“So Oz finally became home; the imagined world became the actual world…because the truth is that once we have left our childhood places and started out to make our own lives, armed only with what we have and are, we understand that the real secret of the ruby slippers is not that “there’s no place like home,” but rather that there is no longer such a place as home: except, of course, for the homes we make … which is anywhere and everywhere, except the place from which we began.”
– Salman Rushdie
No sound evokes the history of Coke Studio for me quite like Saeein Zahoor’s voice. I remember a characteristically flawless Karachi evening, the idyllic type which has you certain that all the elements of the weather were designed to cater to your sensory pleasure. I was driving down a stretch of asphalt, curls being tossed by the beachy, humid breeze when Noori and Saeein Zahoor’s Aik Alif started on the radio. It felt like fate – the serendipitous encounter creating another bond with the city of my birth and life thus far, one I have carried with me even after leaving Karachi, while trudging through the darkest dungeons of my mind and the giddy highs of unadulterated triumphs. The news of Saeein Zahoor’s return this season to Coke Studio carried with it the journey both the show and I had taken, and offered a chance for both of us to measure how far we had come.
Aik Alif, the massively popular song from season two appealed to the desi aficionado in us, bringing together the reed-like voice of Saeein Zahoor with two rock-stars who stepped out of their comfort zones to create a song that was bewilderingly good and very cerebral.
In this season’s Allah Hu however, Saeein Zahoor’s vocals reach elsewhere, seeking not the discerning urbanite but rather the popular sentiment that reels out of cassettes in long-haul vehicles – and yet inevitably also reels me in. Allah Hu’s folk stylings are not interpreted in progressive modes but treated far more subtly; the music encouraging you casually to give in to its joviality rather than be embraced by its intensity.
The contrast between how Saeen Zahoor’s vocals were blended with Ali Noor’s in Aik Alif versus how they are combined here with Abrar’s is fascinating. Although both singers are from slightly different times, they are distinctly integral components of our musical narrative.
Ali Noor’s voice is the equivalent of embarking on an exciting new journey with a shikrah (falcon), the destination of which is as yet unascertained; whereas Abrar has a voice we grew up on – a familiar range that is wholesome and trustworthy, and which confidently places a tilak of commitment on our foreheads. Abrar’s voice in this song offers an anchor for those of us who have been tossed by the waves since hearing Saeein Zahoor all those years ago, and drives home how, while we can never return home or cross the same river twice, a direct line with our earlier selves remains intact.
“…when the reality is that my household enjoys full benefits, of my obligations to play (all these) parts (as a) woman. Every day the reproach of incompetence on my back becomes even more insistent.”
“All circles are smaller than my feet, but time’s wild dance stops nowhere. The rhythm of the dance grows faster, faster…either I am something else or this is not my planet.”
– Excerpts from Parveen Shakir’s Misfit, translated by Yasmeen Hameed.
One of Coke Studio’s most prominent leitmotifs, especially this season, is the dichotomous song – one which seems to inhabit several completely different faces and voices in the same session. Ali Azmat and Moazzam Ali Khan’s Sawaal/KandeUtte is such an example, beginning with the bikhri hui (scattered) intonations of Ali Azmat’s trademark voice which pins us within questions of what malaal (regret) and fana (annihilation) entail as “rishtaa yeh pal ka mujhe toh adhoora laga” (This momentary bond seems incomplete to me).
His anxious questions are answered by the resolute and decidedly breathlessly paced second half of the song featuring Moazzam Ali – who urgently calls for the fragile vessel of clay (human body) to not get destroyed in the turbulent current of life, for the soul and heart are yearning to be reunited with the beloved. There is a fear that all will be lost if the clay pot is dashed by the toofan (storm of conflicting demands of life) creating daraar (rifts) between the lover and the beloved, which could mean that despite them being so close and waiting for so long, they might never get to reunite and actualize a singular self.
[quote]A song like this makes you question if you have managed to be yourself[/quote]
This entire song spoke to me of the need of playing differing roles during life’s progression, which comes from being expected to be several different versions of yourself according to the needs of every relationship, while somehow retaining a consistency within all your ‘selves’ as well. A song like this makes you question if you have managed to be yourself, and whether those parts will scatter you, dashing you to pieces, or will they remain coherent so that they keep you strong enough to be united with your whole self? It reminded me of Parveen Shakir’s ode to her own many ‘selves’ as a woman, and the struggle it takes to be expected to be everything to/for everyone. It’s a struggle which emanates from believing that you may only be accepted for who you are ‘thought’ to be you still retain the hope of finding a unity of self within, which compels you to keep trying.
The many layers and dimensions of this song evoke a sense of baychaini – an anxiety that cascades into a climactic crescendo. Yet even then, it does not suffuse into a triumph but rather leaves a lingering set of questions as we struggle to balance our many conundrums of self.
