It is hard to define Pakistani culture. The moment you start developing arguments to describe linguistic, sartorial, artistic and culinary dissimilarities between Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, you will invariably stumble upon elements that connect the three in more ways than one.
Aren’t Barray Ghulam Ali Khan and Roshan Ara Begum a shared musical heritage of the subcontinent? And it’s a good thing. So there has been a lingering question of identity, which has nothing to do with identity politics, which has never found a credible answer in the post-independence cultural environment of Pakistan.
In 2008, Coke Studio surprised everyone, pleasantly one might add, with its ingenuity and its uninhibited approach to conjuring up a creative atmosphere that allowed musicians to further explore what was already theirs. In doing so, it went on to define Pakistani music as essentially unique and unencumbered by the happy burden of tradition. This was an organic phenomenon.
To begin with, the induction of Rohail Hyatt was an intelligent move made by those who came up with the idea for the Studio (it could be Rohail himself, one doesn’t know).
Many believe he had a major part to play in pop band Vital Signs’ phenomenal success primarily because of his excellent composition skills and the ability to create melodies that had Western instrumental influences but eastern or, let’s say, the subcontinent’s melody structures. This meant the best of both worlds: contemporary pop tunes rooted in Pakistan’s land.
Even the criticism of the Studio’s current season shows that expectations continue to be sky high with the show that has all but defined new Pakistani music
Many of Vital Signs’ songs, such as Saanwli Saloni, are a testimony to this observation, where lyrics and vocals smacked of eastern sensibilities but with chord progressions, riffs and percussions that had a 20th century European flavour.
Rohail had grabbed the opportunity with both hands because he knew he was the one who could make Coke Studio a modern-day wonder without losing sight of conventional Pakistani music. However, in the initial couple of editions, the emphasis was more on showcasing pop bands to get the ‘live’ music feel in order for the younger audience to get hooked.
But what kind of pop bands? Strings and Atif Aslam.
This was an important juncture. Strings were a group that used synthesisers and a light, pop-ish mood with lyrics that were innately ‘literary’ in their phraseology. For example, ‘Sar kiye yeh pahaarr, daryaon ki gehraiyon mein tujhe dhoonda hai.’
Similarly, when Atif first sang for the Studio he meshed the groovy track Jalpari with a delectable Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan number Tu mera dil. This was an experiment that Rohail seemed to enjoy and excel in. A star, known as Coke Studio, was born.
It didn’t take much for the show to get attention and traction across the border in India and in those parts of the world where expatriate Pakistanis and Indians lived in huge numbers. India had been making great film music for decades. Pakistan, film-wise, was equally good up until the late 1970s when Ziaul Haq’s vision was imposed on the country and the film industry was reduced to a factory of shabbily-made movies, mostly in Punjabi.
Now, a couple of decades later, Pakistan was making music which was being noticed not just because it was top-notch but also because it was distinctly unique in its form and presentation.
It didn’t take much for the show to get attention and traction across the border in India and in those parts of the world where expatriate Pakistanis and Indians lived in huge numbers.
Coke Studio influenced shows in India participated in by the country’s top most musicians and composers. But none could enjoy the magic of their Pakistani progenitor.
Here’s a tiny evidence of the Pakistani show’s popularity. In 2016, in one of the sessions at the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF), Indian comedian Sanjay Rajoura, when pushed to respond to a question about Kashmir, said: “Kashmir le lo, Coke Studio de do [Take Kashmir, give us Coke Studio].”
After six or seven years of its inception, as always happens with any product, the standard of the programme began to drop a bit. Rohail left the show and the reins of the show were given to Bilal Maqsood and Faisal Kapadia (of Strings). They did a fine job, but they were not the initiators of the idea and Rohail’s was a hard act to follow.
Voices of concern were raised that the quality of the songs being produced was no more worth writing home about. Strings did a few seasons and left, followed by Ali Hamza and Zohaib Kazi taking over for a year.
And now Rohail is back in the saddle.
The show is again in the spotlight. The moment Atif Aslam’s version of a hamd — originally presented by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan — went on air, people began to talk about it. Many loved it. Some didn’t. But check out how many views it has had so far on YouTube, and you’ll know ‘what just happened’. In terms of a purely musical yardstick, it is easily Atif Aslam’s best live performance.
The first episode of Season 12 was appreciated. And the second had Abrarul Haq sing his famous Billo with the kind of the ‘feeling’ that’s the hallmark of Coke Studio. Then came the groovy Saiyaan by Shuja Haider and Rachel Viccaji.
There have been duds as well. But if there’s criticism, you know it’s because the expectations continue to be sky high from Coke Studio and from Rohail. There’s few things on Pakistan’s cultural scene that still matter like that to people.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, December 1st, 2019