October Issue 2015
Once More With Feeling
Now in its eighth season, Coke Studio is the most eagerly awaited and talked about music show in Pakistan today. The show’s signature focus on reviving traditional music, but with a contemporary twist, continues to strike a chord with Pakistani listeners.
It began as an experiment with musician-producer Rohail Hyatt at the helm, and went on to not only win critical acclaim but to become a commercial success as well. Today, the Coke Studio sound reverberates across the air waves on practically every local television and radio channel, and of course the internet.
The current season is being produced by the Strings duo, Bilal Maqsood and Faisal Kapadia, and Coke Studio’s stellar house band, carefully structured musical arrangements and art house vibe make each episode a much talked about event.
“We were very surprised when Coke Studio called us to come in and pitch for the show,” says Bilal. “As the biggest fans of the show, we were, of course, very excited. The core essence of the show remains fusion music, but we felt that the music had become a little serious and dark. So we wanted to restore a bright, happy flavour to the show. Our aim is to entertain people, not by giving them what they want, but by surprising them.
“There are so many unexplored genres,” continues Bilal. “We have fantastic film music in our archives, then there are the shaadi biyah ke geet which Bajia (Fatima Surraya) introduced to the masses some 35-40 years ago, but then there was nothing after that. Songs like ‘Sammi Meri Waar’, ‘Phool Banro’ are all wedding songs. But we also have to tread a delicate balance between entertainment and art. If we are doing wedding songs and film music, it has to be in a different wrapping. That’s where the fusion comes in — but while staying true to the roots. This is true for other genres as well. For instance, in ‘Khari Neem Ke Neechay’ we have fused an Arabic type beat, and it went down really well.”
Bilal and Faisal both feel a keen sense of responsibility while producing this show, which has become a flag bearer for Pakistani music. “The whole world is looking at us, and if this is what Pakistani music is all about, we can’t restrict it to one type of music.” Obviously, a lot of thought and research goes into each Coke Studio season. “We have to plan the texture of each season,” explains Bilal. “We try to keep a balance, giving equal space to pop, Sufi music, classical music, etc. Then we have some incredible musicians whose work needs to be highlighted. The younger lot has to be given exposure even while senior artists, who may not be seen so much any more, need to be pulled out of hibernation.” In fact, Bilal proudly reveals that Farida Khanum will be lending her presence to Coke Studio in this season’s last episode.
“Doing Coke Studio has been the most incredible experience for us,” affirms Faisal. “It’s the best thing that could have happened to us after 25 years in the music industry. Right now, Pakistani music is in a re-building phase. There was a boom in the music industry but it was followed by a crash and Coke Studio played a very important part in sustaining the industry when there was no other platform for Pakistani music.”
“Today we see a change,” continues Faisal. “Bands are creating new opportunities. Especially with the advent of digital media, things have evolved. Now anyone with the will and an internet connection has access to learning. There is a lot of talent out there and a bright future for the music industry. Other platforms and branded shows are emerging. We need to stick together and keep working and we will find our way.”
It is kind of ironic that, as performers, Strings are missing out on performing on the biggest music show in the country. “We do miss performing,” smiles Faisal. “But production is a full-time job. We don’t get the chance to even think about performing.”
Newsline caught up with some artists from this season’s line up. One is the Rockstar himself, singer-actor Ali Zafar. And then there are three emerging new talents who have blazed a trail with their performances: Ali Sethi, Nabeel Shaukat and Sara Haider.
Despite his stardom, Ali Zafar still comes across as refreshingly real. This is probably in part due to his keen comedic sense, which can often be seen lurking in his songs and videos. In this season of Coke Studio, he gave it full rein with the satirical Rockstar which has been tweeted about by the likes of Imran Khan and Hrithik Roshan. A drastic change in mood followed with the very bluesy, romantic duet ‘Ae Dil Kisi Ki Yaad Mein,’ proving the singer’s versatility.
You are no stranger to Coke Studio, but this time your music is quite a departure from your earlier songs.
