Beggar at Ghazi Chowk


Sunday, 6 April 2014

Why Coke Studio Matters

I started writing this piece a few months ago when Season 6 of Coke Studio had just aired its first episode. The first single, Jogi, blew my mind. What they had done to make it happen was just crazy. First, they got rid of the house band; then got a classically trained pop singer to sing a qawwali that a renowned qawwal had already sung on Coke Studio, except this time make it kind of boppy; asked some Serbians to jam on it; requested the qawwal who had originally sung it in Season 3 to do backing vocals; and put in some dhols for good measure. Read these last few phrases again. This is crazy. Afridi crazy. But it’s brilliant.

Since I first heard that song, the season has completed and Rohail Hyatt has since announced his retirement from his role as Producer of Coke Studio. His six-year run as captain at that Karachi warehouse has changed the way I think about music. It’s not hard to argue that it has changed Pakistani music. Looking back at Coke Studio allows me to think about how I think about music, and how I think about creative production in general. I believe Coke Studio has a timeless quality to it because of the thoughtfulness that accompanies its production, which allows you to find something interesting every time you listen to it. It is important to see why Coke Studio matters because there is enough thoughtlessness in our world. It’s easy to write things off, but it’s sad and dangerous to put down a piece of great work without giving it a second thought.

I felt this year that media opinions of Coke Studio had basically become equivalent to whether or not they like the songs. This is a dangerously close-minded view of why Coke Studio should matter to anyone.

Forget whether you like the song

Take a step back for a second and try to look at Coke Studio holistically. I am personally fascinated by the working of teams: software companies, cricket teams, rock bands. It is incredible how a group of people can find a synergy that makes them worth more than each of them individually. Every time I fight with a friend, or feel that nobody gets it, I think about how people get together with other people and change the world. It boggles my mind.

Coke Studio releases about twenty-five songs a year, and has done so consistently for six years. The Beatles released about two albums a year for about seven years. Most of today’s greatest artists, Pakistani and otherwise, release one album every few years. On sheer immensity of musical output, what Coke Studio accomplishes is near-legendary. In fact Coke Studio records many more songs than it releases every year. Farhad Humayun, house band drummer in Season 5, said in an interview last year that he played on forty songs, and some performances (such as Rabbi Shergil’s and Ali Kazim’s) have been known to be cut before airing. Musical output alone makes Coke Studio matter as an exhibition of human perseverance and creative excellence.

For six years straight the country’s best musicians have flocked to perform on the show. Over the years it has become the stage where a rock band went spiritual, where the country’s most popular of popular singers went experimental, where a folk legend became a heavy metal singer. This is where today’s Pakistan finds out what music is relevant. In other countries local music plays on radio stations, it is written and read about in local papers, it is talked about on television. This does not happen in Pakistan. Instead, Coke Studio finds and showcases Pakistan’s best musicians; it matters both as an eye to see Pakistan’s rich musical culture and as a mirror to reflect this image to the rest of the world.

Coca-Cola funds Coke Studio as a major ad campaign every year, to what can only be mammoth costs. All over Pakistan, billboards exhibition the country’s singers. Soda cans get a harmonic twist. A social media infrastructure is created to push the music out and support a national and international audience. When the songs are released, over three dozen of the country’s television channels are paid to showcase music that audiences would traditionally be the ones paying to see.

Here’s just a small glimpse into the cost of running Coke Studio: according to one estimate, TV channels in Pakistan charge about three-and-a-half million rupees (about thirty-three thousand US dollars) an hour for paid programming. For a season that lasts five episodes, each about an hour long, that’s aired on forty channels simultaneously that totals to about seven hundred million rupees (over six and a half million dollars). This is aside of the cost of building and managing a world-class studio and staff.

That a musical endeavor in Pakistan runs on that kind of budget is quite incredible, that it is an ad campaign is fairly astounding. Coke Studio matters simply as one of Pakistan’s most intersting economic case studies.

For six years Pakistan’s most talented artists and one of Pakistan’s largest corporations have pumped resources into a TV show. They must be doing this for a reason, and the sheer weight of their contribution deserves a second thought from all commentators. Yet, it seems that to many journalists, and many members of the general audience, the point of Coke Studio is no longer obvious.

Why do we do things?

The central question is why does Coke Studio exist? To answer that, it is important to identify why we believe anything should exist. When is human productive capacity put to good use?

