Dayr aayad durust aaayad – Coke studio fans everywhere heaved a collective sigh as some much-sought-after relief came our way this week. Coke studio unexpectedly offered up another single (which is personally my favourite, thus far) on Thursday before releasing the full episode on Sunday. As I had written last week, this season’s decidedly controversial decision to record with ‘house bands’ from across the world represents not only an aesthetic anomaly and an unprecedented technical challenge, but also promises to test us musically by creating more depth to that which we already held in high regard.
What further became apparent with the first episode’s three sessions is that each of the songs has varying levels of self-referencing by Rohail Hyatt and team, allowing for the theoretically disparate post-production process to have a familiar foundation to build on and work around.
Laili Jaan by Zeb and Haniya was wisely released as a single before the episode, with its tonal attitude and originality being significantly different from the three songs which were released later as part of the first episode.
[quote]The women put a gender twist on this song[/quote]
This season has seen Coke Studio begin to redress some of its previous pigeonholing of female performers, but Zeb and Haniya have always been an effortless exception in this regard. The reason this duo have been one of the show’s most consistent performers over the seasons is because they have a distinctive style, and have been unafraid of taking risks; singing in Dari, Urdu and even Turkish during their Coke Studio run.
In fact, the ease with which they fuse foreign elements into their songs is a testament to the courage and confidence of their creative processes. Laili Jaan is their ode to Afghan pop, and is a great example of the two working with their strengths. Zeb’s voice reminiscent of the scent of an unfurling champa is complemented by music that derives delight from its own joyous existence, and the gypsy-blues style also works within the framework of Zeb & Haniya’s own songs, triumphant with the trumpet and trills of the saxophone. Much like they did with songs like Chup and Rona Chor Diya, the women put a gender-twist on this song, reimagining it through a female perspective, a personal point of pride for us women.
[quote]Ali Azmat is shorn of his less-palatable avatars as a television anchor, political analyst and film actor[/quote]
From Zeb and Haniya’s understated but distinctive identity, we move to Ali Azmat’s flamboyant charms and theatrical presence. The BTS for this was a refreshing return to the incorrigible rock star with the off-hand Lahori wit we had all fallen in love with during Junoon’s heyday. Shorn of his less-palatable avatars as a television anchor, political analyst and film actor, Ali Azmat’s Babu Bhai has lyrics which capture the simple, populist observations that have been his forte since he went solo.
The song itself has some elements of Ali’s previous Coke Studio outing – Garaj Baras – but feels more familiar to his post-Junoon, Social Circus work. Rohail Hyatt seems to have had some fun with freshening up the impact of Ali’s signature vocals, reducing his trademark wailing and showcasing how auto-tuning an accomplished vocalist can allow the device to be used as a musical instrument rather than a cheat-code. But for all that, the song struggles to find an identity for itself, with both the vocals and the music feeling like each kept the other waiting to take the lead and Ali Azmat not seeming to have grown nor challenged either himself or Coke Studio much.
A far more harmonious alloy between artists is found in Uzair Jaswal’s Khayaal. In contrast to Babu Bhai and much like Laili Jaan, this song feels like the latest iteration in a clearly delineable evolution through the various seasons. The experiment of melding metal with rock vocals and riffs with grand orchestral songs has taken place several times in Coke Studios own past. Aunty Disco Project’s Sultanat had a hypnotic, highly dramatic interlude in season 3, but the process was really taken further in seasons 4 and 5 with Karavaan’s Kaisay Mumkin Hai and Mizraab’s Kuch Hai.
In both these songs, the sense of drama and grand occasion was provided by complementing the rock-heavy vibes with soaring violins. Uzair is probably the most gifted vocalist to be used in such an arrangement by Coke Studio, and his song features whumping guitar riffs accompanied by the melancholia of the orchestra. The result is a soaring rock ballad, (coincidentally the sort that Ali Azmat’s career has had a huge influence on) but what sets it apart is the feeling of all the elements coming together in a more compact and disciplined way than the aforementioned songs of seasons past. Finally, this song also eschews the characteristic slow-build-up-to-a-crescendo which was a feature of previous such efforts, choosing to let only Uzair’s vocals set the stage.
No song captures the creative potential of this season’s experiment with a globe-trotting approach better than Rabba Ho featuring Saeein Zahoor and Sanam Marvi. The confidence of five stellar seasons means that Coke Studio has carved an identity distinctive enough that the incorporation of foreign elements would only serve to enhance it. Rohail Hyatt and Saeein Zahoor had previously collaborated on a phenomenal, and slightly similar, version of this track for the film Khuda Kay Liye.
Here, much like in Jogi with Fariha Pervez, a female vocalist is invited to sing the parts previously sung by a male singer – in this case it is Sanam Marvi who sings the song’s iconic refrains. This song also features a bewildering array of musicians and musical styles, racing across the globe to incorporate artists from Italy, Nepal, Morocco and Bangladesh. Such a smorgasbord of influences could potentially end in rendering the final product a tad overwrought, but this is where Coke Studio Pakistan’s sense of coherence comes into play.
The song’s structure follows a distinct Coke Studio style, creating a dense yet subtly layered jaal, an atmosphere which builds precipitously towards a soaring and unified finale. The various instruments – played in different places at different times – are allowed to fuse together wonderfully because they are used primarily as accents for the song rather than standing out as attention-seeking leads. The most stunning example is how the Moroccon horns, the N’fars, are used to provide an enchanting and arresting drone which flits in and out of the track. What could have become an unwieldy song, engulfs the listener instead, slowly drawing them in before floating to more rarefied heights; reminiscent, yet incarnated anew.
In doing so, the decision to travel the world feels less like a PR exercise it might appear to the cynical. Instead, it represents a turning point for pop music in Pakistan, which has traditionally borrowed influences from around the world to make its own music sound more modern. Now it is Coke Studio doing the same. Convinced of its own identity, Coke Studio Pakistan has begun to seek out musical frontiers which enhance its own singular self.