SOUNDSCAPE: HOW DOES A NATION SOUND?

Published August 25, 2019
Zarsanga from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa
Zarsanga from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

Sounding a nation is no easy task, especially one as diverse as Pakistan. This is nevertheless what Coke Studio Pakistan, arguably the most successful private-sector endeavour involved in managing this public good we call “Pakistani music” has done for over a decade. Such audacity bears challenges, some all too similar to the ones faced by the nation itself. For example, how to represent the linguistic variety of Pakistan, while not sucking at it.

Languages are a sensitive issue in Pakistan. They represent class, ethnicity and culture, as well as classical and folk traditions. Moreover, they have a shared story of struggles and conflicts. Indeed, addressing language in Pakistan is hard because — for good or for bad — it implies referring to particular groups of people, and the differences between them.

Coke Studio Pakistan knows this well, and has done a fantastic job engaging with transcription and translation of lyrics throughout its eleven seasons. However, which languages made it to the show, and who can listen to more performances in their mother language in this nation-wide platform, is a completely different story.

Coke Studio has come to represent Pakistani music not only to the world but also often to Pakistanis. So what does an analysis of the languages it employs in the songs it creates tell us?

If the slogan The Sound (or The Spirit) of the Nation is more than a marketing prop, it becomes interesting to see how does this nation linguistically look to the creators of Coke Studio. To find out, I analysed all 291 songs Coke Studio Pakistan has released during its first eleven seasons.

Mangal, Darehan and Shayan from Balochistan
Mangal, Darehan and Shayan from Balochistan

In all its history, the show featured nine instrumental pieces against 282 bearing lyrics. Since several of these display more than one language, the data shown here is based on how many times a language appeared as part of a song. This exercise yielded some interesting results:

This shows fans may hardly be impressed with the ample presence of Urdu, the nation’s official language, among Coke Studio’s songs. More interesting is that Punjabi, a regional language, is not too far behind, with a whopping 30 per cent of the total of appearances.

Kalasha girls Ariana and Amrina with producers Ali Hamza and Zohaib Kazi in Coke Studio Season 11
Kalasha girls Ariana and Amrina with producers Ali Hamza and Zohaib Kazi in Coke Studio Season 11

Between the two, they account for way over two thirds of the whole pie.

Fifteen languages split the remaining spots. In comparison to Punjabi, the other three major regional languages pale: while Pashto, Balochi and Sindhi together account for over one third of native speakers in Pakistan, they only amount to four percent of the linguistic presence in Coke Studio Pakistan. They have significantly less presence than languages with a mostly historical and literary relationship with Pakistan, such as Persian and Braj. The analysis of languages across seasons displays very similar results, with Urdu and Punjabi having presence in every season and with Sindhi, Pashto and Balochi not even reaching one song per season.

Despite all this beauty, it would be naïve not to see this through the eyes of who is actually paying for all of this. Coca-Cola is a business, and what they want is to sell their product. If Coke Studio Pakistan has lasted over a decade, it is not because of its commitment with ‘the nation,’ but due to its success as a profitable PR strategy. There is no sin in that.

Some might say that subjecting art to numbers is a sacrilege. But an analysis of this sort reveals patterns hard to notice otherwise. The presence of Urdu is not surprising: on top of being the national language, it dominates the contemporary music industry, as well as most of the repertoire of nationalist songs and classic literature that fuels Coke Studio’s imagination.

Qasamir from Kashmir
Qasamir from Kashmir

This feels different, however, when we notice English was not the choice of a language in a platform that boasts global modernity. Instead, it is Punjabi that, alongside Urdu, consistently appears season after season, present in contemporary pop songs, folk tunes and classical Punjabi literature, as seen in the several renditions of Heer Ranjha throughout the show. The wide presence in Coke Studio Pakistan of a language that has been historically looked down upon even in Punjab itself is something that must be celebrated, as it also is the accomplishment of featuring 17 languages, most of them national, in a commercial platform.

Despite all this beauty, it would be naïve not to see this through the eyes of who is actually paying for all of this. Coca-Cola is a business, and what they want is to sell their product. If Coke Studio Pakistan has lasted over a decade, it is not because of its commitment with ‘the nation,’ but due to its success as a profitable PR strategy. There is no sin in that.

Shamu Bai from Sindh
Shamu Bai from Sindh

This is, however, relevant because the nation portrayed by Coke Studio Pakistan will always look as it is convenient for the company. From this point of view, it makes sense to mostly include content in Urdu and Punjabi: they want as many of us as possible to sing the songs in the shower, to move to their beat, to remember the brand, to buy their drink. I’m not saying this is the only criteria to pick the songs. However, if the Coca-Cola PR department is as involved in the creative part of the show as its directors claimed it to be in several interviews, this might be a good factor to look at.

Also, while I celebrate the dissemination of Urdu and the vindication of Punjabi, I still find the low presence of other languages a bit problematic. The difference between Punjabi and the other main regional languages in Coke Studio Pakistan is brutal, and it definitely does not represent the actual presence of these languages in the country. This also leads to a wider question: Should Coke Studio Pakistan deal with the issues of representation of languages on its platform? And if yes, how so?

While it would be problematic to burden the creative process with quotas, the blatant language imbalance certainly gives us something to think about. You could say Coke Studio Pakistan is a private endeavour, and they get to present whatever they want to, no questions asked. And you would be right. In that case, however, do you still get to call yourself ‘the Sound of the Nation’?

This is the one thing that makes me feel a bit uneasy about all this. We like Coke Studio Pakistan not only because they release good music, but also because they make the country look good to the rest of the world. In that sense, many of us have come to accept that it does represent the nation: it makes us feel global, it makes our traditions look modern, and it makes Pakistan known for something besides religious violence. One should be careful, however, about the implications of leaving the creation of collective citizenship in the hands of a private corporation, which can decide what goes and what doesn’t. More than toward the company, this question is directed to us: how willing are we to outsource the representation of our nation, as hard as it is to do it ourselves? This is probably something that deserves a bit more thought. That, or I’m just making too much fuss about a pretty marketing prop.


Footnotes:

  1. See "The words behind Coke Studio" in Herald, Nov 29 2018.

  2. The sources for this study were the information uploaded in the website of Coke Studio Pakistan, and the document "Coke Studio Pakistan, Seasons 2-10 lyrics and translations" by Zahra Sabri. This includes all the TV episodes and promos. This does not include Coke Studio Pakistan explorer.

  3. Percentages have been rounded for clarity.


Rodrigo Chocano is a Peruvian ethnomusicologist and heritage specialist based in Islamabad. He can be reached at rchocano@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, ICON, August 25th, 2019

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