Coke Studio by Bilal Tanweer

in better with tablas| homistan

CM04This essay originally appeared in Critical Muslim Vol. 4 (Hurst & Co. London: 2012. eds. Ziauddin Sardar, Robin Yassin-Kassab).

Coke Studio - Season 5 - Episode 1 (1)

There are no billboards on the streets. For the last four years, a week or so before the new season of Coke Studio is launched, most of the important billboards in major Pakistani cities are taken up by snazzy advertisements announcing the featured artists of the season. It’s the biggest annual ad campaign for any TV program and this is Season 5. It’s being touted by many to be the mother of all seasons, mainly on the basis of a wildly circulating promotional video of Episode 1 of the new season. The first artist on the promo video is a rapper: Bohemia. The video shows him in a hoodie and dark glasses, slamming out a rap number in Punjabi. ‘This is an opportunity for me to tell you what rap is—it’s poetry, it’s a message,’ he says in a close-up shot of his 3-second interview. The video cuts back to the song. By his side are the Viccaji sisters – Zoe and Rachel – who do backing vocals and harmonies but they appear to be in a more prominent role for this number.[sepoy notes: Bohemia was featured on CM a long time before “Coke Studio”]

The clip is followed by Hadiqa Kiyani, among Pakistan’s leading female vocalists, singing what sounds like the hard rock version of an AR Rahman’s composition. She is singing the Sufi poetry of Bulleh Shah. She’s followed by Atif Aslam, arguably Pakistan’s biggest rock star, also a sensation in India for the last four years. He has teamed up with ‘Qayaas’, an underground band, to do a version of a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan qawwali. The last singer on the promo is of Humayun Khan’s who is singing Larsha Pekhawar Ta, a popular Pushto folk song.

The absence of billboards is unexpected. For the last three years or so, Coke Studio is the soft drink brand’s main marketing strategy in the country. In fact, the entire marketing campaign of Coca Cola Pakistan is designed around Coke Studio: artists featured in the program are on Coke bottles, cans, television adverts, newspapers, television, radio and billboards. But there is no visual clue of it this year. Maybe it is a scaling back by the soft drink company. But the other interesting thing I notice is that on Coke Studio’s Season 5 website there is no ‘About’ tab either – meaning nothing to introduce a newcomer to Coke Studio. Taken together, these could mean a number of things, but they unmistakably do mean that no one needs to be told What Coke Studio Is and What It Does; and second, nobody needs reminding that Coke Studio will start airing on May 13. It’s common knowledge.

In other words, if there is a confirmation of Coke Studio’s status as a cultural behemoth in Pakistan, this is it.

Music Channel Charts (MCC), 1990

Coke Studio is a world apart from Music Channel Charts, the programme I grew up on, and where I first encountered rap.

lot_aao The song was called “Bhangra Rap”, a mix of Punjabi bhangra with rap. The lyrics were a smooth and unselfconscious mix of Urdu, Punjabi and English. The song was sung by a young man, Fakhr-e Alam, who in the music video sported a huge locket with a Peace sign and danced some serious moves in his baggy, torn-knee jeans. My younger brother and I loved Fakhr-e Alam and his music and everything about him. We had memorized “Bhagra Rap” by heart and sung it in chorus with friends.

Growing up in the nineties, our entertainment options were limited to street cricket and two TV channels – a private one and a state-owned one. The transmission time for both channels were around eight to twelve hours a day and almost everyone we knew had memorized the entire week’s TV schedule. MCC aired on the private TV channel, NTM (later renamed STN), and featured young men (all of them men, except for a handful of female vocalists in a few scattered exceptions) who looked like creatures from another planet compared to everything else on TV: They had unsuitably long hair, wore chains around their necks, jeans that were either tight or torn and their music was loud and brash. These boys made my middle-class parents deeply uncomfortable, for, they projected an image which was perhaps my parents’ very worst nightmare. For them, these boys were of an age where they should’ve been worrying about jobs and earning a livelihood. Instead they were running after girls on their bikes and making sounds in the name of music that positively punished my parents’ sensibilities.

