Nine years down the line, Coke Studio still enthralls. It traverses music’s vast landscape while humming melodies that are new and yet reminiscent of traditions that flow deep in our veins, it dips and dives into different genres, lauds existing stars and creates new ones. A tall, cool, enticing cocktail, it crackles, sizzles, rejuvenates, dilates smoothly and every now and then, simmers to a saccharine inanity.
Helmed by Rohail Hyatt and carried forth by Strings, the music at CS has always been strong. And yet, the show’s extensive montage boasts unforgettable hits as well as the very forgettable. Perhaps this is unavoidable. As the country’s most established, most coveted platform for music, the show delivers a vast smorgasbord every season and it is bound to plummet to lows and then, happily bounce back with stellar highs.
And it is undeniable that no matter what, everyone pauses when they see that all-red stage on their TV screen. They listen and declare their favourites for the season and perhaps, their not-so-favourite songs. That’s the magic of the Studio.
The difficult task of handling the pressures, high expectations and a multitude of egos that inevitably accompany a starry entourage falls upon Strings. Luckily, Bilal Maqsood and Faisal Kapadia have a mutual understanding honed by working together for 27 years, a love for music and a knack for diplomacy that allows them to steer the show onwards.
This year, with their third CS endeavour, they are reinventing the show’s format. Six ‘guest’ producers have taken charge of one episode each, while Strings fine-tune and tweak as executive producers: Noori, Faakhir, Shiraz Uppal, Jaffer Zaidi, Shani Arshad and Shuja Haider.
With some of fashion’s best mixed with hopefully, music’s best, Coke Studio Season 9 may just have us all-ears — and eyes!
In an exclusive conversation with Images on Sunday, Bilal Maqsood and Faisal Kapadia talk about the ‘whys’ and ‘why nots’ behind the new format, this year’s performers and the controversies that inevitably tend to follow them.
Images: Let’s start with the question on everyone’s mind: why the new format?
Bilal: From the very outset, when we came on board in Season 7, this had been our vision. Up till then, it had been one person, Rohail Hyatt’s journey. We now wanted to transform it into a collective dream. We were working on something as special as Coke Studio and we couldn’t be so selfish that we kept it all to ourselves.
We took our initial steps in S7 when we brought in external musicians aside from the house band. Season 8 was an extension of this. With Season 9, Coke was initially against taking on external producers because they thought that they already had the perfect formula and didn’t want any changes. But we insisted.
Faisal: We’ve been working in this industry for so long now and we have collaborated with virtually everybody. We knew precisely who had the talent and experience to step onto this platform. Some were mainstream musicians while others, like Shuja and Shani, are the veritable backbone of the industry and yet, many people don’t know them. They were the first people that came to our minds when short-listing producers.
Images: So the new format was not planned as a response to the occasional criticism that the show was veering towards repetition? Or the fact that last year’s biggest hit, Atif Aslam’s rendition of Tajdar-i-Haram, was produced by Shiraz Uppal?
Faisal: No, we had always planned to take on external producers. And we don’t feel that CS has become repetitive. Our focus has always been on evolving constantly and we have sought to seek out and highlight talent that may not have previously been on the mass audience’s radar. With S7, we brought in artists like Aamir Zaki, Niazi Brothers, Raees Khan and Abbas Ali Khan. Ali Sethi’s career has taken off after his CS performances. We introduced film music and shaadi music into the framework. This time, we’ve got an extensive range of debutantes on board; among them, actors Mehwish Hayat and Mohsin Abbas Haider, Naseebo Lal and Momina Mustehsen. Plus, we’re dabbling with new producers.
Images: Why wasn’t Shiraz’s name in the credits for Tajdar-i-Haram in S8?
Bilal: Atif Aslam never told us that it was produced by Shiraz. People come to us with all sorts of demos; some are just audio notes or a song recorded on their cell phone, and others are proper studio recordings. Atif Aslam’s demo for 'Tajdar-i-Haram' was 70 per cent complete when he brought it to us. We were initially hesitant about including the qawwali because it was slightly sensitive territory, but then we decided to make a splash with it in the very first episode.
You can barely see us in the behind-the-scenes imagery of the song because there was very little work to be done on it. If Atif had taken Shiraz’s name back then, we would have certainly included it. Instead, he chose to announce it much later and by then, we couldn’t do anything.
