I get to the main door and pause. Do I go downstairs, in the basement, where the studio is or upstairs where the living area is? I’m meeting Rohail Hyatt, the (original) producer of Coke Studio, the day after the last episode of season 12 came out. I’m surprised he’s agreed to an interview so quickly. Has he even had time to decompress?
“The roof,” responds a member of the household staff. Inside, even before you begin making your way up, you can see plants, mostly vines, trailing their way down the stairs. Upstairs, the space is filling gradually with knick knacks, treasures that Rohail has collected from around Pakistan and the world, including masks seen on previous CS sets, leading all the way to the top of the house.
The roof is a little oasis in this concrete city. A green space with its own flora existing peacefully. It started off with placing a table, couple of chairs and some plants in one section and gradually, the whole rooftop was taken over until it’s now become an outdoor living space complete with its own sitting room, dining area, resting space and bathroom.
Up here, you’re removed from the chaos of city life. It’s oddly peaceful. As the sun fades into twilight, little twinkling lights turn on the roof. He’s built this space very meticulously, section by section. Rohail is notorious for rarely stepping out in public and it’s not just because he gets mobbed by people that recognise his distinctive light chestnut brown hair and firangi features. I can understand why he would spend most of his time here.
Huge expectations were attached to the return of Coke Studio’s original producer, after a hiatus of six years. Some felt the latest season did not live up to them. In his first exclusive interview, the revered music producer talks about what he was hoping to accomplish and why he thinks a lot more still needs to be done
Although Rohail has always exuded calm even in the face of chaos, it’s usually his eyes and forehead that give away how he’s actually feeling — in more stressful scenarios, his forehead might be slightly furrowed, hazel-coloured eyes wide or narrow depending on the situation, shooting little darts of fire. But now, he comes across as oddly peaceful — it feels like he’s returned from meditation rather than someone who’s just wrapped up a whole season of music.
It’s been 12 years since he first started Coke Studio and, outwardly, time has taken its toll. While his hair has always been a shade of very light brown, now the beard is downright blonde and there are streaks of blonde on his head. It’s the sun, he laughs.
You’re coming back to Coke Studio after six years, I say to him. “Has it been that long?” responds Rohail in surprise, settling on a couch with a shawl. Karachi evenings are getting cooler.
Yes. Were you expecting that phone call asking you to return? “No,” he says. “They came earlier as well, but this time it was a very different circumstance — it was like they would pull the plug on the show if I didn’t [return].”
Was he ready for it? I’ve been observing Rohail for over a decade and work on each season would consume him completely — his every waking moment is spent on it. “As has this last one,” he says. “But that’s just a quirk in my personality. That’s with anything I do. It’s my strength and my weakness.”
Did it get too much when he left CS the last time six years ago? “Uff yeah. Definitely. I don’t think anyone should be in a position where they have to do six seasons in a row!” he laughs.
“You get saturated,” he confesses. “You start questioning why you were doing this in the first place? We were always contemplating options [for other producers]. We’re still contemplating options. Producers, please send in your resumes!”
But Rohail is of the opinion that it shouldn’t be that one producer takes over only after the other leaves, “I would love for some producer energies to join and we work together before it’s handed over to them.”
What was it like putting the show together again after all this time? “It was very different from the first six experiences because of where we I’d been in the last five years,” Rohail says. “I was very clueless as to what the reaction was going to be. I’m clueless even now!” he laughs. “I was overwhelmed by all the love and warm wishes people poured on my return and for the season. This certainly makes the effort on the project worthwhile. It was very touching.”
I worked with Rohail as a producer in season one (only). Back then, he was coming out of relative self-imposed obscurity and several young artists I spoke to either had a vague idea or didn’t know who he was. I can’t imagine it’s something he’s confronted with now. “I wouldn’t know — I don’t receive those calls!” he laughs. “If I did, there’d be a problem. I’d be like, ‘Rohail? Rohail kaun hai? [Who is Rohail?]’”
How did he decide what the line-up was going to be? Because when the list came out the feeling was that it’s… “Safe,” he chuckles. “Yeh ‘safe’ kya hota hai? [What does ‘safe’ mean?]” Familiar, people you have featured before, I elaborate. “I think it was a mix of both,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s safe but I wanted to stick to people who are professional musicians and singers. That’s their primary line of work. I’m not saying actors or actresses can’t come in the future but let’s re-establish the show’s connection with music, holistically.”
Back in the day, during the show’s origins, I remember Rohail feeling very strongly that this show was supposed to promote Pakistan’s folk, classical and indigenous music by marrying it to more popular or mainstream music. It seemed revolutionary at the time, but it’s been a decade since then, more shows have come out, and I think it’s safe to say that now we are more aware of our indigenous music and enjoy it.