The simple way to think about it is this: some human production makes the world better, and the rest does not. Of the latter category, some are easy to identify as harmful to the world (hate crimes or wasted resources). With most other things it’s harder to tell — often they seem a little ambivalent to the world (Why is that packaging that way? Why is the beeping on this machine so incredibly annoying?). All of this human production, at times ignorant and at times ambivalent, exemplifies the sheer amount of thoughtlessness in our world. Because anything that is not clear about how it adds to the world speaks of a process where the creator did not care to think about how their work affects everyone their product will touch.

Thoughtlessness is scary because it implies that we are failing to progress in any way — we are stagnant, still as time passes before us. Accompanied by a productive process though, thoughtlessness is corrupting. A thoughtless creation adds clutter to our world, adding more disorder and in general making it harder to get on with the rest of what we want to do. Notice how the traffic jam in the morning makes it hard to focus at work all day? That’s the effect of disorder in our lives.

An ambivalent creation hence makes it harder for people to live their lives in the fullest way possible. And whatever your belief system, whatever you hold your faith in, it seems right that at least in some part, the point of our existence must be to allow others to live their lives fully. A world where all people are trying to help others live better lives is perhaps as perfect a world as we can live in.

Ibn Arabi, the great 12th Century Sufi philosopher, argued that the common characteristic between all of God’s creation was that it went from a point of non-existence to a point of existence. That is, at some point all of God’s creation must not have existed, until the point that God willed that it exist. God is the only entity to have always existed, to have never been in a point of non-existence. He hinted that God may, in some way, be thought of as the process of existence itself. And the working of the cosmos is merely the exhibition of the greatness of God, and of the playing out of existence. As the subjects and creation of God, our purpose must be to play a role in this great exhibition of existence — to further the life of all creation.

So to rope it all back in, human productive capacity is arguably put to good use when it allows other humans to live better lives. And this is usually accomplished through compassion, insight and thoughtfulness.

Which brings us back to Coke Studio.

Art furthers the cause of existence – it is a celebration of thought, a celebration of common emotion, of humanity. It is humanity that binds us together; abstract thought that separates us as humans from everything else on the planet. Art is the manifestation of that. It allows us to be human, it allows us to make existence richer by creating things that never existed, and by reminding us to continue thinking and continue moving forward.

Coke Studio decided not just to give us music, but to remind us of the tradition of music we had long forgotten about. It did this by stitching it together with a new Western tradition to which we were just opening our eyes. It simultaneously created something new and revived something old.

Which leads me to argue that Coke Studio furthers the cause of existence: it moves the human race forward. Sure, it may have its flaws. It is after all, a human creation. Coke Studio teaches us more about those with whom we share this planet. It forces us to rethink the essentials of our culture, forces us to ask why we forgot it in the first place, forces us to ask why it is important to preserve it.

And the great thing about all of it is that all the choices Coke Studio makes are anything but arbitrary; it’s not ambivalent at all. And the beauty really lies outside of the final artifact of production and more in the process of production.

It’s the process

The song is cultural artifact. It is a tune, with some ornamentation, that we enjoy. It may lighten the mood, it may accentuate a heavy one. At different points in life, different people will associate with a cultural artifact. At times artifacts are fashionable, at times they are not. The strongest artifacts endure the test of time; at times their popularity makes it fashionable for people to make sure they stand the test of time.

Imagine a historian looking back at 21st century Pakistan. Cultural artifacts will be important to their study because they speak of the means, the moods and the minds of the time. The more artifacts we can produce, the stronger the portrait of our lives, the further we allow this study to further the understanding of the human race.

Artifacts are important because of the meaning inherent in them. They are valuable because of what they represent, because of how they make us feel. Meaning is generated by the process in which the artifact is created. What interests me most in the study of the great works of our time is not just the legacy of how they changed the world, but of how they came to be in the first place. Because a study of the process allows us to find ways to build skills ourselves, to find hope that we too can change the world.

And what’s interesting about Coke Studio is more than just the songs. For Season Six in particular, I have found the Behind the Scenes videos more interesting than the songs themselves. That’s where the real meaning is, that is why all of this is relevant. It pains me that many reviewers have seemed to ignore this treasure trove of information when passing comments on Coke Studio.

