Friday, October 08, 2010

on coke studio

This is the full draft of a story I wrote about Coke Studio for Open Magazine last month; a version of it appeared here. My thanks to many fellow bloggers and Tweeters who helped with it, including Ahmer Naqvi, Ahsan Butt, Manan Ahmed, Omar Bilal Akhtar, and Venkat Ananth, from whose tweets I first learned of the show.


In the call-and-response flow of abuse that makes up the majority of comments on that bedrock of the Internet, YouTube, few battles are more depressing and vacuous than the long-running flamewar between Indian and Pakistani users. The shared popular culture and social history of the two countries covers vast quantities of desi-generated content – films, cricket highlights, news shows, Atif Aslam superhits – that find their way, only sometimes legitimately, on to the video sharing site. These videos go on to form the incidental background to the sort of foam-flecked rage, expressed in a multitude of – also shared – languages, that approximates the level of discourse usually achieved at a Shiv Sena block party.

But in this seemingly endless deadlock of trolls, a d├ętente is achieved in the comment threads under the videos of one particular phenomenon. Against the spectacularly-viewed and keenly-discussed music of the Karachi-based TV show Coke Studio, they put down their cudgels, shake hands across the aisle, and find themselves united in love and admiration – and even, on the Indian side, a wistful envy. The most common refrain after variations of 'Wow, I love this' is not the inevitable YouTube corollary of 'Wow, this sucks,' but 'Why can't we do this in India?'

The Coke Studio juggernaut rolled out of the blocks in a Karachi studio in the summer of 2008. Its visionary and executive producer Rohail Hyatt was one of Pakistani pop's early legends, an U-19 Rawalpindi cricketer turned singer turned impresario. "It had been done before," says producer-filmmaker Nofil Naqvi, who worked with Hyatt and his wife Umber, "In a couple of other places, but never on such a large scale." The show, similar in spirit to the British performance series Live from Abbey Road, was a meticulously curated series of live sets featuring combinations of musical acts – sometimes unlikely – reinventing old songs, sampling other genres, melding two or more distinct styles, and putting out an altogether new work. The five episodes of its first season, shot over four days in February 2008, became a hit, featuring collaborations of unprecedented quality, such as the raga-rock fusion of Garaj Baras between Ali Azmat – former frontman of the enormously popular Junoon – and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, who had sung the original in Bollywood for 2007's Paap. Under Hyatt's supervision, the band Strings remodelled the melody of their chiming, high-tension megahit Duur in collaboration with classical vocalist Ustad Hussein Baksh Gullo. Rahat's voice soaring on ambient retakes of hits like Shaman Paiyan and Dildara electrified audiences, and the charming, more lightweight sets by acts like Sajid and Zeeshan or the band Mauj, were glimpses into the generally high standards of Pakistan's pop scene.

And then Season Two rolled around.

"2009 was a dark time for artistes," Naqvi explains. "Safety concerns within the country were rising – it was a very different atmosphere from the one during the last military dictatorship, when security was easier to handle for concert venues and live acts. Business in India had dried up in the aftermath of the November 2008 attacks, which was an even more serious financial hit." Catastrophe was looming. It was in this situation that Coke Studio pulled out all the stops. After the success of Season One, the show secured a deal that allowed them to air simultaneously on every – yes, every – major TV networks and radio channels. This may have seemed like a puzzlingly large-scale gamble on the success of what was, after all, a volatile format: but Hyatt and his backers knew it was going to be special.

"Back during Season One, the only other friend who knew about it was an RJ," remembers blogger and Coke Studio enthusiast Ahmer Naqvi. "But I vividly remember the first episode of the second season. My wife and I were driving and we didn't know what show was on, but when we started listening to it, we were ecstatic." The episode featured some of Coke Studio's biggest hits, including, Naqvi remembers, "eclectic covers by reigning pop kings - Ali Zafar and Atif Aslam. Memorable for the shock value among other things, as no one really could imagine either of them doing such versatile stuff." Aslam is a genuine subcontinental superstar - his songs for Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani in late 2009 were among the year's biggest hits, and had the India embargo for lunch. Like most superstars, his appeal is nonexistent to the bon-bon eating classes on both sides of the border. "That was also why a lot of my friends who were very serious about their music immediately abhorred Coke Studio," Ahmer says. "The presence of a corporate logo, plus teeny-bopper singers, put many purists off."