Has he ever felt there needs to be a change in format? “Change, in a show like this… unless you say we’ve explored as much as needed to be done and now we know who we are, what our heritage is…” he starts. “And for anyone that suggests that, ek moun pe patakhay jaisa thappar parta hai [you get slapped hard across the face]. Because even now, we know nothing. Seriously. Should the format change before the job is done? I don’t think the job is done.”
Perhaps take the audience to where the artists are from? “I wouldn’t be interested in fragmenting,” he says firmly. “This is not a travelogue where the music is done separately. That can be a part of it, but the core Coke Studio is all about a meeting place. You meet there and go to wherever you came from. What’s left behind is what you share with the world. The core aspect of the format shouldn’t be changed.”
One gets the impression that, this time round, the show wasn’t as popular in media circles as it has been previously. But when one went online, each video would have hundreds of thousands to millions of views, with comments from around the world.
“That transcending power of music is very endearing,” he says. “Our roots, come from many places. I was told the first song was trending in eight different countries. In the UAE, it was trending at number one. I’m sure it’s mostly through Pakistanis and Indians everywhere but it transcends that. That’s a wonderful sign of its growth — that is love spreading.”
As far as losing popularity in media circles, Rohail relates his experience with the Vital Signs. “In the beginning we were ‘niche’,” he says. “We were ‘cool’ and immediately accepted in elitist circles. That lasted about a year and a half.” Until they were sponsored by a major soft drink brand. “The moment we became awami, they [the elite] ditched us. But we started doing more concerts — National Stadium ke level ke concerts [concerts at the level of the National Stadium].
“What Coke Studio might have lost over the years, it gained in the masses. Coolness returns as well — it depends on what kind of song you’re doing.”
There have also been accusations of the show appropriating different cultures. The most prominent has been the backlash against the Sindhi classic, Tiri Pawanda, in the last episode by the all-female Punjabi group, Harsakhiyan. The arrangement and the vocal tones of the group are very promising but the issue is that they aren’t pronouncing the words correctly, they don’t have the right linguistic rhythm and, as a result, the song lacks gravitas.
“If a Persian singer sings Nusrat’s [Fateh Ali Khan] song, as a tribute, we’ll find his Urdu a bit weird,” responds Rohail. “But you’re missing the whole point — he’s making an effort to sing in your language. That’s what you appreciate — the heart behind it. Atif is singing in Balochi as well in Mubarik Mubarik. He’s not Baloch. His words will not have perfect pronunciation. He’s harmonising with Baloch culture and reaching out to them.
“The argument swings both ways. It shouldn’t mean that now we don’t need Sindhi [artists] since Punjabis can sing in Sindhi!’” he laughs. “That would be very shameful.”
The show also fell into some copyright issues this time round. Several songs from the season, including Saiyaan and Billo were taken off YouTube, due to alleged copyright infringement. This has never happened before.
“It has. But not to this scale,” explains Rohail. “Take the example of Billo. A lot of people said Rohail didn’t do his work right, what kind of leadership is this, that Billo came off, or there were strikes on the other songs. It gives the impression that we were careless and didn’t do our [due diligence].”
But according to him, they did. They confirmed with the artists, signed agreements, ran IPO searches and confirmed ownerships. “The rights for Wohi Khuda Hai are with a UK company that pinged on the IPO searches,” says Rohail. “Apparently Nusrat signed off all his rights to them. They said you’re welcome to launch the song, just put our name as publisher. We’ll collect our royalties from wherever — your Spotify etc. Case closed. They didn’t strike us [on YouTube]. They’re earning money off the song.
“But when we did Billo’s due diligence, the claimant who struck on Billo wasn’t pinging anywhere,” he relates. “The claimant did not pop up on the IPO searches, and Abrar ul Haq signed a licensing document with us for Billo that asserted his complete ownership of Billo. However, since the claimant had Billo on their YouTube channel they automatically have strike power. When the strike happened, we checked in with the artist and he completely negated the claim and said this was fraudulent. The claimants, when we reach out to them, say they have documentation to prove their claim.
“How do we protect ourselves from this situation where all due diligence was completed but a claimant takes down the video nonetheless? We are open to clearing licenses from any rights-holder but, in this case, YouTube was used to negotiate instead of an amicable negotiation.” Rohail is understandably frustrated.
But he’s choosing to use this as an opportunity to gear up and prepare for the next season.
When do you begin working on that? “We already have!” he laughs. But it’s only been one day since the last episode came out! “I know,” he confirms while adding that they’re open to receiving music portfolios from anyone who is interested, from any part of the country. He won’t confirm if they’ve narrowed down any artists or music. But for Rohail, anything is possible.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, December 8th, 2019