Coke Studio Pakistan: An Ode to Eastern Music with a Western Touch

Since it was first aired in 2008, Coke Studio Pakistan has emerged as an unprecedented musical movement in South Asia. It has revitalised traditional and Eastern classical music of South Asia by incorporating contemporary Western music instrumentation and new-age production elements. 

Under the religious nationalism of military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the production and dissemination of creative arts were curtailed in Pakistan between 1977 and 1988. Incidentally, the censure against artistic and creative practice also coincided with the transnational movement of qawwali art form as prominent qawwals began carrying it outside Pakistan. American audiences were first exposed to qawwali in 1978 when Gulam Farid Sabri and Maqbool Ahmed Sabri performed at New York’s iconic Carnegie Hall. The performance was referred to as the “aural equivalent of the dancing dervishes” in the New York Times (Rockwell 1979). However, it was not until Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s performance at the popular World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) festival in 1985 in Colchester, England, following his collaboration with Peter Gabriel, that qawwali became evident in the global music cultures. Khan pioneered the fusion of Eastern vocals and Western instrumentation, and such a coming together of different musical elements was witnessed in several albums he worked for subsequently. Some of them include "Mustt Mustt" in 1990 and "Night Song" in 1996 with Canadian musician Michael Brook, the music score for the film The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and a soundtrack album for the film Dead Man Walking (1996) with Peter Gabriel, and a collaborative project with Eddie Vedder of the rock band Pearl Jam. 

Given the freshness it carried, Khan’s qawwali music also made its way to India and achieved instant popularity. He went on to compose music for several Indian films, including Bandit Queen (1996) and Aur Pyaar Hogaya (1997). Aided by the well-entrenched piracy networks of the time, his qawwali gained instant recognition among music lovers in India. Such was the popularity of his “Dam a Dam Mast Qalandar” Sufi song that it was adapted for Bollywood film Mohra (1994), and inspired the hit song “Tu Cheez Badi Hai Mast Mast.” 

Over time, Khan’s brand of music has inspired a host of musicians, including Jeff Buckley, Peter Gabriel, A R Rahman, Sheila Chandra, and Alim Qasimov. Continuing on the path laid out by Bulleh Shah, Amir Khusrau, Sultan Bahoo, and other Sufi poets, whose writings strove to challenge hegemonic structures of the day in Pakistan, the emerging globality for Pakistan qawwals of the time can be read as the perpetuation of the tradition of aesthetic dissent. This is succinctly captured by Amit Baruah and R Padmanabhan (1997) as,

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan returned the Qawwali to the world. He made it popular again not just in Pakistan and India, the home of the traditional Qawwali, but in the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan and other countries. He performed in over 40 countries and recorded more than 150 albums and sold millions of copies worldwide. 

As Khan’s experimentation with the qawwali art form began to ease the dialogue between folk/traditional sounds of Eastern and Western musicality, the advent of globalisation proved to be a major shot in the arm for qawwali music. Satellite television, particularly MTV, contributed further to the momentum of the musical renaissance. This new sensibility of sound further percolated down the road in the formation of the first Sufi rock band Junoon in Pakistan in 1990, led by Salman Ahmed and American bassist Brian O'Connell. The band’s single “Sayonee” from the album Azaadi, which was released in 1997, achieved runaway success in South Asia and West Asia, and was also ranked at the top of Channel V and MTV charts for two months straight. The Mekaal Hasan Band, formed in 2000 in Lahore, also played an important role in bringing together Indian and Pakistani musicians, and blending Sufi poetry with pop, rock, soul, and Black Rock Coalition music. It also played a significant role in bringing back traditional and folk musicians to the forefront, who were, thus far, relegated to playing backup. The contribution of Qawwali–Flamencos rendered by qawwal Faiz Ali Faiz in collaboration with Spanish Flamenco artistes Miguel Poveda, Duquende, and Chicuelo is also seminal. The surreal renditions of “Allah Hu” and “Tere Ishq Nachaya” at Fes Festival of World Sacred Music (2005) by Faiz blurred differences that had hitherto existed between two music forms to produce a new composite whole, which still have a lasting effect on listeners. Faiz hoisted qawwali in a Mediterranean orchestration set-up by combining sharp and high-pitched tones of the qawwali with the lilting and malleable rhythms of the Spanish flamenco or the gypsy rhythms of bouzouq[1] and rubab[2].  

The joint efforts of Khan and successive luminaries, including Faiz Ali Faiz became the hallmarks for the global presence of qawwali. It was primarily the international recognition for qawwali that prodded Pakistani musicians to look “inward” for inspiration. The dawning of this realisation was first noticed in the music of Mekaal Hasan Band that intended to sensitise the youth about their rich cultural heritage. The fusion aesthetics of Khan, the rebellious sound of Junoon, the multicultural musicality of Faiz Ali Faiz, activated by the conscience of Mekaal Hasan Band, have become a musical bricolage of sociocultural, spiritual, rebellious, and indigenous sensibilities of Pakistan. The coming together of various sensibilities at the global level has resulted in a distinct, identifiable, and new “sensibility of sound.” It is such musical synthesis that has been carried forward from the days of analogue to digital with the launch of Coke Studio Pakistan in 2008.

