Ali Zafar with his brother Danyal Zafar
Ali Zafar with his brother Danyal Zafar

The Coke Studio omnibus completes a decade this year. As is the case with all great journeys, the show has gone through its share of ups and downs, musical peaks and jarring lows.

Critics may have qualms about the project having corporatised the artistic process of music-making, awash with the MNC giant Coke’s red-and-black hues, yet, one can’t deny that Coke Studio (CS) has played a pivotal role in providing a platform to the country’s perpetually struggling music industry. And to complete 10 years of an experimental project where other contenders have made forays into the music scene only to fade out is certainly an achievement to be lauded.

CS has churned out music that has persistently won rave reviews and incisive critiques, becoming a topic of heated debates. In all cases it has proved itself to be one of Pakistan’s own musical brand, creating memories and magic.

There’s also no denying that the nation awaits every CS season, enthusiastically applauding the patriotic element it brings in every year on Independence Day with a national song sung by a mix of the year’s selected artists. This year CS will be starting off with a dramatic rendition of the national anthem with the historic Minar-i-Pakistan as its backdrop.

This season’s artists include many of the usual suspects such as Ali Zafar, Ali Sethi, Umair Jaswal, Ali Hamza, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Shafqat Amanat Ali, Humaira Channa, Amanat Ali, Strings, Momina Mustehsan, Ataullah Eesakhelvi, Ahmed Jehanzeb, Quratulain Baloch and Nabeel Shaukat. The show will also feature Aamir Zaki in what was the late guitarist’s last recorded performance. Ironically, last year, the show had Amjad Sabri in its entourage. The singer died shortly before the season began airing.

This year Coke Studio will start off with a dramatic rendition of the national anthem with the historic Minar-i-Pakistan as its backdrop

The music on the show will be the usual mix of original songs and revamped hits but additionally, every episode will pay homage to one music or literary legend: Shafqat Amanat Ali paying tribute to Faiz, Umair Jaswal joining a band of qawwals to remember Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Ali Hamza, Ali Zafar and Strings singing 'Us Rah Par' in memory of Junaid Jamshed, among others. Like Season Nine, different producers will be coming on board including Shaani, Salman Ahmed, Ali Hamza, Strings and Mekaal Hasan.

Ataullah Eesakhelvi with his son Sanwal Eesakhelvi
Ataullah Eesakhelvi with his son Sanwal Eesakhelvi

More significantly, CS in its tenth year is not just primed to honour the country’s musical past but also welcome its future. Debuting on the platform will be a batch of newbies from musical gharanas (schools): Zaw Ali, Sajjad Ali’s daughter, will sing a romantic ballad with her father; Danyal Zafar, Ali Zafar’s younger brother — and uncanny lookalike — will sing with his brother as well as a duet with Momina Mustehsan; Ataullah Eesakhelvi’s son Sanwal Eesakhelvi will be performing a medley with his father; Salman Ahmed’s son Sherjan Ahmed will play the acoustic guitar to his father’s vocals, classical singer Javed Bashir’s brother Akbar Ali will be in the limelight and house band member violinist Javed Iqbal is excited to share the stage with his son Ghulam Muhammed on the cello this year.

Was it a conscious decision by the show’s executive producers Bilal Maqsood and Faisal Kapadia (of Strings) to take on board younger artists from musical families? “We didn’t even realise it until after we had completed the recordings,” says Bilal. “All of these young musicians are actually very good at what they do. It was just by chance that Season 10 will end up featuring so many of them.”

One wonders, though, if these artists would have easy access to a platform as prestigious as CS had it not been for their family connections?

For music aficionados, it may be interesting to observe how the progeny of some of the country’s most popular musicians or their siblings perform. One wonders, though, if these artists would have easy access to a platform as prestigious as CS had it not been for their family connections?

“We have high hopes from all of them. Danyal Zafar, for instance, is a very good singer and we had listened to his demo recording even last year,” he continues. “Sanwal Eesakhelvi is very talented. Akbar Ali is an artist of considerable stature in the classical music genre and he has done a brilliant job. Sajjad Ali had composed a song that required a female vocalist and he suggested that his daughter should sing with him. We listened to her and her voice complements the song very well.”

Sherjan Ahmed
Sherjan Ahmed

Faisal adds, “For Salman Ahmed’s composition, we needed more guitarists and Salman suggested that since Sherjan had already been playing for him at concerts we could take him on board. We heard Sherjan play and decided to go with him.”

Ali Zafar says, “A lot of my zeal for my career comes from the struggles that I have gone through. I feel that the struggle is very important and Danyal needs to experience it in order to move ahead.”

The song that they are singing together is called Julie and it was composed while they were in the kitchen one day. Danyal was strumming the guitar and Ali was singing along. It was to be the lead song for Ali’s new album, but when Coke Studio’s producer Shuja Haider heard it he loved it. Ali says that if Danyal hadn’t been good at what he does, Strings wouldn’t have allowed him on to the platform. But while Ali may believe Danyal is an exceptional singer, songwriter and guitarist, let’s see how the audience feels.

Sajjad Ali has similar faith in his daughter’s singing prowess, recounting how she has always sung in tune. “This is probably one of the rare times that a father and daughter will be singing together,” he says. “She hasn’t formally learnt music, but I do think that singing talent is God-gifted.” Sajjad points out here that he too never received any formal training in singing but he recorded his first album when he was just 11 years old.

Sajjad Ali with his daughter Zaw Ali
Sajjad Ali with his daughter Zaw Ali

Sanwal Eesakhelvi talks about how Bilal Maqsood’s father, writer Anwar Maqsood, heard him sing and he was subsequently encouraged by Bilal. Sanwal also released his debut album Tere Khayal Mein earlier this year. “Coke Studio is exciting for me because my father and I will be singing a mash-up together that has mostly been composed by him with some additions by me.” It mostly comprises folk music but is also inspired by other genres.

Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether CS has truly selected these new artists on the basis of pure merit. The show can be credited for umpteen memorable music hits but at the same time, there have been instances in the past when famous names — certain musically-challenged actresses come to mind — have been questionable additions to the artist entourage, making one question why they were selected at all.

One must also remember that most of music’s young stars have initiated their careers via CS, such as Ali Sethi and Momina Mustehsan. Others like Meesha Shafi, owe some of their biggest hits to the show. Even veterans such as Noori, Ali Zafar, Shafqat Amanat Ali and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan keep returning to the CS stage — no other show in Pakistan wields similar musical clout.

Of course, the world over, artists’ children tend to follow their parents’ professions. A musician’s progeny is likely to grow up with a keen know-how of the industry and the art of music-making. It makes sense that this next generation will sing well, play instruments and have a hold over song composition. Case in point: Shafqat Amanat Ali and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, two of the country’s finest musical talents, continuing on with the tradition oh qawwali and ghazal that has long been part of their families.

But will Coke Studio’s particular batch of second-generation artists deliver? Or will their family associations end up giving them unfair advantage, allowing them to perform on a platform that they do not deserve? We shall listen to their music first before we pass any judgments.

Originally published in Dawn, ICON, July 23rd, 2017