But the lid had blown off the phenomenon. On the same episode as Zafar and Aslam, the show also featured arguably its flat-out finest production, the reworking of a Bulleh Shah kalam, Aik Alif, by the veteran Sufi musician Saeein Zahoor and the rock band Noori. Cynicism was clearly going to be difficult. High expectations were repeatedly met an surpassed. Aslam covered Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Zafar sang Punjabi folk, a far cry from their fan demographic's usual staples. For many Pakistanis, it was a reaffirmation of a long-held belief: their country made kickass music. "Music is perhaps the only area in the arts where Pakistan produces world-class stuff regularly and which gets local appreciation," Ahmer says. "Coke Studio got the kind of response that authors, filmmakers, and drama serial producers would die for."

It's true that Daniyal Mueenuddin or Mohammed Hanif would be hard-pressed to do with their material what Coke Studio did with theirs. In addition to blanket broadcast coverage, their music and videos were instantly and legally downloadable for free on the Coke Studio website. In a country where returns on recorded music were even less dependable than concert revenues, it was a smart move. Coke Studio became irresistible in cities and along the highways, constantly on replay via mobiles, in vehicle stereos and on the radio. Crucially, it also became available to the diaspora, an influential demographic on social networks and blogs. Word spread. The official Coke Studio fan page on Facebook has just under 300,000 fans, and the official YouTube channel – the videos, of course, proliferate via other IDs too, often with value-added services such as English subtitles, or portfolio shots of the stars interspersed with the broadcast – counts about 8.5 million views. The numbers may not seem like much in comparison to successes in fully digitised media cultures like the USA, or massive markets like India, but they represent a unique force for Pakistani music. And unlike, say, the aggregate Twitter following for a Bollywood star, this population contained a large number of those serious fans not put off by the dubious sponsorship and ice-lolly pop quotients. Writing in the Financial Times shortly after news of this monsoon's floods started to bubble up in worldwide media, the novelist Mohsin Hamid earnestly examined of the possibilities of hope for Pakistan.

'Hope takes many small forms. One of these is Coke Studio, a televised jam session that throws together unexpected musical combinations … It is part of a vast and downloadable music scene ... I have heard its songs as the ringtones of people ranging from bankers and shopkeepers to carpenters.'

Now three seasons down, Coke Studio has dealt with extremes of popularity and backlash. Some of those inveterate downloaders and caller-tune aficionados have excoriated the last season, which aired this July, for a variety of reasons, ranging from esotericism – with more folk and experimental sets than the last two seasons – to a certain feeling of pedestrianism after the unusual achievements of Season 2. Not even the appearances of Sufi legend Abida Parveen has shielded the show from criticism. But the music industry seems content to be philosophical. Omar Bilal Akhtar, vocalist of season 3 rock performers Aunty Disco Project, says, "Obviously with such massive exposure we get some pretty extreme reactions, but we've made more new fans than we could ever have imagined. Being on Coke Studio also lends a degree of credibility to being a musician in Pakistan. Before CS, if you told someone you were in a desi rock band, you got sympathy or condescension. We actually get people calling us back now."

It's not hard to extrapolate a future of eventual doom for such a monolith of cultural capital. How long before artistes who don't get a chance to establish their credentials via the show start to look for alternatives? How long before networks start to feel the tyranny of the show's distribution model? How long before the murmurs of more-of-the-sameness that circulated last month grow into ennui? Akhtar offers an insider's perspective of the benefits that offset these questions. "First, it's definitely raised the bar in terms of quality. We have artistes really pushing themselves to capture the audience's attention. CS has paved the way for experimentation. Popstars can sing with folk musicians, young female rockers can cover classic folk songs, song lengths can be greater than 3.5 mins. Second: it's improved standards for artistes themselves. I have never encountered the kind of professionalism nor seen the kind of equipment that was used in CS anywhere in Pakistan. Having worked with the best, the mainstream artistes in CS can now demand higher standards from the people around them, whether it's media promotion or audio engineering or recording."