Yes, I realise that this is not necessarily the kind of music that people were expecting from me in Coke Studio. But I wanted to do something completely different, unlike the serious, spiritual songs I’d done before. This is all very jazz and blues and rock-inspired — genres, which are close to my heart. I wanted to take a risk. And thankfully Strings (Bilal Maqsood and Faisal Kapadia) were very open to the idea. I had the concept and most of the lyrics for Rockstar and then I jammed with the house band to finalise the composition. Fortunately, it all worked. I haven’t had this kind of feedback for a song since ‘Channo.’ So many actors and singers have called me up to say they loved the song, that they have been impressed with the vocals. So the risk paid off.
Since you are the quintessential Pakistani Rockstar, you are basically having a go at yourself in the song. Do you think there is an element of truth in this thought? Are rockstars often more style over content, they don’t really know their music?
It’s good not to take oneself too seriously so, yes, I am having fun at my own expense. But I can speak for myself when I say that I take my music very seriously. I am trained in eastern classical music. Before the Coke Studio recordings, I started riaz a week earlier because I knew I would be doing something challenging and I knew it would improve my performance. You have to have the passion and the training and the practice. If you don’t have all these, you can perhaps come up with a few hits but you won’t have longevity or versatility. You can’t go from ‘Channo’ to ‘Allah Hu.’ You need a different vocal tonality for each genre. I have sung old classical film songs, pop songs, Sufi kalaam. You have to be true to your art. And to able to experiment like I did. You have to be very technically sound. Everything needs to fall into place to make the song work — arrangement, groove and lyrics.
The songs for Coke Studio are recorded in one go. And I ended up doing all of my three songs for the season in one day. We had, in fact, scheduled two days for three songs with one day as a buffer in between. Unfortunately, I had a severe case of food poisoning and ended up in hospital. I couldn’t even speak, let alone sing. On the last day, I managed to make it to the studio and somehow pulled off all three performances. I don’t know where the energy came from, as they are all different genres — rock, blues and then a Punjabi number. So it’s the training and the passion that carries you through.
You have worked earlier with Rohail Hyatt who was producing Coke Studio and now with Strings. What difference have you found?
Although they have completely different approaches, both have been easy to adapt to. Rohail would let the artist do whatever he wants, go with the heart, and he later tweaked the number during production according to what he wanted. Bilal, on the other hand, is very involved in the structure and arrangement of the song from the start.
If you had to pick one, what would it be, acting or singing?
I would say both, and fortunately I’m in an industry where I can do both since all our films involve music as well. It’s wonderful that our nascent film industry is undergoing a revival right now. I have set up my own production house and you will see two of my projects in production very soon.
And what about all your Indian projects?
There are several things in the pipeline, but I have put them on the back-burner for now because I want to concentrate on my Pakistani film projects.
The Melodious Harvard Grad
For Ali Sethi this season of Coke Studio marks, as he puts it, “my big flashy debut.” Although he has been learning classical music under the tutelage of first, Farida Khanum, and now Ustad Naseeruddin Sami, for some time now, Ali had contented himself with performing at the odd literary festival and doing a soundtrack for the film version of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. A Harvard graduate and writer with a published novel under his belt, Ali’s passion for music, however, seems to have overshadowed his other preoccupations. The superbly rendered ‘Umraan Langiyaan’ on Coke Studio’s current season, originally sung by Asad Amanat Ali, hooks listeners from the first chord and has made Ali Sethi one to watch.
You are a Harvard graduate. Then you went on to write a novel. Where does music fit in?
I have always been interested in the arts. I was an amateur singer in college and I have always been inclined towards eastern semi-classical and folk music. Even as a writer, I did a profile of Farida Khanum for an Indian magazine. At Harvard too, I pursued South Asian Studies, so my major was in the humanities. And my singing is not divorced from my interest in literature or cultural history.
I have been learning singing for the last 10 years now. I first became a shagird of Farida Khanum, who accepted me under her tutelage saying that “tumharay gala main murkhi phanda hai.” This meant that I had the quality in my voice, which can allow embellishments. But of course what I needed was “sur ki taaleem.” I have been learning and practicing. My teachers instilled in me the need for discipline and the desire to acquire knowledge without hungering for fame. When the fruit is ripe, it will fall. So I did that and I have been incubating for the last eight years. Of course I have had the privilege of being able to do so and I have a great blessing in my ustads.
What genre of music do you prefer?
