Prepare for a U-turn in your perception of Pakistan: your thoughts and assumptions about this challenged country and its musical traditions will never be the same! Fusion in diversity rules and is embraced in a true musical respect by people of all ranks, creeds, and genders.
Ever heard age old eclectic Sufi ghazals (poems) sung in the heartfelt vocals of a sexy lady singer of intriguing stature, or watched one of Pakistan´s most popular male pop stars proudly perform in traditional Balochi attire next to the vocalist of one of Pakistan’s most renowned progressive rock bands? Now you might think “Uh – sexy? What about the Taliban? And rock, you said? Does Pakistan actually have rock bands?” Well, just sit back and enjoy the ride, ehm, read!
Note: please click on the icon left of the starry/flowery icon in the black pane underneath the clips to turn on English subtitles.
A fresh new sound has emerged from Pakistan’s caleidoscopic music scene over the past years. It reached a wider audience thanks to social media. I still recall my first encounter with Coke Studio (CS), somewhere in 2010. Conducting research to finish my research master Islamic Studies (Leiden University, The Netherlands) with a thesis on the role of music in the mysticism of the Indian Muslim mystic, musician, poet and philosopher hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927), I was reading my way into the discourse on age-old Indian classical music and the intrinsically related field of (often interreligious) Sufi music when I searched online for a particular song of Pakistan’s treasured and internationally most famous female international exponent of qawwali music (a popular Sufi genre in the Indian subcontinent at large), Abida Parveen. In the process I stumbled upon various YouTube clips featuring Abida Parveen in a setting I had never seen her perform in before: in a flashy studio, her vocals sounding slick, the whole thing stunningly produced. One of these songs, ‘Soz-e-Ishq’, gripped me straight away and got me hooked to CS ever since.
The Coke Studio concept was born out of the marketing and branding strategies of the Coca-Cola Company and first employed in cooperation with MTV Brazil in 2007. Picked up in 2008 by Coca-Cola Company Pakistan and Rohail Hyatt (in 1986 a founding member of ‘Vital Signs’, said to be Pakistan’s first commercially successful and acclaimed pop-rock band), its first season turned out to be a major success. Generally blending Indian classical music styles and spirited regional folk traditionals with contemporary Western genres like pop, rock and (light) metal, the show presented tantalising joint performances of both famous Pakistani singers and musicians, and those unknown to the public at large, in a studio, initially in front of an audience. When the presence of an audience proved to disturb the intended recordings too much, the concept was adjusted to capture these live performances without audiences. Moreover, a ‘house band’ of superb quality was installed with which the guest artists jam their hearts out ever since –though each performance has been preceded by months of careful preparation, communication, and stage rehearsal.
“The letter alif of Allah is a jasmine flower”
One of the most popular performances of CS has almost reached an unmatched 14 million views on YouTube: ‘Alif Allah chambey di booty’, meaning “The letter alif of God’s name is a jasmine flower”. This song can be considered exemplary for its interreligious devotional content and its particular contemporary rendition by the renowned Punjabi singer and musician Arif Lohar and hot Pakistani lady singer Meesha Shafi. The latter is a model, dancer, and actress with a university degree in the arts. The song is dedicated to jugni, an age-old theme in Punjabi Sufi writings designating the “spirit of life”. The same word is also employed as a narrative style in both spiritual and worldly Sufi poetry, made famous by Lohar’s father. Attentive CS fans know the first verse of this song from another song in the entirely different style of the young but already acclaimed female Sufi singer Sanam Marvi.
Aiming to ride the wave of CS’s success by further franchising the concept, MTV India and Coca-Cola India sought cooperation in 2011: they created Coke Studio @MTV (CS@MTV), but dramatically failed at their first attempt. It took six producers to create a different, successful format, even though the ’feel’ of the show (still) does not meet that of CS. My personal CS@MTV favourite is the rocking rendition of the old and famous qawwali song ‘Allah hoo’ by the Nooran Sisters, which some know as performed by the internationally acclaimed late Pakistani qawwali legend Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. And guess what? Not only India attempted to pick up the grain of commerce; the Middle East also got its share by means of Coke Studio bi-l 3Arabi.