The Shakeup

The way Coke Studio had worked before Season 6 was quite interesting. Take the making of Bilal Khan’s To Kia Hua. (I wrote this bit a few years ago but am shamelessly recycling it). Here are the major steps that I see happening:

  • Bilal Khan takes emotional sentiment from college-aged fellows around him and writes a song of lost love and discovering your way.
  • The original underground aesthetic of the song is presented in a bootleg video of trademark Khan on acoustic guitar.
  • Rohail Hyatt listens to presumably a slightly more semi-professional recording of the song, and his head starts whirring with ideas.
  • Khan plays it live for Hyatt, Hyatt brings in Babar Khanna.
  • Babar Khanna formulates a dhol groove to accompany the song, this becomes it’s new centre. So the process thus far has changed the focus from Khan’s guitar to Khanna’s percussions, orchestrated by Hyatt.
  • The House Band builds off of Khanna’s dhol groove. The more I listen to it the more I realize what Rohail Hyatt said in an interview. The entire song is based not on a reworking of Khan’s underground recording, but on Khanna’s improvised dhol groove. Sure, Khan’s song remains, but it is Khanna that runs it now.
  • Hyatt then reinterprets the whole process in his own vision, mastering and producing to a final version, emphasizing the dhol groove, creating strong emotional starts and stops. It is the flamingly progressive look to Khan’s original which was deep but stationary.

Like To Kia Hua, every song goes through multiple re-interpretations. Every person in the interpretive chain adds their own little twist, building until the final piece is complete.

Ali Azmat says that Coke Studio will remain relevant only as long as it remains about collaboration. That explains it. Coke Studio is not about how one person thinks of a song – it is not about the singer (and it is not about Rohail Hyatt). The singer is the front-person of every song: the singer sells the song to the audience. It is the singer’s name that is attached to the performance, so the singer is often given the chance to bring the first seed of the idea to the table. From then on everyone, in a loosely defined collaborative process, adds their bit, as Hyatt stiches it all together. As Azmat portrays, people continue to add their two cents, and then the producer can bring some order to everything. (Azmat uses the Urdu word سمیٹنا to describe this last step, I struggle to find an English translation that says it quite as beautifully)

But this process had happened for five years, and people had begun to think it had gotten boring. “All Coke Studio songs sound the same” is a criticism I often heard. Reminded me very much of the same line of criticism applied to Coldplay, U2 & the Beatles. You could argue that making music that shares some similarity with past work doesn’t make an artist irrelevant, but Coldplay, U2, the Beatles & countless other artists are considered great because of their ability to reinvent themselves, to find something new. Bono famously described the great Achtung Baby album “as the sound of four men chopping down the Joshua Tree (their other great album).

This is why Season 6 was important. Rohail Hyatt has mentioned multiple times that it felt like Season 1 again, that this was the beginning of something new. He’s referring to the reinvention.

The house band was replaced with bands in Serbia and Italy, and musicians from Turkey, Morocco, Bangladesh & Nepal. Pakistani songs were taken abroad, influenced by the rest of the world and stitched back together by Hyatt. Hyatt took the Coke Studio process from being a conversation about Pakistani music to making Pakistan the center of the conversation in World Music. Suddenly, the whole thing is bigger than whether or not we like the song, it is about how the world makes music, and that Pakistan gets to mediate.

The medium (especially as it evolved in season six), does not lend itself to meticulously composed tracks. In some sense, the new Coke Studio is less like pop and more like jazz. The standard song structure of the former has been replaced by the freedom of the latter. It is no longer as simple as a verse and a chorus, it is a pulsating collaborative structure where each individual takes the collective musical feel in a new direction. It is harder to learn to like jazz than it is to learn to like pop. At times it feels completely random, almost form-less. But other times it is tuned to perfection, it just connects.

Take Laila O Laila, a song where I believe this happens. A Balochi folk song is taken abroad: an Irani Baloch who now lives in Sweden is the front man (whose idol is Nusrat), a Norwegian folk musician adds another European twist with a hardanger fiddle, and a Balochi backing troupe brings Pakistan back into the equation. Meanwhile a Serbian House Band & String Orchestra accompanies the rest of the Pakistani musicians. And the beauty is that Laila, the symbol that brings them all together, is the global symbol of love. Nobody knows Laila, but everybody knows who Laila is.


Cultural artifacts are images of a time, windows into the past. Structures that produce cultural artifacts are works of magic. They are how we continue to produce an image of ourselves, how we form a history, how we know ourselves. Coke Studio matters because this music will be known for years, and the process behind it enlightens us to write history ourselves.

Living in America for the past five years I’ve felt that the American narrative becomes the global narrative faster than America or the world gather enough awareness to stop this from happening. Very soon the narrative that was developing elsewhere in the world gets quashed by a steamrolling global cultural juggernaut. Coke Studio gives us back our voice. It teaches me how to raise my voice again, how to make what I do matter. This is why Coke Studio matters to me.