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Coke Studio — minus the secret ingredient

Updated January 26, 2014

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Strings — Faisal Kapadia and Bilal Maqsood.
Strings — Faisal Kapadia and Bilal Maqsood.

Coke Studio came, it conquered but over time, much like any other carbonated drink, its fizz has waned; from a feisty sizzle to mere sweet — but flat — melodies. It was no small feat for Rohail Hyatt to create the platform six years ago.

He stepped into the declining Pakistani music industry and infused it with the magical fusion of folk with contemporary tunes, Rajasthani lore with hardcore pop, the dhol alongside electric guitars — scintillating, hypnotic music that you could lose yourself in. At a time when albums had ceased to bring in revenue for local musicians, CS came to define Pakistani music. Season after season, Rohail set new precedents and explored new territory — the Coke Studio journey was, simultaneously, his journey.

However, creativity can get stymied by commercial concerns and exhaustion can set in. And while the Coke Studio platform remains intact, Rohail Hyatt has stepped away from it. It seems unfathomable. The show, with its wealth of talented musicians has nonetheless always been about Rohail Hyatt. It is his vision that has defined it, his keen sense of music that has propelled it further. One can’t forget Meesha Shafi and Arif Lohar’s mesmeric Dum gutkoon, Sajjad Ali’s exuberant Kir kir… and Ali Zafar’s sonorous Yaar dadhi. Yet, the past two years for the show have featured songs that are far more forgettable. Last year’s Season 6 went a step further by merging foreign folk musicians with local artistes and even then, most of the songs sounded repetitive, shadows of the hits of the previous years.

“I have never created compositions for the show based on whether audiences will like it or not,” Rohail once told me. “It needs to be music that I like, that I find different and melodious. There is always going to be someone who won’t like a song, that doesn’t mean that it is a bad song. It’s just a matter of opinion. The day I am compelled to create songs that only appeal to commercialism, I will stop believing in my music.”

Is this the reason, then, why Rohail backed out of Coke Studio, a platform that he had masterminded and honed? Recent reviews have declared the show to be veering towards the lackluster. Did Coke feel that Rohail was no longer bringing in the zing that they required to sell the show? Rohail explains, over the Internet, “My journey of exploring the depths of our heritage and sharing it with the world will continue …,” he writes. “No, there has been no sudden end to the relationship between Coke and I and nor is there a conspiracy against me as some people are reporting. I simply opted out of production season seven for personal reasons.”

Meanwhile, filling in Rohail’s shoes is the dynamic duo behind Strings: Faisal Kapadia and Bilal Maqsood. From a vantage point, there could be no better replacements. Strings is veritably the country’s most consistent musical act, with numerous hits to its credit and extensive international experience. As musicians, Faisal and Bilal are veterans who not only produce but also compose their own music. Consequently, they understand the highs and lows of tune and the directions in which a song can go.

“We’re extremely excited about producing Coke Studio,” enthuses Bilal. “We’re going to stay true to the CS feel and continue to merge elements of folk with modern music. There are so many untapped musical treasures in Pakistan and we’re looking forward to exploring into them. At the same time, we’re hoping to bring back the oomph that has been missing from the show during the past few years. Coke Studio was spectacular up till Season 3 but after that, it lost out on its element of surprise. We plan to bring it back.”

Bilal is all praises for Rohail. “He’s done a wonderful job not just for Coke Studio but for the music scene overall. So much so that the genre of music that he has introduced is now referred to the ‘Coke Studio’ kind of music.”

Rohail is similarly cordial. “I wish the new producers well. They are an amazing team and I am sure they will do justice to the platform. They have my full support and blessing,” he writes sensibly, reasonably, very publicly on Facebook. Making the decision to leave the show couldn’t have been easy for Rohail but he’s preferred to take the higher, diplomatic road. Besides, if Rohail could create Coke Studio, he can certainly bring about yet more phenomena in the future. Certainly, there must be umpteen other sponsors striving to get him to sign on the dotted line for a piece of his musical genius.

As for Coke Studio, the ball is now in Strings’ court. Let’s see whether it rolls ahead or dives down into oblivion. Season 7, scheduled for this summer, is going to be the litmus test.

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