“A strange smell wafting from her body flooded his senses all night – a
smell at once pleasant and nauseating. It flowed from every part of her
body…This smell had fused them together for the night. Even though he was familiar with the smell radiating from every pore of the girl’s body, he couldn’t quite describe what it was. It was like the smell of fresh earth just sprinkled with water. But not exactly. It was different somehow. And it didn’t have the artificial aura of lavender or attar. It was something primal and timeless – like the relationship between man and woman.”
– Excerpt from Buu by Saadat Hasan Manto, translated by Muhammad Umar Memon
In a world where vision is oft regarded as the most pervasive of all the senses, Manto’s short story captures the primeval allure of the sense of smell, and its ability to evoke Proustian emotional reactions which overpower visual interpretation. Within our culture, the celebration of the soondhi smell of mitti, in the rain reminds us of how barsaat is central to our culture, taking its own separate place of honour in our conception of seasons. The ability of the rains to replenish and resuscitate life is what links them to the feminine – to the idea of a flavour of sensuality – and this is what Manto teases out in his alluring story.
[quote]Barsaat takes its own separate place of honour in our conception of seasons[/quote]
Miyan ki Malhaar is without any doubt the climax of the season, bringing together a host of artists and challenges in an epic creation. The use of three distinct feminine voices allows for that idea of rain, smells and sensuality to merge and be expressed to the fullest, allowing the song itself to reign large over this episode, and perhaps this season.
The song sweeps us through the different stages of a rainstorm, but could just as well be walking us through any emotionally tempestuous occurrence in our lives. Ayesha Omar sings of the rain clouds darkening on our horizon, the slow and excruciating build-up, and the inevitability of it all, as the hot and sweltering air thickens, and the grumble of the thunder in the distance holds a promise which will be kept.
The rain breaks at the entry of Fariha Pervez; her gentle, measured performance serving as the soft sibilant of the shower, the song gathering itself as the heavily pregnant rainclouds huddle. The life-bringing rain cools our feverish skin, bringing brief relief from the built up apprehension, and releases the scents that we’ve subconsciously been craving, connecting us with desires previously hidden even from ourselves. But the rains bring more than just relief – as the downpour swells, it fuels our tension within, drives our restlessness as inhibitions start to slip.
And then it all comes to point, at the end of Zara Madni’s lyrics; the undercurrent of brewing madness at first punctuating, then tearing loose a thunderstorm to answer all our fears. Zara Madani’s staccato vocals find a truly portentous matching up with Rustam Fateh Ali Khan and Faraz Anwar, as the song washes away all else before it. In the BTS, Faraz Anwar had spoken about how music tells us about the freedom of submission, and the surrender is complete as the song sweeps us away. It is a moment which leaves our insides whipped into a frenzied maelstrom, and in that moment the fear of the unknown reveals itself, setting us free in the process; freeing us of our responsibilities, sensibilities, constructs and control.
Free to follow our intuition and instinct, and to submit to something greater than ourselves; free of the tyranny of pairing each action with consequence. We lose or relinquish control, and only later, much later, find ourselves washed up on the shores of reason again – drenched to the core, but reminded of who we were, and what we can be.
Yesterday This Day’s Madness did prepare;
To-morrow’s Silence, Triumph, or Despair:
Drink! for you know not whence you came, nor why:
Drink! for you know not why you go, nor where.
– Omar Khayyam
Zara Madani has a voice which upon the first few seconds of hearing feels very much like the honeyed, treble-laden garden-variety voice often heard in the subcontinent. But in Moray Naina, this initial imprint gets fleshed out into a webbed intricacy of detail, due to her unique ability to emote such depth, longing and anguish in sync and sparingly sprinkled with each note. To fully appreciate the grace Zara’s voice brandishes here, we ought to bring back the concept of ada’a as part of our vocabulary once more, because that ache she creates with her trailing voice breathes an evocative, feline, furtive flitting around; tempered with a heavy, deliberate movement within each syllable – the very idea of ada’a. The carefully embroidered musical discordance rife with a trembling, tremulous richness of ghabrahat and uljhan in the instruments drape you in a manner that is equal parts exhilarating and excruciating.
The song structure represents varied transitions through time as exhibited by Babar Ali Khanna’s dhol whose contribution is counter-intuitive to what would otherwise be expected, given how the Italian and Serbian bands had provided a seemingly extempore layering of sounds which conveyed the sense of need. The way the saxophone bleats and blats makes silhouettes fade in and longings stir uneasily.
Floating expressions such as – deed ki pyaasi – are cast adrift across Zara Madni’s voice, capturing you in a dishevelled, yet poignant cage, between the gravity of the voice and the music’s quarrelling forces. All the time, an undercurrent of insanity and the irrepressible urge to behold the beloved grips you; as Omar Khayyam urges you to drink in the sight of that which is fluid and ever changing, threatening to tighten the band of sanity, blurring the boundaries of rationality and reason.