june issue 2011
Interview: Rohail Hyatt, Producer of Coke Studio
“Our biggest enemy is the previous season”
– Rohail Hyatt
In this interview, Rohail Hyatt, producer of Coke Studio, speaks to Newsline about the journey that led to his discovery of eastern music and how he continues to dabble with it, trying to break down social barriers through music and language, and by injecting “the cool into desi.”
Q: From the introverted, nothing-big-scale phase to Coke Studio, how did that happen?
A: One day, I suddenly discovered eastern music. It was a very strange day for me, you know when something inside just goes click. Somebody had mentioned to me that there are different kinds of tuning and totally different ways music can be played, and I thought what nonsense. So I was sitting with my guitar and started detuning it from the standard tuning and I started hearing strange things. It was like the feeling I got when I first picked up the guitar, before I knew any kind of music. I started playing, I didn’t know what the notes were and suddenly it dawned on me me that there was definitely more to music than I have ever understood. That’s where my journey began. That’s where eastern music started making sense — the depths of it, the philosophy of it. And once my music sense developed towards eastern music, then I got into the poetry aspect of it as well.
Q: And you were never into eastern music or Sufi kalam before, were you?
A: Oh no! I was the person furthest from it! But I suffered a serious phase of identity crisis in terms of who and what I was, especially post 9-11. Anybody with whom I brought this subject up would never ever own up to being Indians at one point. Their response was more like, ‘Our history is 65 years old and everything else before that is not us.’ But this is the Indus Valley Civilisation you are talking about. How can you dismiss that just because they were pagans or non-Muslims? They are our ancestors and that’s who we are. We have inherited all that, we’re from that. This region was a melting point of Central Asia, Buddhists, Dravidians, Persians, Arabs; everybody came and settled here. I was told Lal Shahbaz Qalandar was a gora, a Central Asian gora. He settled here and learnt the language. We don’t know these things. We assume he must’ve been a Sindhi. Amir Khasrau was Turkish.
Q: How do you feel about Coke Studio now going to India?
A: And other regions — to the Philippines, Egypt, the Middle East, Central Asia. It’s lovely. Flattering. From what I am seeing and hearing, India is also trying to reinvent itself. Trying to totally steer away from Bollywood. Just look at the palette they have in terms of raw talent. Music is part of their philosophy. With a palette like that, you could paint a very interesting picture.
Q: Do you intend to take Coke Studio to other parts of Pakistan or bring on people from different regions of the country?
A: We start planning a year in advance and there were a lot of plans for this year. I had intended to travel to all the remote regions, but the situation in the country, and then the floods totally choked all plans.
We haven’t touched upon the Baltistani people, the Chitralis. Every region has its own instruments. We could go on infinitely!
Another thing I am looking at, since this is a melting pot, is that a lot of the musical influences you hear in our music come from the Silk Route, Persia. So I really want to go outwards and explore what came in, in its original form. For example, qawwali comes from the Central Asian art form called samaa, from Samarkand. So samaa is the mother of qawwali. It would be interesting to meet the mother of qawwali. Then, ghazal for example has its origin in Persia, in the 12th century. Poetry used to be recited with just music playing in the background, and over time it evolved into the ghazal as we know it. I’m sure if we go back, we can find the original arts forms and see what adulterations have taken place over time. Almost 200 years ago, when the Brits came here, they totally changed the map of music in the region. That’s when the harmonium was introduced — the harmonium is not our instrument by the way. It’s a German instrument, although the tabla and harmonium are almost synonymous with desi music; that’s what traditional music has become for us. The tabla came from Turkey and the Brits brought the harmonium.
The sitar is 300-400 years old. The sarangis and the tanpuras came before that. It’s interesting how it all shapes music.
Q: This sounds like an oral history project…
A: For me it is, which is why I call Coke Studio an experience. We are on an experience of discovery. We’ve done folk, this season we are going into classical. The deeper we go, the more back in time we will go. We’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more to explore in terms of languages and philosophy. What an inheritance we have and how sad we know so little. I don’t know what we were taught in school. All we were told was there’s Moenjodaro and there’s Harappa.
The folk artists are the ones who’ve really “held it together,” they haven’t let go of tradition. But now a lot of artists are giving up traditional instruments because nobody wants to listen to them. They have taken to playing modern instruments. For example, sarangi players picked up violins, which they now play at Radio Pakistan to earn a livelihood and to sustain their families. The sarangi is dying. A lot of other instruments have already vanished and even languages are dying. So there’s a major attempt this season, to focus on some of the dying languages of our country and the beauty of them! When a language dies, you don’t just lose the language, you lose an entire philosophy encoded in that language. You can keep on translating, but it is never the same. So a lot of wisdom is being lost sadly, which we can really benefit from as a nation today.
I know I was blind to all of this. There was nobody out there to show me this wealth and I would never have discovered it had I not stumbled upon it myself. Nobody even talked about these things. But now we’re sharing it by putting it out there. Maybe it will inspire somebody to get into Urdu literature, or Sufism. It is for every individual what they take out of it. We want to create a momentum in that direction, where we might at least invoke curiosity in some young minds as to what’s all this ‘desi music about.’ Because of the bubble I grew up in — actually it’s great I did, because I reacted to it — I don’t even know how to read Urdu properly. I can’t read the treasures we’ve got lying around and I feel so sorry for myself. We can’t learn from the amazing wisdom in them.
I just hope, whenever I leave and retire, this momentum stays where we discover ourselves.
