Recording with Ariana and Amrina in Kalash — All photos by Insiya Syed
Recording with Ariana and Amrina in Kalash — All photos by Insiya Syed

In celebration of its decade-long journey, Coke Studio's new producers Ali Hamza and Zohaib Kazi are revisiting the hit music show's roots and orchestrating a season that promotes the bridging of barriers through music.

According to Kazi, Season 11 will put an emphasis on “storytelling” by expanding into a separate segment with regional musicians titled Coke Studio Explorer.

Does that mean we'll see more original compositions as opposed to covers?

“We prioritised the authenticity and truthfulness of expression and it didn’t matter if it came to us through covers, qawwalis or originals,” shared Hamza.

Kazi chipped in, “Our job is to facilitate and curate artists, give them the freedom to go and explore. At the end of the day, it’s a collaborative platform and the coming together of a lot of people. It’s a live performance captured in a single-take for us to work on and for that, the vibe matters the most. Considering that, we tried to keep it as original as possible.”

In conversation with Images, days before they launch the platform’s newest endeavour Coke Studio Explorer, Hamza and Kazi dig deep into all that they have to offer as the new producers:

Images: You've taken over Coke Studio (CS) after a decade of its running. How do you see your responsibility as its producers this season?

Ali Hamza: I think that's the right word – responsibility. The kind of influence that this platform has and the emotional connect the audience have with it, I think it does translate onto a huge responsibility on our shoulders.

It’s a space where we can influence perceptions, our sense of identity and simply, pride about being a Pakistani.

Zohaib Kazi: Even before we started speaking to Coca Cola in depth about how to go forward [as producers of season 11], the two of us were sitting in a park on a bench, and we knew that it wasn’t going to be just another gig.

We've seen so much divide in the backdrop of the elections this year. So as we talked generally, about life and people and Pakistan, we realised ours truly is a position of influence.

This is one of those opportunities where you’re given a project that has massive reach, acknowledgment and respect from the people. It’s important for us and we keep reminding ourselves to view this position prudently, and internally, we decided to approach this season as fans. Behind every decision went long discussions because we’re aware of how this needs to be dealt with a lot of responsibility.

Coke Studio Season 11 is being helmed by Ali Hamza and Zohaib Kazi who've never collaborated professionally before — Photo by Insiya Syed
Coke Studio Season 11 is being helmed by Ali Hamza and Zohaib Kazi who've never collaborated professionally before — Photo by Insiya Syed

Images: This season, you’ve also introduced an extension to the show called Coke Studio Explorer where you’ve recorded unknown artists from rural towns and villages. Tell us a little about how this new spin-off came into being?

Hamza: What we’ve done through Explorer, what immediately one notices is the visual relief. For so many years you’ve seen production in a studio only and suddenly, we’ve gone to these places. We’ve visited Chitral, the mountains, the deserts; we’ve gone to the fields in villages. To bring that visual and in a manner that it’s celebratory will hopefully generate some feeling of happiness and sense of pride about seeing how much diversity Pakistan has.

We saw it very philosophically and I think it was important for us to take it to these places because the sun speaks of hope. I think it was important for us to appreciate light. It would have been very easy for us to fly these people down to the studio, but the night’s gone and the sun has risen. And after the season ends, there will be night again and next year, when we have Coke Studio Explorer, the sun will shine again. It’s coming together of a day; we view it as a cycle.

Related: Why do we depend only on Coke Studio to bring us new talent?

Zohaib: We felt that CS had to spread its wings and throw a larger net across the country, to not just attract the urban pool, but the rural pool as well. At the end of the day, the regions and its people collectively make Pakistan. It was important for us to explore this vision in depth.

Also CS has gone through the hate and the 300 million views. After 10 years, you’re supposed to be in a role of influence, it’s beyond likes and hits. It’s about procuring wisdom and information and disseminating it further amongst people. It’s about exploring the unexplored, the not-so-noticed.

We’ve gone to Kalash and found these amazing young Kalashi singers who have great exposure despite very weak satellite and no internet at all. There was this one girl called Farsi Gul we met, who changed her name to Ariana inspired by Ariana Grande! It’s that drive that in this day and age, people are connecting world-over, and to capture and share their motivation, their resilience and drive is more inspiring to us now than what we say around us here in cities.

Vishnu and Shamu Bai will be featured from Sindh in Coke Studio Explorer — Photo by Insiya Syed
Vishnu and Shamu Bai will be featured from Sindh in Coke Studio Explorer — Photo by Insiya Syed

Images: Both of you are are well-known as musicians/producers in specific genres. However, CS caters to quite a diverse audience. Is it a challenge to produce music that's say, out of your comfort zone or you may not be fond of?

Hamza: My earlier involvement with CS was as a musician, a songwriter-singer. Not that I’ve not been exposed to the production side of things, but getting accustomed to the scale and pace with which this project has been executed is massive.

