and continues to do so many, many listens later.
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