There is a disparity we see every season on Coke Studio – there is a big difference between the reaction right after an episode compared to the general consensus that emerges about the songs a few weeks after the final episode is aired.
The biggest reason for this is that it is still a slightly anachronistic concept – on the one hand, it’s the release of a double-album worth of songs, and on the other it’s a six-week TV show. The latter produces the instant reactions, while the former provides the eventual decision on the merits of the music.
Strings have quietly become skilled at the difficult art of qawwalis made contemporary, having delivered brilliantly in the Moor soundtrack
Much of the internet and the chattering classes have spent the past week or so ridiculing Umair Jaswal’s energetic dancing in the duet with Qurutulain Baloch, titled Sammi Meri Waar. The discussion is almost completely superfluous to the song itself, which marks a major evolution in Jaswal’s vocals, sliding further away from his metal origins. However, his efforts pale in comparison to the powerhouse that is QB. It is mystifying why she won’t have a solo performance (again) this season, or indeed why she doesn’t release more music. Where Jaswal does well with the pleasing, poppish rendition of this folk classic, it’s QB’s voice that allows the song to truly transcend.
While Jaswal’s eagerness was mocked, Ali Zafar’s ‘Rockstar’ seemed to brilliantly anticipate the double-edged sword that Coke Studio appearances bring, and performed one of the show’s all-time most subversively hilarious songs. Sung in lyrics strung with contemporary pop culture and an ironic falsetto, it is one of the most exciting songs to have emerged under Strings’ stewardship of the show. Unlike last season, they have been far more eager to take risks in their compositions, and have resumed the focus on cross-genre fusions that were the show’s calling card, but had been toned down in their debut season. It also marked the long-awaited return of Ali Zafar to Pakistani pop. His self-aware charm has always contrasted well with his good looks, but it was a formula that Bollywood didn’t seem to embrace. His return to his origins gave everyone a taste, including perhaps himself, of just what we were missing.
The problem with risks is that they don’t always pay off, and Anwar Maqsood’s spoken-word cameo in Chiryan Da Chamba was a well-intentioned idea that just didn’t work. Rather than evoking the haunting desolation this raag-based song is meant to evoke, the song flitted between a clammy flatness and melodrama. It felt strange to think this about a rendition by Anwar Maqsood, but this seemed to lack his trademark subtlety. Still I get the feeling this won’t stop being the song from becoming popular, as it hits far too many emotional triggers inherent to Pakistani society to not have an impact. The relative celebrity of Suraiya Khanum and Anwar Maqsood also provides it with a reason to stay with audiences.
The song that will remain with me after the second episode is Rizwan and Moazzam’s Sakal Ban. The two qawwals don’t have the star-power associated with Fareed Ayaz and Abu Mohammad, or Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. However, they don’t lack in terms of talent, and this is another virtuoso performance of vocal pyrotechnics. Moreover, Strings have quietly become skilled at the difficult art of qawwalis made contemporary, having delivered brilliantly in the Moor soundtrack. They are excellent on this track as well, allowing the house band to truly break out while still managing to keep the whole thing together. The song is genuinely a high-point for Strings and the new-look show, and one that will only continue to grow on the listeners.
The mark of great Coke Studio songs is the stuff that you don’t immediately see on the episode, but start to notice more when you listen to the songs. Beyond the performing artists, two instruments that stood out in this episode were the flute and the bass. The much-awaited return of Mannu on the bass has been a superb addition to the houseband, but the show was stolen by Sajid Ali on flute. Ranging from traditional to jazz, this episode was a masterclass for the instrument.