Coming to the audience part of it, I feel the whole point of a platform like CS is that there’s a variety and as we were exploring or looking into how we’re going to approach it, we found a common ground with the idea that there has to be diversity of performers.

I think the focus was and is Pakistan; it has many facets to it and we wanted to explore that. As broadly as we could, we’ve addressed the likes of listeners, but obviously, the two of us do come with our own likes and dislikes in music, and they define what our take on CS is as producers, but keeping in mind there’s a much bigger audience to connect with. What Zohaib and I connected on spontaneously was our belief in true intent behind everything we did.

Also read: I always felt Coke Studio needed more variety, says Shuja Haider

Zohaib: Honestly, I was 24 when I joined CS. I’ve kind of grown up in this environment alone. Of course, when you’re doing something on your own, for instance when you come out with an album like Ismail Ka Urdu Sheher, it is a thought one has at that time and it’s nothing like the other one, Fanoos.

When it came down to CS, at least for me, it’s more like second-nature, I think it came naturally to me. It’s a very comfortable space for me.

Also I feel there’s this misconception that exists about producers at CS that we’re required to produce the music alone. In reality, there are four divisions, there’s the audio, where the sound is created, there’s video, which is the directorial aspect of it, and then there’s the technical and managerial aspects as well. You have to look into all of it to be able to communicate with the artist and get the best output out of them; they work in parallel.

The Coke Studio audience will welcome the visual relief of the Explorer segment — Photo by Insiya Syed
The Coke Studio audience will welcome the visual relief of the Explorer segment — Photo by Insiya Syed

Images: Both you come from different musical backgrounds. How do you think you were able to find common ground?

Hamza: The first conversation we had, like Zohaib said, was at a park. We had barely interacted before this, we’d just come across one another socially, but when we sat down, we realised that while we have had different musical journeys, we had a lot in common when it came to our visions.

Both of us believe the end of expression is an end to the artist because any art form acts like a container that starts building feelings.

Zohaib: I think before anything at all, a human-connect is essential. Communication is the key and we’d speak for hours, and not only amongst ourselves, but everyone who’s a part of this system to make them understand where we are trying to hit the notes. It’s a part of our DNA and to achieve all of that is relatively easier when you’ve connected at a very basic level; only will a genuine expression be able to connect and satisfy and that’s where we had no confusion whatsoever and that drove our partnership.

"In Kalash, we found these amazing young singers who had great exposure despite very weak satellite and no internet at all. There was this one girl called Farsi Gul who changed her name to Ariana inspired by Ariana Grande!" — Zohaib Kazi on Coke Studio Explorer

Images: CS’s previous seasons have been called out for corporatisation, exploitation, etc. Was there something that now, as producers, you wanted to change about the platform?

Hamza: We’ve learned a lot from both the producers’ [Rohail Hyatt, Strings] tenures. Both had their positives, but by the end, we know there’s always going to be margin for more. We didn’t look at it as individuals, but across 10 years of CS rather than the journey of Rohail Hayat or Strings. We were very clear that we weren’t going to put our journeys into it either, but focus objectively on the platform after this decade.

Read on: The exploitation in Pakistan's music industry is really appalling, says Zeb Bangash

Zohaib: We’re not in a position to comment on what happened, but even on Coca Cola’s front, there’s a brand new team, so the energy is very different. They’ve also been thinking like musicians and artists themselves, and that’s a relief. Even putting a risky combination like me and Hamza, two people who haven’t ever worked together before this, speaks a lot about what their aspirations are from this year.

They’re (Coca Cola) big fans of CS. It’s not that they want to control the entity, they also feel very responsible and it’s good for things to keep changing. You have learning and you apply that; decisions being made today aren’t etched in stone forever.

CS does have this legacy and it’ll go on. Something that we’ve both very conscious about is quantum-physics and karma; we feel those are the actual drivers of one’s journey. Broadly, we definitely acknowledge the years they’ve put in, but our prerogative is to do whatever we do with the right intent. We’re not concerned with what the competitor’s doing; we’re just going to give our 110% into something that we hope moves the nation.

Images: Hamza, your band Noori hasn’t officially disbanded, but Ali Noor and you have been working on independent projects for a while now. What is the future for Noori?

Hamza: We’ve had multiple hiatuses over the years; we’ve come out with three albums in 15 years with several breaks. We were very clear with what we wanted. Today, Ali Noor and I want to spread out and explore more.

For Zohaib and I to come together for Coke Studio is a new precedent in the music fraternity as an integration across genres. For me, Noori was never a band; it was more of a pursuit.

Our relationship and pursuits go beyond music because we’ve had that multi-dimensional influence from our Nana. I think CS is the next step for me, but we do still have a lot of conversations going on and we share our notes with one another.