Third, and perhaps most significantly in the short term, "there has been a resurgence in ethnic, Pakistani music. It's always been one of Rohail's goals to promote indigenous music. He's introduced my generation to our own country's music in a non-demagogical, refreshing way. It's cool to like folk and qawwali music now."

Akhtar and Aunty Disco Project may enjoy the cult status that all good rock acts aspire to – their Coke Studio song, Sultanat, is outrageously catchy – but as in the rest of the subcontinent, this is at some distance from the mainstream. The real revolution occurred in Hyatt's successfully bringing genuine fusion into the spotlight. It is by no means unheard of or unsuccessful in the subcontinent, particularly in A R Rahman-era Bollywood. But no matter how edgy film music gets, it is always grounded in its context: it is meant to be a background score for a movie and for its stars. By its very nature, fusion in film music is a metaphor for palatability, and the success of Rahman and his colleagues rests unabashedly on that. To imagine the effect of, say, that Strings-Ustad Gullo collaboration, Indians cannot rely on the sound of the movies. They will have to refer to their own live scene and its longtime experimenters like Shubha Mudgal or Ustad Sultan Khan, Indian Ocean and Mrigya. That platform is fortunately vibrant, but also limited in its reach.

By putting fusion front and centre on Pakistani prime-time television, Coke Studio changed the rules of engagement with an older tradition of subcontinental indie. Hyatt and his swanky studio equipment may have rearranged their framework, but the voices of Sindhi fakirs like Fakir Juman Shah, the words of Waris Shah and Bulleh Shah, and restylings of the tradition from vocalists Tina Sani and Arieb Azhar, wafted out of speakers louder and clearer than they ever had before.

And it is this sound that has repeatedly transfixed the YouTube trolls, and sustained a muted but anecdotally significant conversation in India since last year's breakout season. Rabbi Shergill's 2004 version of the Bulleh Shah poem Bulla ki Jaana was a genuine crossover hit, and perhaps one of the few recent instances where pop fusion achieved overwhelming mainstream acceptance, but it came with little context of its history for the vast numbers of the uninitiated, and remained a one-off. By contrast, Coke Studio's music hints at a vast shared context. At last year's TED India conference in Mysore, Pakistani delegates handed out Coke Studio CDs to Indian Fellows. Fans discover and re-discover individual sets through exchanges on Facebook and Twitter, joining in the largely English-language Pakistani chatter to geek out over the music. This networked population is partially deaf to the sound of televised musical contests produced in Mumbai, sceptical of MTV, and critically demanding of the output of Bollywood and urban indie alike. Coke Studio's folk throwback opens up new vistas for these Indian listeners, in much the same way that an array of bands from Junoon to Strings put Indian fans in touch with the astonishing range and accomplishments of the Pak-rock scene over the years.

"The show allows many Pakistanis to present an image of themselves to the rest of the world," Ahmer comments, "One which is simultaneously modern enough to be admitted into the pantheon of international-standard productions, and yet also fiercely embraces local music and tolerant, peace-loving lyrics, so that those nagging questions about identity can be put to bed by both secularists and Islamists, and everyone in between."

It is possible to stumble on a gem of a YouTube video that records Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's rendition of the Kalam-e-bahu and be enraptured by an artefact from a notionally common past. But to hear part of the same text in a glitzy, rocked-out performance of Alif Allah, Chambey di Booti by Arif Lohar and Meesha Shafi (the folkster and ex-model of Hamid's writing) is to clearly relate to that commonality in a language that is still mutually understood. It is not the equivalent of Pakistanis watching Hindi films, or the two countries meeting on the cricket field – it is an awareness that predates both those forms. It may make the question of 'why we don't have this' in India seem urgent, but it also simultaneously makes it banal and self-involved, and a little irrelevant.

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