I love ghazals, the old traditional numbers. I’m interested in reviving lost techniques and lost cultures. For example, there is a seraiki andaaz which has an almost Arabic feel. I like modern music but hulla gulla agar ho, it should be of a superior quality. If you just filter western pop music into our music without much thought, the result is very dissatisfying. I earlier rendered Farida Khanum’s classic ‘Mohabbat Karne Walay’ and added the sarangi and electric guitar to the music. I’m all for innovating, but while remaining connected to the source.
But isn’t there a very small audience for ghazals?
The ghazal has become stunted. It is being mindlessly reproduced by singers without any appreciation of poetry or raag or taal. There are lots of good ghazal singers but they have no access to good studios or musicians. I have the advantage that I have had the exposure and I am not compelled to be commercial. For me it’s an intellectual, spiritual journey.
How did you come to perform at Coke Studio?
Bilal approached me. I wanted to do ‘Umraan Langiyaan’ and we jammed with the house band which was a lot of fun, I knew the percussionist really well. But it sounded too western to me. I wanted to add a desi saaz to bring out the folk element of the number. So we added the harmonium, and the harmonium player has pulled off a difficult task really well.
Have things changed for you after Coke Studio?
Oh yes! The response has been tremendous. It’s been like a magnet, people are flocking to me. I’m getting calls from abroad. My ustad seeing all this frenzy says to me, “Buss, that’s enough. You have only scratched the surface yet.”
Your parents (Jugno and Najam Sethi) are well known media personalities. Has that been a help?
Well, first of all, my parents have always been very supportive and have given me every advantage. But sometimes, when you have well-known parents, there are people who are waiting for you to take a misstep. What is more interesting is that since I don’t come from a musical clan, I am not encumbered by any ancestral responsibility. I am free to pursue the hard-core rigours of my art and craft. And that has proved very fruitful.
Nabeel Shaukat shot to fame when he won the Indo-Pak singing contest Sur Kshetra. A high profile show, judged by none other than the legendary Asha Bhonsle, Runa Laila and Abida Parveen. Nabeel beat out a group of very talented hopefuls to walk away with the top prize. Nabeel is, in fact, something of a musical prodigy who has been winning music competitions from an absurdly young age. His renditions are effortlessly melodious and this uniquely gifted performer can only improve with time. In this season of Coke Studio, he performed the romantic, evocative Bewajah and then sang a folk number alongside Ali Sethi, both singers seamlessly blending two separate songs to produce a unique sound experience.
When did your music career start?
I have been singing literally since childhood and winning musical competitions since the age of about seven. I was so little that I remember occasions on which I had difficulty climbing up the steps to the stage so my father would carry me. In 1999, I won a Pak-India singing contest as a child artist. Then in 2011, I was chosen by Ustad Ghulam Ali to perform live with him on a television show. He sort of took me under his wing and whatever little I have learnt was in that time spent with him.
In 2012, I won Sur Kshetra and that’s when my career took off professionally. I have sung for films and soundtracks for television plays.
As you said, you became famous because of Sur Kshetra and many people have been waiting for Coke Studio to bring you on. How have you found this experience?
Sur Kshetra catapulted me to stardom. Each of us had about five minutes on air and in that time the whole of India and Pakistan was watching you. That show made me a star, but Coke Studio has given me my identity. On Sur Kshetra, we were only doing covers, but now I had the opportunity to do my own thing. ‘Bewajah’ is very close to my heart. I had a concept in my mind and I sat down with the song’s poet, Shakeel Hashmi, and worked closely with him on the lyrics. I also worked on the composition. So this show has allowed me to come up with something original, and allowed me to prove my versatility. And that is very important to me. Bewajah has the mood and tone of a ghazal. But I don’t want to restrict myself. I want to keep proving I can do different things.
So with Ali Sethi I have sung ‘Chan chan karay wangaan’ alongside his rendition of ‘Umran Langiyaan.’ That is a completely different genre. Strings came up with the idea of merging the two songs and they believed I could execute it.
What type of music do you prefer?
I like all types of music but personally, the singer I have been very impressed with, my guru Mohammad Rafi, whom I have tried to emulate. I have spent hours listening to his songs and trying to sing like him.
