Stridently billed as “The Sound of the Nation”, Coke Studio has begun its eighth season. Earlier, the seventh had aired after the new team of arrangers, Bilal Maqsood and Faisal Kapadia, stepped into the robust shoes of their predecessor. An ominous deadline was not conducive to the relaxed, original creativity required to put their own stamp on the programme. For this, their second season, they had considerable time to shade things their way musically, but if the first episode is any indicator they have yet to understand the American adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
Since the programme’s inception, whenever I have seen a Coke Studio song the question inevitably is: Is this the sound of Pakistan? Just as inevitably the answer is No. I speak not out of fuddy-duddiness but because it simply isn’t so. This is the sound generated by a peculiar urban sensibility for whom our light music can only be ‘legitimate’ if the foundation is western: instruments and scales, sounds and movement; rhythms; ethos. Granted, Pakistani instruments strike up too in this alien milieu but their presence and effect usually seem like the arrangers’ patronising nod to a lick or two of desi chutney.
Mai Dhai’s performance was unvarnished and true, rising above the alien sounds of her accompaniment
Over the last twenty years, this sensibility has increasingly become the arbiter of what Pakistanis should hear in light music. They are practitioners with chest-thumping righteousness ducking under the genre of Fusion. While the validity and degree of Fusion, its techniques, mechanics and aesthetics usually result in endless debate, that is not the purpose here. The case rests on whether at the end a ‘fused’ number takes leave of, or essentially stays with its roots. Here lies the the test of the composer’s abilities. But going back a moment to the original question:can Fusion ever be a Pakistani sound? The answer is: Not truly.
Our practitioners of Fusion have a basic disadvantage. They think in A-majors and B-flats so to speak, in western rhythms and its points and countrapuntal pivots. All very well for one of the two elements to be fused. But their sensitivity and grasp of the other element, the ethos of Pakistani music, struggles. Justice to the otherelement lags, to say the least.
What is Pakistani music and its sound then? With some simplification admittedly, it lies across the spectrum of Pakistan’s own folk songs, ghazals and raags, its percussion, wind and stringed instruments, its rhythms, itscontent, its ethos.
Which brings us to the four new numbers in the first episode of the eighth season.
Atif Aslam is a brave man to revive Taajdaar-e-Haram, the epic and ageless qavvaali sung by one of the foremost qavvaals in reasonable memory, the Sabri Brothers, with Ghulam Farid Sabri in the lead. Brave, because Atif Aslam lacks his paan-lubricated, tobacco-grated timbre of voice for starters. A nice opening to the number is made by the rubaab. But it is soon made barely audible by strummed guitars; mercifully the tabla and dholak hold their own against Coke Studio’s omnipresent, lavish drum kit. Enter a voice that very quickly reveals how far down the road — but no more – an experienced yet untrained singer can go. One indication is, when worked harder the voice for one becomes breathy and loses fullness. Atif Aslam had ten minutes to encapsulate the much longer original exposition. He tried to make the truncated time variegated with forays into rhythm changes, and voice changes by narrowing his vocal cords – ‘ragee’.
The overall impression one has is of an inspired audition only.
Experimentation is the watchword to kindly describe Mekaal Hasan and his band’s offering of Bullhay Shah’s kaafi ‘Sayyon’. He introduces it by saying that they have presented a traditional classical composition with a modern look.
The contours of ‘modern’ are usually dodgy ground. In this number the kaafi has been modernised by the accompaniment of monotonous drums and guitars, both sounds and rhythm quite discordant with the temperament of kaafi singing where the purpose of rendering the poetry no matter how vigorously delivered is to create stillness and meditation, not the atmosphere of dancing in a darkened nightclub. Therefore when the baansris inject the ‘traditional’ element in the interludes, they strike up a discordance all their own. In these surrounds stands singer Sharmistha Chatterjee with her half-there voice better in lower registers and shrill in uppers, her delivery seemingly focused on demonstrating her ‘tayyaari’ (so far), eager to get to the end of the line and demonstrate the ‘Aao’ word in the refrain with notes that descend differently each time – and I am afraid a little wonkily each time. The number does not gel for ‘tradition’ or ‘modernity’ or even for “70’s rock” as a band member most intriguingly described it – or, most essentially, for mood and introspection.
Matching ‘Sanyyo’ for monotony is Nabeel Shaukat Ali’s ‘Bevajah’, the number being low on impact, and with little achievement at the end except to have soldiered through indifferent lyrics. He has a sweet voice with some training apparent, but I wonder why he chose to sing throughout with his throat deliberately constricted, now less, now more, the most in the refrain rendering it slightly comical.
The high point of the show was Mai Dhai from the Tharparkar desert. She burst forth with the high opening note of the folk song Aankharli Pharookai, singing sustainedly, effortlessly, vigorously from the heart, drawing uncomplicated scenes of the landscape she inhabits and its spirit. Her performance was unvarnished and true, rising above the alien sounds of her accompaniment, never flagging on dramatic tension and energy – until the interruption by the mediocre interlude in the raag Bhimpalaasi by Karam Abbas whose inclusion was not really explainable.
Mai Dhai is the sound of Pakistan. And Coke Studio needs to listen to it more carefully.