My brother and I, on the other hand, loved everything about this programme. It was decidedly different in its energy, sound and look from everything else we had seen on TV. It lacked polish but we hardly cared. Almost all the videos were cheaply recorded and produced at home by amateurs. The videos were all shot around predictable locations like garages and apartment rooftops and the Karachi beach makes an obligatory appearance in most of them. Not surprisingly, most of them were shot during the day too (lighting/studio services being too expensive).

My mother would sit and monitor us as we watched the show. When we got too excited (which happened often when our favourite band/number was ascending the charts), she would disapprovingly start pointing out everything that was wild and uncivilized: ‘Look at the way this boy is jumping. Baboon. Look what he’s wearing. I bet he got that from the flea market.’ The jibe that stung most: ‘Look how this boy is aping the firangis (westerners); seems like he’s smelled some white man’s knickers.’ We had little choice but to ignore her taunts and focus squarely on the music.

MCC was a ground breaker. Its competitive format drew legions of followers and encouraged hundreds of young men to make their own music videos. Despite its limited production values, MCC was an astounding success. During the four years it ran, MCC introduced many young musicians who went on to define Pakistani pop music: Ali Haider, Nadeem Jafri, Fakhr-e-Alam, Saleem Javed, Amir Zaki, Strings, Junoon, Amir Saleem, Bunny, Khalid Anum and many others. MCC also redefined the way the Pakistani urban youth imagined themselves. One of its major bands, ‘Vital Signs’, became a major force on the pop scene in Pakistan.
MCC disappeared almost as suddenly as it had appeared. As cable television penetrated Pakistani cities, local television lost viewership and the audience switched to MTV, Channel V and Bollywood music in a big way. MCC closed shop in 1994. By then, Pakistan already had a nascent but confident pop music scene, a maturing concert circuit and sponsors willing to foot the bill.

Coke Studio, 2012
A lot has changed in Pakistan since. The country has become polarized along ethnicity, religion and class. The contradictions and ideological confusions of the nation are also reflected on the pop scene. One of the country’s biggest pop star, Junaid Jamshed of ‘Vital Signs’, abandoned music, embraced the life of a religious preacher of the evangelical Tableeghi Jamat, grew an absurdly long beard and established his own a fashion label. Ali Azmat, ex-vocalist of the most successful Pakistani rock band, ‘Junoon’, became a conspiracy theorist who blames ‘Western and Hindu Zionists’ for all the ills of the country, holds the US responsible for funding terrorism in Pakistan, prophesizes that Pakistan will transform in the near future into the military bastion of all the Islamic countries, and idolizes the Pakistani military as God’s gift to the Muslim world. Then there is Najam Shiraz who made his debut on MCC, and who now sings moving na’ats (religious devotion songs) alongside his standard pop output.

There are a number of soft and hard, red and white revolutionary bands. One band, ‘Laal’ (literally, Red) espouses Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist ideology and sings revolutionary poets like Habib Jalib. There are others like Shehzad Roy and Strings, who sing of economic prosperity, law and security, and education for all and wish to see a culturally liberal and economically viable Pakistan, integrated in the world economy. In other words, Pakistan’s cultural imagination is as fractured both vertically across classes and horizontally across ethnicity and ideology as the nation itself. There seem to be few instances where art could transcend these rigid boundaries.

Coke Studio emerged, as a clear attempt to bridge the cultural fragmentation of Pakistan, against this background. The first episode of the first season was aired on 8 June 2008. Broadcast on a number of television channels, with Video and MP3 files available for immediate download from its official channel on YouTube, it received instant critical and popular acclaim. The show’s accent was firmly on bringing tradition and modernity together in a new synthesis. It made a conscious and sustained effort to work out a way to engage with the traditional folk music of the Subcontinent using the vocabulary of Western music, which is more accessible and familiar to the younger audience. Through Coke Studio many folk musicians and their work has been introduced to a new generation and allowed them to access a deep and rich cultural heritage that was withering on the margins.