I have a keen interest in poetry so I like ghazals. I’m planning to release a new song soon. It’s a romantic, Punjabi number.
How do you see the music industry shaping up in Pakistan?
Well, a positive base is being laid for the film industry, which means work for playback singers. We are coming out of the slump of the past several years, but we are not at the phase to be able to compete with anyone right now. We need to be releasing 20 to 25 films a year to reach that phase.
What is the role of shows like Coke Studio in music revival?
Coke Studio is the biggest platform for singers and musicians right now. And we need many more shows along these lines. We have a lot of talent in Pakistan and it shouldn’t go to waste. The Indians have mastered the art of doing these singing-reality shows. They know how to utilise the talents of their artists very effectively. We can do it too.
A Touch of Jazz
Sara Haider has been a familiar face on the new seasons of Coke Studio, but as a background singer. Season 8 saw her emerge as a lead vocalist, crooning a duet alongside the debonair Ali Zafar. Doing a blues and jazz inspired rendition of the Salim Raza classic, ‘Ae Dil Kissi Ki Yaad Mein,’ the two performers have managed to pay homage to Raza while completely changing the style of the song.
Has music always been a passion for you?
I think music has always been around me. I could see it everywhere, in my community, in my religion. But I was, and to some extent still am, painfully shy. So performing was a challenge for me. Then I joined a band in college and I began to sing on stage. I don’t have a typical thin, melodious, eastern style voice. So I would do raspy, rock numbers, even do covers of male renditions like Junoon. So I have been part of this underground college music scene for the last few years, performing at T2F, Base-rock CafÃ© and places like that.
Alternatively, however, I also started performing with NAPA and learning how to use my voice.
How did you join Coke Studio?
Well, a friend told me that they were revamping their team and auditions were being held for back-up singers so I went ahead and got selected. It’s been fantastic here, it’s just so great to have a space to go to learn songs and perform. I have been coming here through my exams and having to write dissertations, but Bilal and Faisal have been very accommodating. I’m the youngest member of the band. I have so much to learn and everyone is very helpful.
You always seem to be having a great time on the show, really getting into each song.
Yes, people have told me that I seem to be performing more than some of the other back-up singers. I think that’s perhaps because I’m used to performing on stage.
So how did the duet with Ali Zafar come about?
Well, I had no idea about it. Bilal and Faisal came to me one day and told me about this song Ali Zafar wanted to do and that they needed a female singer. So I said alright, you need me to do back-up vocals and they said, “No, we want you to sing it.” So I sang it the way I thought they would want a classic film number to be rendered, in a high-pitched, very feminine voice. Bilal stopped me and said, “No, do it like yourself, in your natural voice.” Then I really opened up and gave my voice full rein. I worked on the melody with Bilal, making improvisations and interpreting it my own way because if a song has to sound authentic, it must come from within. I can’t just copy someone.
What was it like working with Ali Zafar?
Ali Zafar is very friendly and natural. And luckily, I just found a chemistry with him so it was very easy to open up. On the first day, he walked up and said, “You know I’m lucky to be singing with the country’s biggest star.” And I just started laughing.
Well the song has been very well received. Has it changed things for you?
In many ways, it has been really overwhelming. I did the song but never expected it to become one of the big songs of the season. It’s popping up everywhere, on all TV and radio channels. But I don’t want to get swayed by all of that.
This song was chosen for you. What kind of music do you prefer?
Since I’ve been involved with music for a while now and I have been going to NAPA, I have been exposed to lots of different kinds of music and to different vocal textures. But two personal favourites are Mohammad Rafi and Nayyara Noor. My aim is to work on my vocal skill, to build up my voice so that it can stand alone without too much orchestration.
Does the rise of the film industry encourage young singers like you?
If the film industry flourishes, everyone wins. Fashion takes off, writing takes off, music benefits. But personally I admire those who remain connected with their roots. You have to establish your identity whether as a woman, an ethnicity or whatever you feel strongly about. I want to be able to sing songs using the natural tone of my voice. I want to keep my base, rock voice and still connect with a gharana or culture.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s October 2015 issue.
Zahra Chughtai has worked and written for Pakistan's leading publications. She is currently Newsline's website editor.