How did your life change in lockdown, I asked the notoriously reclusive Rohail Hyatt. “It didn’t!” he laughs. “At all. People caught up with my way of living!”

We’re at his home and studio in Karachi, which I observe since my last visit pre-Covid has changed considerably. The roof garden, which has been where he has entertained for several years, now resembles a floating rainforest. In contrast to the rest of the house, the walls of the studio are dark but they are lined with instruments and masks — notably two metal elephants on the wall in front of his desk work station — each with their own little spotlight. And of course, there are tiny little plants on the table. Actually, on every table you can find.

Contrasting this dark moody atmosphere, his only windows open on to a large rectangular terrace which is illuminated by natural sunlight in the day and artificial lights mimicking sunlight at night. When the lights turn on you’re confronted by the bright green forest he’s created there. You don’t feel like you’re in a basement at all. Forget basement, with the elephant masks, you don’t feel like you’re even in Pakistan.

This is where the current season of Coke Studio, the iconic music show Rohail created almost 13 years ago, was recorded. Not in a fancy schmancy massive recording studio with a massive crew; it was recorded right here at his home.

“This is season 2020, not season 13. If that doesn’t say everything, I don’t know what does!” laughs Rohail. “It’s actually being called season 2020, it’s not part of the series.” So, it’s not going to be like the previous ones? “Bilkul bhi nahin [Not at all],” he responds.

'Icon' presents an exclusive preview of the upcoming Coke Studio Season 2020, through the words and thoughts of its maestro Rohail Hyatt

“Last season… this season,” he corrects himself with a chuckle, “started very differently. We were going for a multi-producer format when Season 13 was being planned. There were a number of other producers that we’d got on board — Haniya [Aslam] was one of them. It was being planned on a very different scale. We were just a few weeks from final recordings — set, halls had been booked. Everything had been planned, artists had been confirmed. But God has his own plans.”

Seeing how the coronavirus pandemic was spreading across the world and how countries were shutting down, Rohail decided to go into a self-imposed lockdown which, to be frank, wasn’t going to be very different from his regular life, just no more guests. The official lockdown started a few days after. And with everything shut down for months, the Covid-19 SOPs made it virtually impossible to record together. “I don’t know how others did it. I know we couldn’t,” says Rohail, hinting at ‘other’ programmes that have come out now but were also in production back then.

The only way to do the show safely, would be to scale it down. Enormously. “I don’t think the conscience can handle anyone contracting the virus [during the recording], dying or passing it on to others,” says Rohail. They decided to get people to record at their homes. “Which is why, this time, there are no regional artists at all. There are no regional languages either. You’ll find all urban artists only.”

Composed by Saad Arifi | Photography by Kohi Marri
Composed by Saad Arifi | Photography by Kohi Marri

In a short span of time, the artists had to install and learn how to use new recording software on their phone. All of the rehearsals were done remotely. “I had a mobile recording unit that I would’ve sent to everybody’s homes, which they would’ve recorded [their final takes] on and then send forward,” says Rohail.

“It’s all centralised to a server. It’s amazing technology. That’s why it had to be an urban effort.”

For the videos, they had planned for the artists to record themselves using their mobile phones. But the lockdown lifted just in time for them to travel to do just their final takes. “I’ve realised that the artists are a lovely bunch of very resilient, very accommodating people,” says Rohail. “Smaller scale meant smaller everything. They were ready to adapt and churn out work. I saw a lot of heart. It makes you realise maybe Coke Studio has given something to people and this is their moment to turn around and say, of course, we’ll do anything for the show.”

How does it feel having scaled down? “Very humbling,” he laughs. “Because last year, the set was the biggest it could’ve ever have gotten. I had never worked on a set that big. This is literally the size of a toenail of that set. But, at the end of the day, if you can’t adapt, you die. You have to reinvent yourself.”

Season 2020 of Coke Studio has 12 songs, 12 artists, half of which are male and half female. Four of the 12 will be making their debut in the mainstream. “Four experimental artists, four established,” adds Rohail. “The scale is smaller. Everything is live. But it is real. That’s the soul of CS. It can’t be lip synced.”

And all of the songs featured this season are originals. There is not a single cover song. Thank God for that, I say.

The line-up includes the likes of returning artists Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Meesha Shafi, Sanam Marvi, Ali Noor, Fariha Parvez, Bohemia and Umair Jaswal, along with relative newbies such as Mehdi Maloof, Ali Parvez, Wajiha Naqvi, Sehar Gul Khan, Aizaz Sohail and Zara Madani — the latter Rohail first worked with back in 2006-2007 on the soundtrack of Khuda Ke Liye.

Other changes include adding more eastern instrumentation to the ‘house’ band. “This year, in every song, there is a standard feature of a rabab and a sitar player,” he relates. “The same way people think that without a guitar player there is no band, I want people to think there is no band without a sitar player. But you have to play differently for that. You can’t play lead then. It’s accompaniment with others. And they adapted to that.”

The ‘house’ band also includes foreign musicians, most notably a drummer from Turkey called Volkan who Rohail first wanted to work with back in Season Six. “He’s a leading drummer in Turkey and plays in one of their top bands,” says Rohail. There are also darbuka players from Lebanon and “some artists from Nepal as well,” adds Rohail.

But the biggest surprise of all is that Rohail himself is playing this season. “I’ve done all of the acoustic guitars,” he says. Why hadn’t be played before? “Because I can only do one thing at a time,” he responds. “I love playing guitars. It’s my first passion. Asad [Ahmed] has done all of the electric. I’ve done all of the acoustic. But I’m not on video.”

