Clearly, Coke Studio, a TV production featuring some of the most prominent names from Pakistan’s musical landscape, even in its tenth season, is going strong, at least in terms of statistics. A million hits here, half a million there, the numbers are used as a pretext to keep the production going and to show-off its ‘growing’ popularity around the country and beyond.
In fact, in the last couple of years, songs from Coke Studio have toppled past position holders from earlier seasons. But just because the numbers are strong, it doesn’t mean that the show should only stick to the same core ideas and expand on them alone in rigid fashion, without leaving any room for further exploration. But that’s exactly what’s happened. In its present state the production has boxed itself into a corner. Episode 2 from the on-air tenth season is a glaring example.
Of the four songs on offer, at least two are covers. That means that of the eight songs released from season ten so far, four have been covers. The ratio of original versus cover should be higher. The cover component in Coke Studio is so very strong, even after all these years, that it prompted some to dub it ‘Cover Studio’.
In the four songs on offer, it’s the comeback of Kaavish (featuring Quratulain Balouch) and Ali Hamza’s solo debut (alongside Ali Sethi and Waqar Ehsin) that has some value. One reason is that these two songs are original creations and those, more often than not, have the most merit. It indicates character at a time when doing covers is the easy route to take. Of course, all songs stay within the realm of the ‘Coke Studio sound’ but that is perhaps a prerequisite, a not-so-secret rule that no music director can overturn and break.
Running just over five minutes, Kaavish’s ‘Faasle’ is a brooding ballad, a tale of unrequited love that echoes both vulnerability and a great sadness that can’t be articulated by words. Jaffer Zaidi is the music director of this song and also a member of Kaavish which means that in addition to the music, he has penned the lyrics, composed the song and sung it. Joined by band member Maaz Maudood (on guitars), it’s a definitive performance and vintage Kaavish. Quratulain Balouch provides the right kind of contrast and as a singer she is as compelling as Zaidi. Tapping into the universal themes of love and loss, ‘Faasle’ contains a thrilling guitar solo from Omran Shafique and is one of the better duets to emerge from the show in recent years.
Ali Hamza’s ‘Tinak Dhin’, which marks his debut as a solo music director, and features him on vocals alongside Ali Sethi and Waqar Ehsin, is a song that provides a complete contrast to the Kaavish number. If that has soul, this one has spunk. It tells you what happens when musicians let go of inhibitions and enjoy the process of music-making. Don’t look for too much meaning in this one song; ‘Tinak Dhin’ is fun, frivolous and happy with its playful identity. Reverberating with ‘the rhythm of life’, the song offers dynamic vocals, courtesy of Hamza and Sethi, and is a throwback to the earlier Coke Studio years and the celebratory moments that came with it. It should also be noted that Ali Hamza and Ali Sethi, full of swagger, look confident and carefree. Waqar Ehsin is the only flaw in this song and has no presence compared to Hamza and Sethi but it isn’t a fatal mistake, and ‘Tinak Dhin’ makes a mark in spite of it.
While Ali Hamza and Jaffer Zaidi, as predicted, added flavour to proceedings, the real embarrassment stemmed from the entrance of Salman Ahmed who makes his debut as Junoon this season. Enter ironic laughter.
‘Sayonee’, sung by Ali Noor and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan with music directed by Salman Ahmed as Junoon is quite possibly one of the worst songs to have emerged from Coke Studio – not from just this season but in its ten years, the standard has never dropped to this degree until now.
There are plenty of reasons for this lackluster rendition. For one thing, the music just doesn’t come together. Though Ahmed’s garb reminds you about the past’s strong hold on him, this version of ‘Sayonee’ is bland and makes you want to revisit the superior original that inspired it.
The vocal mix featuring Ali Noor and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan doesn’t work. In the absence of Ali Azmat, Ali Noor easily could’ve carried the whole song. RFAK, great as he is, just doesn’t lend the song the gravitas with which Azmat had sung it in the 1990s.
I came across a tweet that said Coke Studio is like café music, you can talk over it and it won’t matter and that analogy rings true, when one hears ‘Sayonee’. What made Coke Studio spectacular were the creative collaborations and that rare balance of contrast and harmony is nowhere to be seen in the post-Rohail Hyatt era. It is almost impossible to believe that Salman ‘SufiSal’ Ahmed is the same man who produced the iconic Junoon albums like Azaadi, Parvaaz and more.
The fourth and final performance comes from Ali Zafar who sings ‘Jaan-e-Bahaaraan’. Originally composed by composer Master Inayat Hussain with lyrics by Tanveer Naqvi, the Zafar version is meant to be a tribute to the late composer with music directed by Shuja Haider. Though perfectly acceptable, it is once again a cover and feels monotonous. I reckon Zafar would’ve been better off with an original number.
With two episodes (and eight songs done and dusted), it looks like Coke Studio is scrambling to find a cohesive identity. Though the multiple producer format was rightly introduced, as new ideas are always appreciated, two seasons in, it has led to a sound that is all over the place. Still, with several episodes coming up, one can hope that innovation will make itself known.