One of the most intriguing dynamics of a Coke Studio release is the one between those hearing the song for the first time, and those who have heard previous versions of the song. There is often outrage at how the newer version has not been sufficiently deferent, or of sufficient quality to even merit a comparison. On the other hand there are those who fall in love with those lyrics, those emotions, those thoughts for the first time, and connect to their heritage in a way they hadn’t before. Many a times, the song has such an impact that it encourages the listener to seek out the original, thus creating a new link to an old treasure. The question is whose reaction should be given more value or merit when it comes to a critical discussion of the song?
I have often found myself veering towards the latter, because it represents a sense of replenishment and of renewal. It has a feeling of evolution associated to it, and feels very progressive. But then again those are the points the brain makes – sometimes the heart doesn’t know if it wishes to agree. Or perhaps the heart needs the song in a new context – divorced of its old meaning – in order to make space for it.
As I’ve said, this debate occurs both for me and the audience at large every time Coke Studio does a cover, which is the case with most of their songs. This week, it began with Aye Dil Kisi Ki Yaad Mein, originally sung by Salim Raza for the 1963 film, Ek Tera Sahara. On Coke Studio, it was covered by Ali Zafar and Sara Haider, and it was one of the boldest and most intellectually pleasing efforts in the Strings-produced iteration of the show. Instead of seeking to replicate the original – which in hindsight would have been an impossible task – it obliterates the existing notions of the song. What we get instead is a soaring, gigantic song that doesn’t hold back, indulging in the prodigious talents of the two singers and allowing the houseband to launch itself into a fantastic composition.
There was still a flicker of regret, or perhaps guilt, at enjoying this song in the context of the unforgettable original. But that feeling is tempered with the recognition that this process is precisely how music has been transmitted in our region for hundreds of years. Singers keep the music alive in each generation, and the only way to do so is to ensure that the composition and performance are relevant to their own era.
A similar debate occurs with Siege’s Khari Neem, a Tharri folk classic that had two famous echoes from the past to deal with. It was made famous by Maai Bhaagi’s unique voice which sounded like the first drops of rain on baked sand, and then it was reinvented in a more somber, mournful context by Tina Sani. Siege’s cover lies at the opposite extreme of Tina Sani’s, but perhaps in doing so it completes the circle and brings some of the swaying energy in the composition of Maai Bhaagi’s version. Siege is a band that does best when it is allowed to be bombastic, and this song plays to their strengths. Like Aye Dil, its composition will almost be guaranteed to incur the wrath of purists, but it is undeniably contemporary, and is reminiscent of how Rohail Hyatt’s production had revamped another elegiac song from Sindh, Tere Pawandi Saan, into a completely different, funkier version.
Mulazim Hussain’s Rabba Ho is one of the two more unassuming tracks in this episode, but what immediately hits you in this song is Mulazim’s voice. It stretches in moments where you don’t expect it to, coalescing around unarticulated emotions and bringing them to the fore. The song’s composition doesn’t try too many complications, and it finds its groove within a more standard fare of arrangements. The risk with that is that in the context of the season and the episode, it becomes a song that can go unnoticed, since its subtleties might be obscured by the big ticket songs. However, it can be argued that such a standard composition allows more space for Mulazim’s voice, which I’d imagine a lot more people would be intrigued to listen to again.
The reworked ‘Ae Dil’ is a soaring, gigantic song
Piya Dekhan Ko, by Ustads Hamid Ali and Nafees Ahmed, was perhaps the most uncomplicated source of enjoyment for me in this episode. Coke Studio’s long-running attempts at modernizing Eastern Classical represent perhaps one of its most interesting facets. While much of the music from this part of the world has now found a comfortable niche within modern sounds, classical music still has a way to go. The most obvious reason for that is the inherent complexity and endless nuance of Eastern Classical, which often overwhelm the simple confines of modern sounds. But as this arrangement shows, the ideal balance is found not in making the song sound modern, but rather to fill the spaces on its back and sides with modern sounds. This allows for the focus to remain on the most skilled practitioners – in this case the vocals and the sitar – but at the same time prevent such virtuosity becoming bewildering. Once again, though, this approach can come at a significant cost to the purist, or those familiar with its non-fused versions.
In effect, the question being asked in all these covers is whether we can bear with the risk of losing a memory in order to create a new one. But perhaps the fear is actually an expression of our own terror at our mortality, and thus a need to preserve that which connects us to our past selves. Perhaps there is no need to panic – perhaps instead what we need is simply to listen.