The young filmmaker and blogger Ahmer Naqvi was swept off his feet when he first saw Coke Studio. ‘We all grew up as Junoonis and Vital Signs fans. There was little else that was available culturally to us as young Pakistanis’, he says. He, and countless young men and women of his generation, grew up with only a vague sense of the traditional music of their region. ‘Coke Studio grabbed us because it was an amalgamation of things that were already present in our subconscious and all around us, but we never really paid attention to them,’ says Safieh Shah, who wrote a detailed comment on every Coke Studio episode in the last season in The Friday Times. ‘Coke Studio not only brought all those things together but did it in a way that was accessible to us’. Aamer Ahmad, who was the recording engineer on Season 2, the season where Coke Studio found its feet and gained popularity as the cutting-edge of Pakistani music, concurs. ‘Coke Studio provides people a platform where they can come to talk, chill, relax. It’s like when you put a dhol wala, a drummer, and a guitar player in a room and they automatically make music. Because that’s what they do’.

Rohail Hyatt
Rohail-hayat-PHOTO-rizwanul-haq-640x480

To understand Coke Studio we need to appreciate Rohail Hyatt, the producer and the driving force behind the show. Hyatt was a founding member, producer, song writer, guitarist and keyboardist of Vital Signs. The band was formed in 1986 and exploded onto the Pakistani music scene with “Dil Dil Pakistan“, one of the most popular songs the music history of Pakistan. It became, and continues to be, the pop national anthem of the country. In a 2003 BBC poll of the ten most famous songs of all time, “Dil Dil Pakistan” ranked third. Vital Signs also scored two important firsts in Pakistani pop history: they were the first local band to land a major sponsorship deal (Pepsi) and the first to tour the United States. The band also did a number of cross-country tours, a rare achievement. Vital Signs broke up in 1998. Rohail joined the advertising industry until he returned to music with Coke Studio ten years later.

Hyatt is a naturally shy person whose dislike for interviews is well-known. Not surprisingly, he did not respond to my multiple requests for an interview. However, in an interview for Dawn, he stated that when he stumbled into classical music a year before Coke Studio, ‘I was pretty blown away by the fact that here I was, a musician all my life, and I had no idea about a treasure of an art form that we had and it was so different from the western music that we had grown up with’. He felt that ‘we as a people needed to experience our heritage, so this stems from one small experience into discovery’. Hyatt, says Haniya of the singing duo Zeb & Haniya, ‘has very distinct likes and dislikes. His aesthetic met the traditional music of Pakistan—and something clicked’.

In Coke Studio, Hyatt focussed on two specifics: a. production quality, and b. freedom for the artists to experiment without commercial pressures, ‘Right from its inception’, says Louis Jerry Pinto, who is better known as Gumby and is considered to be Pakistan’s finest drummer, we wanted to ‘have better production values and quality sound’. The high productions values are there to be seen. Indeed, television advertisements and a few music videos aside, one has not seen a television production of such visual quality and sophistication on local TV channels.

Gumby, who has been a core member of the Coke Studio house band from the first season, says that the producers decided to be flexible in both approach and outcome. ‘We said to each other to let’s keep it open-ended and let’s not give it a label’. Pakistani artists have frequently complained about commercial pressures, which have stalled their creativity. Hyatt has spoken about this himself. ‘As an artist’, he told Dawn, ‘I know during the times of Vital Signs… every time we wanted to do what we really wanted to do, there was somebody telling us that “no one is going to listen to this”. It always used to be a really weird thing to give in to – my creative expression [to corporate sponsors or record labels]’.

The artists who have performed on Coke Studio wax lyrical about the creative freedom it provides. The ‘beauty’ of Coke Studio, says Tina Sani, a renowned ghazal singer who performed to great acclaim in Season 4, ‘is Rohail’s openness. Nobody was thinking of the commercial aspect or the audience. Rohail only suggests and you as the artist have the free-hand.’ Quite a contrast with the commercial TV channels that dominate the airwaves now where ratings dictate everything, Sani says. Muazzam, one half of the Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwal Group, concurs. ‘One thing we appreciated about Coke Studio is its environment,’ he says. The duo belongs to the Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s qawwal gharana (extended family), and their rendition of the traditional qawwali, “Nayna de Aakhay” was one of the big hits of Season 3. ‘It works because people at Coke Studio understand music. No matter who you are, you are dealt with on your own terms. You are not bound in any way or forced to think in a certain way. This kind of respect boosts the artist’s confidence. We have collaborated many times internationally and have also toured around the world. But this is the best collaborative experience we’ve ever had’, says Muazzam.