When I watched more and more clips of CS performances, I noticed my fascination for the appearance of some female singers performing at CS. With the exception of Abida Parveen and the Pashtun cousin-duo Zeb and Haniya, other singers such as Hadiqa Kiani, Sanam Marvi and Meesha Shafi all appeared alternatively or fashionably styled behind the mic, being carefully made-up, wearing nail coat, and often quite explicit jewelry, whereas behind-the-scenes recordings show the beautiful natural appearance of these ladies. Unlike what one might expect from Pakistan, none of them appeared with a headscarf. Apparently I too had fallen prey to the general misconceptions and prejudices about the public appearance of Pakistani women prevalent in Western mainstream media, which usually stress extremist parties´ restricting orthodox Islamic views.
Whereas these singers musically flow within the Sufi-pop fusion mainstream, a special place at CS was occupied by Zeb and Haniya; they sang in the not very often performed Farsi language as well. Their delicate song ‘Paimona’ is a nice example; based on Omar Khayyam’s poetry it also showcases the Central Asian string instrument rubab. Realising that the music broadcasted by CS sounds rather foreign to ears trained to appreciate Western music, I invite you to take a closer look to the slow ‘Dasht-e-Tanhai´ (known from Iqbal Bano) by the above-mentioned Meesha Shafi: her version reminds me of Procul Harum’s ‘A whiter shade of pale’ after the introduction of the song.
Don’t be fooled by genres or appearance
Anyone who thinks that the nationally heralded members of progressive Pakistani (pop) rock bands frequenting the CS scene simply stick to their particular genre while performing with others will be surprised. Treat yourself to the serene ‘Khamaaj’ of Shafqat Amanat Ali (a classically-trained singer and member of the rock band Fuzön) or to the tranquil ‘Hor vi neevan ho’ of Noori’s front men. And what to think of ‘Ik aarzu’ by the guys of Jal, who blended this pop song with traditional Sufi verse? Similarly, is it worldly or godly love expressed in the laid-back poppy rock song ‘Mahi´ by parttime CS drummer Farhad Humayun, the lead singer of the band Overload? Most song lyrics encountered in translation appear to be of this multi-layered nature.
An epic performance of CS’s last season (5) which likely will continue to attract lovers of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (and old Sufi poetry in general) is that of two hallmarks of the contemporary Pakistani pop rock scene, idol Atif Aslam (who co-founded the above-mentioned Jal as a matter of fact, prior to going his own way) and Umair Jaswal of the popular band Qayaas.
CS6: foreign influences
Be it for the fusion feel of the contemporary Pakistani pop culture or the age-old poetry of the Punjabi mystic, poet and philosopher Bulleh Shah (1680-1757) as for instance featuring in Hadiqa Kiani’s rendition of ‘Kamlee’ (‘Crazy’), anyone interested in contemporary Pakistan’s music culture should stay tuned to CS through Vimeo, their immensely popular YouTube channel or Facebook page. CS fans worldwide are eagerly looking forward to the first episode of season 6, which will officially air October 20. The ‘Making of CS6’ broadcasted October 13 revealed that the concept of the studio setup has changed. Moreover, expect fresh foreign influences from Morocco, Italy, Serbia, Turkey and Nepal! During season 6 eight episodes featuring three songs (so some 24 to 25 songs in total) will be broadcasted each Sunday, with a two week break around Muharram. The latter designates the Muslim New Year, commemorating the hijra or migration of the prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina. In 2013, it is celebrated on November 5.
Though CS6 will continue to showcase intriguing musical meetings and presents many an uplifting and inspiring song, it is good to remember CS also presents songs which offer food for more serious thought. A haunting song of CS3 sung by the respected singer Tina Sani featuring Arieb Azhar deserves a final mention here. Sani sings the timeless poetry of the late Marxist poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984). Written during the regime of Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s, its perhaps surprising mystic leanings echo the universal human quest for meaning in trying times. If Coke Studio succeeded in bringing people on the Indian subcontinent together through music, may this song console and inspire those souls out there who are actively struggling for human rights and freedom up till present day.
The following solo artists participate in CS6: Abrar ul-Haq, Alamgir, Ali Azmat, Asad Abbas, Atif Aslam, Ayesha Omar, Muazzam Ali Khan, Rostam Mirlashari, Rustam Fateh Ali Khan, Saieen Zahoor, Sanam Marvi, Sumru Ağiryürüyen, Umair Jaswal, Fariha Pervez, Umair Jaswal, Zara Madani, Zeb & Haniya and Zoe Viccaji, one of Coke Studio’s backing vocalists.
This post is also available in: Dutch