Coke Studio, season 9: midline review

Coke Studio (CS) is undeniably the most prestigious music platform in Pakistan (God bless Coca-Cola consumers). Every song of this season got me thinking about why this is the be-all-end-all for every aspiring and established musician and singer in the country. Of course, it would be unreasonable to expect hits from each season and what song makes it to the top of our list is more about how the song speaks to us individually, but then music is almost as personal as religion and politics in Pakistan and hence the stream of consciousness as follows.

There are certain realities that need to be recognized about CS. Undoubtedly, CS is playing an instrumental role in building cultural bridges, remains a rare example of interethnic cooperation (!) and is making the Pakistani youth familiar with their abandoned heritage (language, poetry, literature). Add to it, the ‘tarka’ of exotic instruments and choral ensembles reminiscent of western extravaganza that the Pakistani elite terribly missed out on, growing up to Bollywood beats. Kudos to CS for filling that void and giving us an opportunity to critique the use of instruments (and, at times, artists) we never knew existed.

However, here is a reality check: most of the music CS produces is packaged for mass consumption, for people who are (God forbid) not necessarily familiar with the ‘aesthetics’ of music. CS music, like any other consumer product, is demand driven – it is an international (commercial) franchise, after all. If the ultimate objective is for your song to have a longer shelf-life, you are better off getting two great maestros to produce something that will get over 4 million views anyway instead of investing a year to exhaust your creative juices in getting the art/science right (Cost Benefit Analysis 101).

This brings me to the feel-good Bollywood-ish A. R. Rahman-ish numbers (read afreen afreen – apparently, the commercial hit of the current season). It is beyond my understanding why this song had to happen. Both these lovely voices could have been put to better use. Really, CS could have done without a Pakistani version of ‘teri ore’.


Each song reinforces my belief that we have extremely talented artists and beautiful voices in Pakistan. However, at the end of the day, CS is all about the way these unique talents are put together – essentially, about the vision of the directors/producers and how much creative license they are free to exercise. To me, a real CS success is an exemplary collaboration; when you are able to fuse the expertise of artists from different genres (ghazal/qawwali/folk/rock etc.), ensure that they gel seamlessly and produce something that is (a) aesthetically beautiful and therefore, (b) a commercial success. Unfortunately, songs like afreen afreen, in my opinion, are all about (b).

When you think of the evolution of Pakistani music over the past decade, for the most part what we have accomplished is the reproduction of a 100 permutations of old classics – in doing so, in your own mind your song would have made it if it is (technically) better than the original produced some decades ago in black and white. Another benchmark of success is if your rendition sounds modern enough compared to the hundred versions out there by people of lesser music calibre and/or experience. Of course, if you are Rahat it will (hopefully) be the best imitation – this is when music becomes more of a marketing game.

Finally, it is important to note that for the first time in CS series history, the season was composed by six music directors. So, for me, this season was more about the perfect collaboration (of musicians/singers) while fitting into their individual roles to the best of their potential and maintaining their distinct presence. The perfect pause, an appropriate choice of instruments (harmonium/sitar/morchang/mandolin etc.), ensuring that the instruments are not drowning out the voices or vice versa, and maintaining some semblance of originality.

I think your real accomplishment is when you can think out of the box, take a risk and get out of your comfort zone, and envision  and execute something that flows effortlessly – if you are able to produce something that is the best version of itself and may not necessarily be a commercial success because you are not just trying to gratify an audience but focusing on creating a masterpiece.

If I were to pick a song from the previous seasons, garaj baras was one example of such effortless fusion. It was the perfect synchronization of two different styles/ genres and creating a seamless transition that sticks for years.  In this season, Noori’s collaborations were hands down the best possible use of a platform like Coke Studio. Unsurprisingly, their vision was out of the box and they invested time and effort in creating unique and original work. They remained consistent in their strive for perfection in all their songs and their selection of artists and instruments was just remarkable.  In Paar Channah, one of the most mesmerizing songs from this season, Ms. Noor Zehra’s magic on the Saagar Veena made you realize that the family best exemplifies Rumi’s quote: “Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.”

Fatima Zaidi

Fatima Zaidi is a Washington, D.C. based international development practitioner. She is extremely passionate about music; she is also an avid photographer with a flair for landscape photography. She can be reached at... @sonya.zaidi (Instagram)

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