Images: Atif Aslam has also publicly said that he was asked to be part of the current season but refused because he didn’t want to do more of the same...
Faisal: Atif couldn’t have refused us because we never really formally asked him to be part of Season 9. As a courtesy, and since we have a great working relationship with him, we told him that if he wanted to do a song with us, we were open to the idea. Even we knew that ideally he shouldn’t feature in this year’s ensemble because he was such a significant part of the show last year.
Images: Does it feel bad, though, when your colleagues criticise the show — or you guys — publicly in print?
Bilal: We wouldn’t be human if it didn’t feel bad ….
Faisal: Then I guess I am less human than Bilal! For the longest time, we were just handling our own band, bringing in our songs and if we would be criticised, it would be for our work. Now, though, we are sitting on a stage that belongs to the whole nation and everyone feels that they have the right to say anything about it. I understand that.
Images: Coming back to S9, was it difficult working alongside six different music-makers while retaining the Studio’s identity?
Bilal: It was interesting. Everyone had a different sound and it was our job to tweak it and mold it into the CS space. We have developed a system over the past two years and we had to guide them through it.
Faisal: We also contributed with what we had learnt so far; what will work, what won’t, what is too experimental and what kind of experimentation is just right. There was really no point when things got too tricky and we felt that we couldn’t do it anymore.
Images: So no egos were hurt, even though you had the final word on what did or did not work?
Bilal: No, we all worked with open minds. Strings has this policy that we never say no to anything outright. It thwarts the energy at work and makes things uncomfortable.
Faisal: (laughs) We just try to go about it diplomatically.
Images: Are you going to continue with this format in the next few seasons?
Bilal: No, we’re going to go back to the original format next year.
Images: You have also tried to shake things up with your song list, featuring more original songs than revamped classics. Considering that CS’s most popular songs have always been new-age renditions of popular classics, why take the risk?
Faisal: Even last year, half our songs were new. The show defines Pakistan’s music industry and it is important that we don’t just live in the past but also move forward, introducing new genres and sounds. How else would the industry grow?
Bilal: This time, 70 per cent of our songs are new. It is risky but it also brings a new flavour to the show. Sometimes, people don’t know what they like until you tell it to them and we have faith that they’ll enjoy the new music. And then, in Season 10, we’ll revert to the original concept of reinventing old hits.
Images: Who wrote the original songs and music and short-listed the performers for them?
Faisal: The producers wrote the songs and then we mutually decided on the artists who could perform them.
Bilal: Shiraz has brought in quite a few new people. He had some very set ideas about who he wanted to sing the songs.
Images: Does the house-band change for each producer?
Faisal: Most of the producers have stuck to the original in-house band. Shiraz Uppal brought in additional musicians for his songs, and Noori played the guitar and bass guitar themselves and also changed the drummer.
Images: Rizwan Butt, who had hitherto performed in Nescafe Basement, is also performing in S9. So you’re open to taking on artists associated with other, somewhat similar, shows?
Bilal: We don’t have any problem with it at all. Momina Mustehsen had also performed earlier in Nescafe Basement and last year, we featured Mulazim Hussain and Nabeel Shaukat, both from Sur Kshetra. In fact, we even asked Xulfi (the producer of Nescafe Basement) to be one of our guest producers, but I guess he couldn’t do it.
Images: Another unconventional addition to your artist ensemble is Shilpa Rao from India. How did that come about?
Faisal: Shilpa isn’t the first Indian to perform for us. Last year, Mekaal Hasan band insisted on bringing in Sharmistha Chatterjee to sing their songs. It was something we complied with although our priority is always to highlight Pakistani singers.
Bilal: Similarly, this time, Noori wanted Shilpa to sing for them because they wanted a particular sound for their song. Again, we resisted but then eventually agreed. She does add a lot of value to the song.
Images: Six different producers with disparate demands and opinions … did it make you insecure allowing them access to a platform that has been taken forward by you over the past two years?
Bilal: We have been around for too many years now; we don’t feel insecure.
Faisal: Bringing in new people was the need of the hour. It’s going to shake things up and keep audiences riveted. It is our job to assess what works and to make changes accordingly.
And honestly, with or without us, Coke Studio identifies Pakistan’s pop industry. We don’t just own it; the whole nation does.
Originally published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 3rd, 2016