‘We had a lot of freedom in choosing our songs and even the arrangements,’ says Haniya. ‘It is a very collaborative process. You can be as involved or uninvolved as you like.’ The degree of involvement depends on the artist. But it seems that those who are able to harness the qualities of the Coke Studio house band flourish the most. Big bands tend not to do too well in Coke Studio. The major hits have come when individual artists have paired up to exploit the genius and the quality of the Coke Studio house band which comprises some of the best musicians in Pakistan.

The process that Coke Studio follows in making its music was outlined in a video released at the end of Season 4. It describes the production process of a qawwali which was one of the highlights of the season. It starts with the invited artists doing a raw recording of the song they wish to perform. A number of other steps follow where the percussionists work out the rhythm structure and align it with the Western rhythm structure. Once the rhythms and beats are agreed, the house band gets involved and finds ways to retain the core improvisational aspect of Eastern music and works out a structure that could allow the two to function together. Finally, everyone rehearses together to produce the finished song.

While Coke Studio pays remuneration to artists, the immediate financial gains for appearing on the show are limited. But it does offer something that promises bigger financial rewards: exposure. Artists who do well on Coke Studio gain a global audience for their work. ‘Coke Studio has put us on the map,’ says Zeb of Zeb & Haniya. ‘We went to France and were surprised to find people singing our songs.’ Zeb & Haniya broke onto the Pakistani music scene in 2008 with their album, “Chup” – an instant hit. But their rise to international stardom came after they performed on Coke Studio in 2009. In India especially, where Coke Studio has a huge following, Zeb & Haniya performed extensively and went on to collaborate with Indian artists.

Global exposure is life blood for Pakistani artists. Making a viable living from local royalties has never been an option for musicians in the country. Indeed, many folk singers live in abject poverty. The celebrated Zarsanga, 65, who is considered the Queen of Pashto folk music, was forced to live in a tent on the roadside in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province after her house was washed away in the 2010 floods. Even mainstream singers such as the celebrated Mahdi Hassan, known as ‘King of Ghazals’, faces hardship to pay for his medical care. Part of the problem is the rampant piracy that undermines the royalties of the artists. According to an artist interview, in the 1980s, an estimated 30 copies were pirated for every original cassette sold in the local market. Twenty five years on, with the digitization of music and the advent of Internet, the entire business model of record labels has been comprehensively defeated in Pakistan. Even concert performances, which were the most significant source of income left for the artists, have suffered a serious setback in the deteriorating security situation. Now the few concerts that happen, happen indoors.

Coke Studio provides international exposure and serves as the flag-bearer of the enigmatic and creative side of Pakistan. ‘I see Coke Studio as a platform. A big platform for the artists, especially for those who are not in the mainstream’, says Muazzam. Coke studio also helps with engagements in the local circuits. Salman Albert, a guitarist for the rock band Entity Paradigm, says ‘exposure to the Western and Indian market is definitely there but even locally, after Coke Studio one gets many more concerts.’

But not everyone agrees that an appearance on Coke Studio would automatically lead to financial rewards. ‘Coke Studio has not enabled any artist to make money off music, and it does little other than providing fame, which helps them get more concerts’, says Fasi Zaka, broadcaster and respected long-time commentator on the Pakistani cultural scene. ‘TV has always done that for the artists. But that doesn’t mean it is bad. I think Coke Studio remains a great experiment in Pakistani music – mining folk influences and bringing a contemporary touch to it.’

Zaka and the noted cultural critic Nadeem Farooq Paracha have been staunch critics of corporate sponsorship in music. ‘The problem with corporate money has been that it influences in directing the output of the artist’, says Zaka explaining his stance. ‘So socially conscious artists would have to water down their artistic output because of corporate money involved and because corporations do not wish to be associated with anything political. For example, Shehzad Roy after his single “Laga Reh”, suffered because no sponsor wanted to touch him due to the overtly political nature of his song.’ However, both Zaka and Paracha have now changed their views.