Do you ever plan to come in front of the camera as a musician? “I would love but yeh record hi nahin kartay mujhay [these guys never record me]!” he laughs. “We never have time for the ‘lesser important’ artists,” he adds, laughing even louder.

Be honest, is it because you just don’t want to go through hair and make-up, I ask. “I don’t know,” responds Rohail. “I feel very awkward in front of the camera. I don’t think my hands would even move.”

Do you sometimes feel the weight of peoples’ expectations? My question is met with thoughtful silence.

I know one way of dealing with that, I start, “… is by not dealing with it!” he finishes. “One thing I stopped doing a while back was that I stopped being worried about it. People will have expectations. I’m more worried about the artists. Especially the new ones. I just hope their careers get a good launch. That’s a very big responsibility.

“For me, the important thing is whether I was able to experiment enough. I can’t even begin to tell you that Rahat’s song that we’re doing… is in the 10-beat but a different one, it’s not a local jhup taal, there is an Arab influenced beat, and then within that, the inner cycles are mantra-esque. Basically, it’s an amalgamation of 50,000 things. But people will just hear the song and simply say ‘Hmmm, achha hai, achha nahin hai [Hmmm, it’s good, it’s not good].’ And that’s fine.

“But for me, being able to craft something that’s from so many cultures so that when they hear it they can identify with it is important. And they did, the darbuka players from Lebanon. I love that inter-dimensional aspect that music can actually do. The same when it goes to Nepal for the ‘chin chin’.”

On Rahat’s song? “I’m just saying. Waisay hi har ganay pe koi ting tong ting tong ho hi rahi hai [Anyway, there’s some ting tong ting tong on every song],” he laughs as he plays the song, called Dil Tarpe, for me. It’s true, it’s atmospheric in places and almost sounds like a Middle-Eastern version of — not sure what to call this — experiment on a qawwali. It’s the kind of song that people will either love or love to hate.

“Another thing I made ‘weird’ was that ek thumri mein Ali Noor ko gawa diya [I made Ali Noor sing a thumri],” he says. “This is in Raag Des [very similar to Raag Khamaj] and trying to stay true to it took a lot of figuring out, the chord-ination etc.” The song is called Jaag Rahi and it starts off with a soft acoustic guitar intro with Fariha Parvez’s voice, soothing and melodious in a song that evokes an old world haveli-esque charm. It’s a slow ballad, accentuated with the sound of delicate ankle bells.

Ali Noor comes on in the interlude, his voice although familiar from the almost two decades we’ve been listening to it, presents itself in a new way, at first in a deep baritone, setting layers before rising up. There is a vulnerability in his voice.

“Umair [Jaswal] is doing a very different kind of song,” introduces Rohail as he plays the file. “He had just returned from visiting shrines [for his travel documentary series that came out this year] and I told him let’s make a dhamaal-esque song.” That became Har Funn Maula.

This particular song is worlds apart from the frivolous nonsense Umair Jaswal has just released via Velo Sound Station. In this Coke Studio song, Umair has shed his ‘rockstar’ persona and channelled the same vibe that he had in his achingly beautiful and soulful original track, Rabba, which he released earlier this year. Sanam Marvi has collaborated with him on this one. They sing in a manner that is raw and unfiltered. And they are perfectly matched.

How did you get them to experiment this way? “They were both very natural,” says Rohail. “Of course, you want to push boundaries, but Umair was very much in the zone to do a dhamaal type track. We’ve all evolved but Umair has definitely come of age. He’s picking up on the world around him — getting excited, in wonderment. Definitely an evolution and all in the right direction. Post-Covid sab mein change hai [everyone’s experienced change]. It’s shaken everyone to the core.”

At this point I’ve heard several songs from this year’s season and it feels like people are breaking the moulds they’ve set for themselves, and how we’ve known them, as artists.

One song Rohail is especially proud of is Na Tuteya Ve, the song that’s meant to open this season. It’s a collaboration of all of the female singers on the show this time round and speaks about the toll of micro-aggressions that women, especially working women, have to face every day and how there is strength in vulnerability. The song has been written by Asim Raza.

“It was supposed to be a part of season 13,” relates Rohail. “The original composition is by Shuja Haider. Back then it was Ke dil mera tut da ve [My heart keeps breaking]. We changed it to Na tuteya ve [Won’t break],” he laughs. “Meesha was supposed to sing it initially but I felt the voice needed to be collective. That’s just how it evolved. I just thought we could maybe leave it hard hitting. Who better than Meesha to hit hard with?” he says alluding to a Punjabi rap Meesha does in the middle of the song.

Are you nervous? I ask him. “No, I’m very proud,” he responds.

Is there life after Coke Studio? “There was life before and during it,” says Rohail. “But I wonder if there’s life away from music.”

Is there? I ask. “I don’t know,” he responds, furrowing his brow. “I don’t know if I’d even want that. As long as I’m doing music I feel I’m close to what my true purpose is — to mess with music. Even when I’m travelling, I’m thinking about the sounds I encounter.”

It’s got him thinking about what he would love to do next. “I want to come up with a world music record and just churn out music,” says Rohail. “This doesn’t mean just subcontinental music but done in our way or our style. I’m really excited about that — to travel and mess with music.”

Unleashing Rohail Hyatt into the world to experiment with its sounds far and beyond doesn’t sound bad at all.

Published in Dawn, ICON, November 29th, 2020

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