Resuscitation of Traditional Music  

Picking up from the rich tradition of qawwali revived by the doyens of the art form, Coke Studio Pakistan has been seeking to foreground indigenous, folk, and spiritual music of South Asia balanced by a Western instrumentation scheme. Coke Studio Pakistan found its first producer in Rohail Hyatt, who previously spearheaded the band Vital Signs. It was the first Urdu pop-rock band of Pakistan and gained immense popularity in the underground performance circuit and university campuses across Pakistan. It emerged as a significant player in the spread of the new wave of rock music during the 1980s and 1990s, by becoming important countercultural signage against the conservative rule of Zia-ul-Haq. During the interim period when Vital Signs disbanded in 1998 and Coke Studio began in 2008, Hyatt had worked for movies and produced singles under his Pyramid Productions. With such experience, Hyatt conceived Coke Studio as follows:

The idea behind Coke Studio is not to be cool or Western or imitate. It’s just an experience for me and all others involved to look inwards. It is about who we really are. We can’t deny the fact that the soil we live on was once India. The British were here and many others before them. All of them have left behind something. It’s a melting pot. (Sabeeh 2009)

Coke Studio has been an onward movement, emerging out of musical dissent that reimagined traditional forms of music with Western instrumentation. Hyatt’s contribution to the musical synergy has been not only to create a balance among the Eastern, Western, and European (as portrayed in the Season 6 of the show) musical traditions, but also to make traditional, folk, and spiritual music workable in the digital ecosystem and on platforms such as YouTube, Vimeo, among others. Thus, the Coke Studio experiment has brought to the fore multiple technological and sonic advancements.  

In the span of 12 seasons between 2008 and 2019, Coke Studio Pakistan produced more than 20 Sufi kalams (Sufi poetry set to music) and at least 11 qawwalis by incorporating elements from the other folk music forms of Pakistan. For instance, “Daanah Pe Daanah,” (season 4, episode 1, 1 May 2011), which features Balochi folk singer Akhtar Chanal Zahri and pop singer Komal Rizvi, incorporates “Dam a Dam Mast Qalandar,” where the calls of cattle herders are juxtaposed with a Sufi manqabat (qawwali composed in the honour of Hazrat Imam Ali and/or a Sufi saint). The electronic visuals—a tizzy of red, green, and blue dancing streaks—complement the exuberant and infectious raqs (dance or bodily movement in response to ecstatic music) of the Balochi folk artistes to the hypnotic refrains of "Haq," "Dam Mast," "Ali Dam Haq." The crescendo is finished with reggae tunes on shiny electric guitars that echo the celebratory dance of the folk performers. 

The kalams and the qawwalis have been performed both by traditional performers or “Nisbati qawwals” and popular artistes. During the 12 seasons, Coke Studio Pakistan provided a platform to the joint performances of qawwals like Ustad Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad, Abida Parveen, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, and Amjad Sabri; popular artistes like Atif Aslam, Ali Zafar, Ali Sethi, and Quratulain Baloch; folk musicians like Saieen Zahoor and Akhtar Chanal Zahri; to Himri songs of Chakwali musicians; and to Baul Geet in Bengali, Sindhi, Siraiki, Urdu, and Punjabi songs.

On the other hand, Coke Studio Explorer, ideated as a prequel to the season 11, and aired in 2018, moved out of the studio set up to ethnographically map the music of Pakistani indigenous communities in their hometowns and villages. It traced the journey of producers Zohaib Kazi and Ali Hamza as they engaged with the musicians from Kalash community of Bumburet Valley of Chitral, bhajan singers from Deewan Lal Chand village in Sindh province, the Baloch throat musicians from Dera Bugti district in Balochistan, Mishal Khawaja and the Qasamir band from Muzaffarabad.

Ustad Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad of the Qawwal Bachche Gharana trace their lineage to Miyan Sahmat Bin Ibrahim, who was the leader of the qawwali group formed by Amir Khusrau. The qawwal duo is credited with seven intense kalams on the Coke Studio platform, namely “Mori Bangri” and “Kangna” (season four), “Rung” and “Khabaram Raseeda Imshaab” (season five), “Shikwa-Jawab-e-Shikwa” and “Piya Ghar Aya” (season 11), and "Aadam" (Season 12). The qawwals are the archetype of the travelling culture of qawwali form, from its sacred place in dargah to the realm of digital music cultures. To understand and demonstrate how Coke Studio Pakistan facilitated the movement of the qawwali art form from the sacred dargah to a live recording studio, the rendition of Kangna and Khabaram Raseeda Imshaab is examined. 