For Paracha the reason lies in the rise of militant Islam. ‘I have revised my earlier position because frankly speaking I wonder if we have the luxury now. The radicalization in our society has increased and nothing much is happening on the cultural front. It would be all right to criticize Coke Studio as a corporate brand game if we were an open society. To criticize Coke Studio in the present situation would be nihilistic.’ Zaka has other reasons. ‘For the music in Pakistan now, corporate money is an essential input. All the revenue streams for artists have dried up and the market isn’t promoting these artists or their music. Also, with the digitization of music, corporations affecting the output of socially conscious artists have become a minor issue. Artists who have something political to say can still say it’.

The artists themselves vigorously support corporate patronage. Gumby, who has been in the industry for over fifteen years, feels strongly. ‘To critics who say it is commercial, I ask: What’s your point? Everyone is commercial. If corporate sponsorship did not exist in this country there would be no music. Coke is getting brand value for this money. And over the last few years, one has seen the conservative thinking in the corporate world also change and now one sees a certain level of sincerity in their efforts too: they are genuinely interested in promoting music.’

But would Coke sponsor something that does not have the potential to be so popular, for the sake of music? ‘If some people believe that Coke is doing it for the music, that just tells you how good a spin they have managed to put on it,’ argues Zaka. ‘But ultimately, we have to judge the net effect – it’s good. If their aim is to sell their product, they could also do it by buying a lot of air time and running 30-second advertisements. But if they are doing something that also benefits culture and music, then it is good.’

Coke Studio is indeed good: it is good for Pakistani music, good for our cultural heritage, good for musicians, and ultimately good for audience – music lovers all over the world. It is something, says Aamer Ahmad, ‘that we as a culture should have done sixty years ago. We should be doing it on a much larger scale, our government should be doing it’. When Coke Studio first appeared on the scene, the music industry was in the doldrums and all the music channels were losing money. ‘It’s not like they weren’t spending: they were pouring enormous amounts of money into making jingles’, says Ahmer Naqvi, who worked on Pakistan’s first English TV Channel, Dawn TV.

Future of Coke Studio?
There is a broad consensus amongst the Pakistani musicians that Coke Studio has indeed become a benchmark of quality. Music production in the country will now be judged in relation to Coke Studio. But there is also an unmistakable feeling that it has become repetitive and predictable. ‘There was more creativity in the first two seasons’, says Salman Albert. ‘Now all songs have the same sound. Every song should have its own sound, music arrangement should be varied. New players should be introduced for each song. They have to do something radically new now to stay at the top’. Gumby agrees: ‘it has become predictable and people have started taking it for granted. But Rohail has a certain sound and sensibility and I have no problems with it. For me, the first two seasons were more open-ended and by the fourth season we did not have much creative input’. Perhaps this is why Gumby does not take part in Season 5; he has left for other projects providing a space for new producers to bring a fresh perspective. Tina Sani echoes similar sentiments. ‘Yes, it has become somewhat formulaic and a pattern seems to be followed. But there is no problem with it. We shouldn’t be too pushy. What Coke Studio should avoid doing is chasing its own tail. Focus on making newer things. We should all encourage it.’

Such self-reflection and criticism is a good sign. Perhaps the most promising development is that Coke Studio has spurred other ideas on similar lines. Because of the unprecedented success of Coke Studio corporate sponsors now are keen to support more ventures that promote quality music. One example is Uth Records (‘Uth’ is pronounced ‘Youth’) which is sponsored by Ufone, a national mobile phone company. It is a reality show where aspiring musicians, irrespective of age and background, who have not yet released an album, are paired with industry professionals to produce a single. The show, produced by Gumby, just completed Season 2 and has received over 4,000 submissions by young musicians all over the country.

Even for artists not in music, Coke Studio serves as an inspiration. ‘As a filmmaker, it has given me the belief that somebody like me can do something new and challenging,’ says Ahmer Naqvi. ‘It has also given me confidence in the audience too. If I do something that is sophisticated, the audience is going to come up to it.’

If we judge the cultural scene in Pakistan on its own terms, the distance it has travelled from 20 years ago is heartening—given that the political instability has persisted and the country has spent every year firefighting a different sort of wildfire. The experiment called Coke Studio much like Pakistan itself continues to chart an unpredictable course forward.

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