(Published in Kafila.org, on August 31, 2012, retrieved from http://kafila.org/2012/08/31/coke-studio-pakistan-at-a-crossroads-nandini-krishnan/)
Khabaram raseedah imshab kih nigaar khaahi aamad
The words are beautiful; the voices that sing them mellifluous. And yet, I find that instead of being overwhelmed as I usually am by the qawwali of Farees Ayaz and Abu Muhammad, enraptured by the transcendental waves of their music, parts of my consciousness are held down, niggled. Perhaps it’s the constant drumming and strumming, perhaps it’s the psychedelic sound waves zipping across giant screens, perhaps it’s the acoustics that throw back bits of the singers’ strains at them. But the Coke Studio version of Khabaram Raseedah doesn’t affect me the way even scratchy recordings of live, open-air concerts do.
Well, let me make full disclosure here, thus allowing people who’re already frowning to skip right over to the ‘Comments’ section – I’m one of those purists. Actually, let’s face it, we’re classical chauvinists. My idea of fusion is jugalbandhi, you know, the kind where Bhimsen Joshi and Balamurali Krishna would dart alaaps and swaras at each other. So, I began as a sceptic, wrinkling my nose at the spangled headphones, neon outlines and cardboard cut-outs of Coke bottles. But, at one point, Coke Studio was beginning to win me over. After watching Duur from Season 1, where Hussain Bakhsh Gullo was accompanied by Strings, and the mix felt just right, I’d begun to, as a friend puts it, “hope that the people who read Chetan Bhagat will eventually graduate to Kafka.”
Fans of fusion often feel the need to defend themselves. The usual argument is that “the younger generation”, raised on rock music and Western instruments, can be channelled into looking into their own musical heritage, so that folk music and Hindustani classical and indigenous instruments may be stoked back into life, so that they may reach a larger audience. And then, of course, there is the more appealing, less pedantic argument – that there is space for both modern and traditional music, and that it tests the creativity of exponents of both forms when they’re asked to jam.
To me, the tragedy of Coke Studio is what started out as a conversation between two genres of music has got so wrapped up in itself that it has sold out to its image. It is the cool, ‘in’ thing, the trend-setter in the subcontinent. The noble cause it stood for, the lofty ideal of bringing everyone together, breaking barriers of genre, religion, nationality, and to some extent, language, is laudable. And there is no doubt Coke Studio has achieved this ‘bringing together’ of people.
What I find disappointing, though, is that instead of pushing further in search of the not-yet-popular, Coke Studio has begun to corporatise. It has chosen to sex itself up by turning to the likes of Meesha Shafi, Rachel Viccaji and Komal Rizvi – actresses and models whose bodily gyrations win more approval than their vocal acrobatics, who are clearly more comfortable on the ramp than in the studio.
However, they’ve established a fan base that may be responsible for the corporatisation of Coke Studio – and that this is what matters to the programme was obvious from the fact that the fifth season finale was Meesha Shafi’s frequently off-key version of the Iqbal Bano-Faiz classic Dasht-e-Tanhai. The song is a difficult one even for good singers to attempt – the magic of Iqbal Bano’s music lay not only in her voice and style, but the special quality of plaintiveness that would highlight what the words conveyed. Though I was initially baffled as to why Meesha Shafi had chosen such a challenging song, it strikes me as a clever decision now – with the music camouflaging most of her errors in the latter part of the song, it has served to elevate her status as a singer among the public.
One can’t deny that there have been some brilliant renditions of popular songs, and lovely poetry too, in Coke Studio. The likes of Abida Parveen, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Asif Hussain Samraat, Tina Sani and Javed Bashir adapt quite masterfully to the instruments around them, controlling the music and knowing just how much to give the microphones. There have been some incredibly memorable performances, including Arif Lohar’s Mirza Sahibaan from Season 3, and the programme can boast of discoveries like Sanam Marvi, who largely owes her popularity to Coke Studio.
But there are many among the classical musicians and folk singers who are confused by all the new sounds, whose virtuosity is lost in a profusion of beats that their music doesn’t really lend itself to. At times, Coke Studio seems to forget that not every song is made for throaty gasps, high-pitched harmonies, hoarse trail-offs and westernised vowel intonations from backup singers; that one can jam with traditional instruments too, as was done so hauntingly in the case of Moomal Rano by Fakir Juman Shah and his group.
With a dedicated audience, Coke Studio can afford to be bold enough to throw in the odd song which is pure classical, or unadulterated folk. Saieen Zahoor, Akhtar Chanal Zahri, the Chakwal group, Attaullah Khan Esakhelvi, Ustad Naseer-ud-din Saami and the many qawwals who have been featured in Coke Studio sing songs meant for the great outdoors, songs that ought not to be limited by space. Their instruments are muted, just enough to keep time and provide the slightest accompaniment. The Coke Studio performances of these artists have worked best when the accompanists have chosen to exercise restraint, so that the delicate twirls of their syllables weren’t lost in instrumental fervour.
And that’s also why Coke Studio needs to be more careful about picking the combinations of groups and singers who can perform together. To bring Ali Zafar and Tufail Ahmed together is begging for disaster. Performers like Ali Zafar, Zeb and Haniya, Bilal Khan and Noori may be popular with the public, but it takes musicians of the calibre of Atif Aslam, Shafqat Amanat Ali and Strings to hold their own against the doyens of the traditional forms.
It must be acknowledged that, with its excellent sound systems and talented instrumentalists, Coke Studio has often pushed the better musicians to excel. Atif Aslam’s rendition of Dholna is quite unforgettable, as is Shafqat Amanat Ali’s Kuchch Ajab Khel Karatar Ke. And often, the more average performers have made me either seek out, or go back to, the original versions of the songs they pick.
But there is the more dangerous trend of people feeling pushed to come up with something magnificent, and getting “inspired” by iconic bands or songs. One example is ADP’s Sultanat, the guitar riffs of which reminded me immediately of Running Wild’sThe Ghost. Another is Karavan’s Kaisay Mumkin Hai, which seemed rather heavily influenced by Led Zeppelin and Kiss. Then, there have been rather awful covers of Aicha, I’m a Believer, and Billie Jean (the last was, admittedly, improvised).
There are times when I feel the artists –some of them, at least – on Coke Studio are better than the programme. But the show itself, the brainchild of Rohail Hyatt, could well be history-in-the-making in the musical discourse of the subcontinent. It has caught the public’s imagination and has the potential to dig out little known talent and catapult it to fame. There have been interpretations of music that I have gone back to several times over the years. And I probably spend less time shaking my head at modern interpretations of Rabindra Sangeet that look beyond the tabla and harmonium, and of Carnatic that go beyond the mrigandam, flute, violin and veena, thanks to this show broadening my perceptions of what music can be.
However, Coke Studio may have arrived at a juncture where it needs to re-evaluate itself, and figure out which way it wants to go – higher TRPs, or better music. And if it is not to lose sight of the purpose it has claimed to be standing up for, we all know what the choice should be.