Rendition of Kangna, a Seamless Fusion  

The rendition of Kangna, a classical bandish[3] in Malkauns[4] raga, on the Coke Studio platform stands out for its seamless fusion of Eastern and Western musical sensibilities. Composed in Jhaptal, an asymmetrical 10-beat rhythm pattern with four divisions, the composers skilfully balance the Jhaptal with a guitar riff. Resultantly, the sombre Malkauns is made slightly cheerful and playful without compromising on the uniqueness of the kalam, simultaneously enhancing its beauty. 

Hum yeh chah rahe hain ke hamari mausiqee ki shanaqt aur hamari mausiqee ki identity bhi mutassir na ho aur hum inke saath milke inke collaboration se iski khubsoorti mein…azaafa kiya jaye…aur hamari joh traditional aur devotional music uske upar koi aanch bhi na aye…! 

(We want to collaborate with our qawwali while keeping its traditional and devotional identity intact and undisturbed. Our collaboration is aimed at enhancing the beauty of our music.) (Ayaz 2012)

Scripted in Braj Bhasha and Farsi, the kalam echoes an amorous tête-à-tête between Radha and Krishna, and voices their mortal and transcendental anguish of love. Visually, the rendition of Kangna on Coke Studio platform presents the lively performance of the qawwals, and the ecstasy of the qawwali enlivened and synced with guitar riffs and grand drum beats. The resulting kaifiyat (trance) is mediated by the electric laser screens that frame Ayaz and Muhammad in a riot of colours.  

Due to its popularity, the 2013 Hollywood film The Reluctant Fundamentalist, directed by Mira Nair, opens with the Coke Studio version of Kangna. The Dawn refers to the qawwali in its film review as,  

a thrillingly beautiful Sufi song from Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad. For eight minutes, these extraordinary singers — who are performing for Changez’s family in Pakistan — transport you even as Mira Nair insistently, unfortunately, brings you back to earth by cutting between their performance and images of an American being kidnapped in Lahore. The editing implies links where none seem to exist, but the whole thing certainly sounds and looks suggestively “exotic” (Dargis 2013).

The qawwali opens a narrative in the film that evolves in the backdrop of 9/11, and draws parallels between American capitalism and Islamic fundamentalism. The thundering vibrato of Fareed Ayaz is juxtaposed with the visuals of the abduction of an American national, and places religious fanaticism and spirituality in direct contest with each other.

Khabaram Raseeda Imshaab: Recreating Spiritual Atmospherics 

The 16-minute-long rendition of Khabaram Raseeda in the fifth season transforms the live studio into a spiritual space. Along with the harkats (movements) of the qawwals, the enticing raga Bhageshree[5] triumphs in equally affective instrumentation scheme. Written in the honour of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, the soul-riveting Khabaram Raseeda kalam, awakens the circuits of transcendence in the night-time raga, and the sonic atmospherics permeate the visual tableaux of the qawwali video. The dark grey panels of the studio walls, on the other hand, stand flanked by two side panels dotted with silvery-bluish confetti of light. The central screen with alternating hues of grey and black is punctuated by ravishing streaks of striking blue and green lights. It blinks and throbs across the dark grey panel—the new media equivalent of an unusual night-time sky— and the raga Bhageshree spills over into the mis en scene of the studio. The use of close-up and balanced zoom-in and zoom-out shots synergise the performance of qawwals and the house band. 

The above instances help us understand how atmospherics of folk and spiritual music performances can be recreated in a studio. They also speak about the balance achieved between the Western instrumentation and Eastern vocals. The resulting fusion, which gives a contemporary touch to qawwalis, is witnessed in every composition of Coke Studio Pakistan.  

Global Impact and Lasting Effect

The success of Coke Studio lies not only in ushering a unique fusion scheme, but also in amplifying the sonic texture of Eastern music by leveraging post-digital acoustics and contemporary music production technology. The importance of the “Coke Studio kind of music,” as the Dawn (2014) calls it, therefore, lies in mainstreaming obscure cultural assemblages, be it folk performers of Balochistan, little-known women vocalists, and so on. The other key contribution of Coke Studio Pakistan is to redefine traditional forms of music and make it attractive to global audiences.  

In Hyatt’s words, this “new kind of sound” will have a lasting effect on the global music scene, as he notes, 

I think it’ll take a couple of passes before people realise that this sound is different. It allows you to believe that amidst all the sounds that we hear daily all around us, here is a sound that is possible. Anyone who tries to create something new out of something old, re-create and make something new is criticised for ruining the original. As far as Coke Studio goes, some people might say, ‘yeh kya kardiya?’ But it is a new generation…there are maybe 40 versions of this tune. Some of them will be good and some will be bad but that’s the beauty of folk music. One hopes that these will be versions which will be long lasting. (Sabeeh 2009) 

This new sensibility of sound has already percolated as simulacra in shows like Nescafe Basement in Pakistan and Coke Studio in India and West Asia, all of which synthesise commercial branding and artistic practice, resulting in unprecedented visibility for traditional folk and Sufi music beyond South Asia. 

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