And so, Coke Studio has put out Season 8’s Episode 3 with its usual admixture of west and east – a high-minded, albeit slightly hackneyed-over-decades concept. Put this still-exciting (for some) purpose behind you and reflecting on the output naturally follows, starting with the inevitable question: how far does the resultant cocktail produce good music, music to set the soul alight with a quickening of the pulse, music that intoxicates and carries you away on a bubbling, or tranquil, or profound stream of consciousness?
To plunge without further ado into Episode 3, we had the customary four numbers.
How did they fare for effect?
Doubtless, Ali Sethi is steadily growing for grasp and fluency, as a musician with talent and steadfast ‘riyaaz’ will. He shows deepening roots now. His rendition of the late Asad Amanat Ali’s ‘Umraan langiyaan bhabbaanbhaar’ displayed better expression, and sparks of accomplishment particularly with his taans (applied well at a couple of places to the word ‘kaaleya’ for instance). But certain basic weaknesses showed through. To start with he should have set a tempo that allowed him to sing within himself rather than at the faster pace of this number, which had him straining and chasing in part to stay current. There is also in his voice a variance in tonal quality between lower and upper notes with consistency the sufferer. He tries too hard to convey emotion, tending to impose feelings upon you instead of making them arise spontaneously. He needs to work on his pronunciation: it is ‘kaag’, not ‘kaak’, ‘bhejaan’, not ‘bejhaan’, ‘bhaar’ not ‘paar’. Importantly, attention was needed to employ accompanying instruments suited to the content of the piece and not intrude upon it. The saving grace was the more emphatic presence this once of the harmonium, dholak and baansuri. As played, the guitars, synthesizer, drums and a country-western banjo piled on nevertheless, more a display of ‘duty’ than sensitivity, and went with Khawaja Ghulam Fareed as beautifully as ketchup does with firni.
Jafar Zaidi sang with control, precision and sustained feeling
Surprisingly, the number did not end when it supposedly did after what clearly seemed Sethi’s winding-up. A short corollary was slapped on after a pause, starting with a flourish of the drum kit, and then a shot of Nabeel Shaukat walking up to the microphone to deliver ‘Chhan chhan chankan vangaan’. Injudiciously hitched to ‘Umraan…’, like the old incongruous guard’s van at the end of the train, it was an injustice by the director to poor Nabeel, who still sang it judiciously if unremarkably. He sensibly cast aside the task of establishing an undistinguished composition’s identity and meshing it to provide ‘Umraan’ with expanse and enrichment. Nabeel sang better though than his ‘Bevajah’ in Episode 1 but – and this was not his fault – his pitch was queered by whoever thought of injecting his presence into the proceedings so, to achieve a solid mismatch.
Zeb Bangash’s career was propelled into the spotlight with her Faarsi offering ‘Paimona’ in Coke Studio’s second season. Similar luck could await Gul Panrra making her first appearance also with a Faarsi number ‘Man aamade am’. Bolstered by her fetching screen presence and a pleasant, brief rubaab overture in raag Bhairavin, and treading well on the cautious side of romantic and mellifluous, she was managing to hold up her end until the other mismatch of the evening was wedged in: Atif Aslam representing Coke Studio’s creative-policy steamroller launched his accompaniment in Urdu. I counted three voices issuing from him: breathy-normal, clear-normal, and a snatch or two of raspy-bass, each meaning to convey (unconvey, actually) emotion. Incongruity and disharmony were evident as daylight when they sang together.
The cherry on tastelessness was saved yet for the end. After the duet ended, Atif Aslam let fly with an unsavoury solo tail-piece; meaningless, tasteless and entirely out of line with the already feeble state the number had been skewed to. Whither the composer(s)?
Arif Lohar disappointed. I have admired him for years. His two earlier songs on Coke Studio, the widely popular ‘Jugni’ and pulse-poundingly heady, wonderful ‘Mirza Sahiban’ were instant hits. He chose this time to offer the slower, more thoughtful ‘Rung jindri’. It could not click – and it was not because of tempo; one essential element of his singing was not palpable – he did not carry his tour de force vigour and intensity into this song. Unusual. Maybe he had an off-day – ingrained in his nature almost like his drawing breath is his Chimta; instead of always being played to strike and sustain the beat throughout, uplifting and maintaining Arif’s persona at his ebullient norm, in ‘Rung jindri’ the Chimta stayed still in his hand for the main like a barely used prop. Truly an off day, I say.
Jafar Zaidi appearing under the title of his band, ‘Kaavish’ – although he sang alone – left his assigned station at one of the programme’s holy pillars, the Yamaha synthesiser, to take up the microphone and offer the best number of the episode, a repeat of the old Hamid Ali Bela kaafi, ‘Neun laa leya’. With voice and abilities still developing but already showing poise and quality well, he sang with control, precision and sustained feeling. For a change the orchestra (the ‘ghara’ particularly) sounded as it should: in character, unobtrusive, softly, steadily supportive. Jafar’s grasp of the subtext in the kaafi’s words and his discipline, mental and vocal, precluded him from exceeding aesthetic bounds. He maintained soul in his performance gently, his notes drawing forth meanings with subtle shadings of the aptly chosen raag Des. I had to listen to him eyes closed. Is anyone at Coke Studio listening?