Q: The Coke Studio experience has been nostalgic. Some of the songs I had heard in my childhood have returned in a different way. Yaar Daadi and Maar Charappa, for example, I know that the generation that followed is totally removed from this kind of music…
A: Because it was just so uncool. There’s a stigma attached to it. These are psychological barriers and they must be brought down. We’ve tried to bring the “cool into desi,” and hopefully Coke Studio is doing that by packaging it in a manner that is palatable. You’ve got outsiders appreciating it more than we do ourselves, and it’s time we woke up.
Coke Studio is also an open playing field for artists and we try and present them with a space where agar dil mein maar charappa hai to nikaal do. Hum nahi judge kar rahay! Humain nahi cheap lagg raha.
And I think this is why Coke Studio is transcending societal barriers. If the driver is hearing it, the maid is hearing it, the grandfather and the grandchild are also hearing it, there is cross-compatibility. Everyone owns up to a bit of it and recognises it. Someone will say, ‘Oh, that’s Ataullah,’ and somebody will say ‘Oh, that is Gumby.’ They are all relating to their own.
We’re one people. Regardless of background, where we belong, the way we are dressed or think, at the end of the day the circle is complete when we are standing together. It’s our uniqueness that defines us. We’re one people.
Music is something you can enjoy in jeans or in a dhoti! It works both ways. And so fundamentally, the intolerance in our society is also being addressed through this medium.
Q: How did you go about picking and pairing singers for Coke Studio?
A: I can’t take total ownership of the way it comes about in terms of selection, but in the end I’m the one who finally decides.
When we completed the first season, a lot of people said, ‘Well, you’ve used everybody, you won’t have anybody for the second season.’ But then for the second season we had a whole new palette of people. Similarly with the third, and now the fourth season. There are so many artists left that I could come up with a completely fresh list of talented people who would feature in Coke Studio 5.
For instance there’s this chap Asif who features in our next episode. Nobody has heard of him. He speaks fluent Rajasthani and sings the most beautiful Rajasthani tunes in the Marwari language. I don’t care whether he’s famous or not. He is a treasure trove. So he is our obvious inclusion. Then we want to give some unknown bands and people an opportunity. We have a big audience and anybody who comes on to this platform is exposed to it, which is good for them. So we share that space.
Q: Your fusion songs have featured stark contrasts — Arif Lohar and Meesha Shafi, and now Komal Rizvi and Akthar Chanal…
A: For the fusion songs we look for contrast. There is a very clear line between traditionals and non-traditionals. And obviously there is always an attempt to pair traditionals with moderns. Fundamentally that’s what is going on. Even conceptually, in a song like Bilal Khan’s ‘Tou Kya Huwa,’ people can question where the fusion in this is. But if they actually understand the entire rhythm structure of that so-called modern song, it’s purely based on a desi dholak groove. That’s fusion for me at a totally different level.
Q: How are you able to identify that a certain person fits the bill, because most of the singers are dealing with songs that are totally different from their genre of work?
A: I first do demos — I record every artist that comes in. When I first heard ‘Daanah Pah Daanah,’ it seemed to suggest that the song needed a departure. That it could potentially have a modern element come into it.
So there was that ‘let’s bring in someone modern.’ But who would be compatible with Akhtar sahib. There was the range issue of singing, someone had to sing at his range — he is very high-pitched, so it had to be a female. Out of the females, using Sanam Marvi would not have been a good idea because she is almost folk herself and so she wouldn’t have given me the contrast. Komal became a good choice. She was an exact opposite (in the way she’s projected herself), but interestingly, she’s actually eastern-trained. I was surprised. That’s why she’s been able to do the alaaps of ‘Lal Mori Pat.’ She held it, I have to hand it to her. These considerations are taken into account.
With ‘Daanah Pah Daanah,’ I thought since Akhtar sahib is Balochi, it would be a great starting point of integration of Balochi with Urdu. I think that is psychologically needed. We need to feel that we are a part of each other. You know it is really sad that when I pick up the phone and speak to a Balochi or Sindhi or a Pathan, I can’t even say hello to them in their language. I don’t know what they’ve done to me in school, and what vacuum we’ve grown up in.
I won’t say this song was a political choice, it was a very musical choice, but at the back of our minds we do feel there is a sense of deprivation in the provinces and we have a responsibility. If art forms can reach out and address these problems in their own way, why not?
Q: With music, some things just touch your heart regardless of the technical fine tuning, and some music is great because of its arrangement and use of technology. With Coke Studio, which is at a totally different level, there’s a way tunes and instruments and voices are put together to create something new…
A: Yes, especially the tuning. The fundamental tuning philosophy of Coke Studio is based on eastern values. There’s quite a bit of rehearsal and technology at work, and quite a bit of planning that goes into it. I know people just judge it in seven minutes. Think of it like this: when you are doing studio recordings, you can go and fix each word a 100 times. Here you’ve got one chance, from beginning to end; in one take it has to play like that. I have to have enough of a performance to put together and post as a song. Achieving that is difficult because it requires a lot of work. If somebody even coughs, you have to do a retake. There’s a whole science to it. It’s not an easy thing we’ve embarked upon as a concept. After every season I say this is my last, I’ve had it. It just consumes you totally, and it’s not easy to pull off. But a whole lot of luck also helps out since this is not an exact science. These are experiments — sometimes they go right, sometimes they go wrong.
Q: But you are pretty happy with how it’s turned out so far, aren’t you?
A: This is not very easy music to digest — not all of it, but some of it. This is seriously heavy stuff and to be churning it out on a mainstream platform is nothing short of stupidity. People would say, ‘11 minute ka kalam aap ne commercial platform pe chala diya?’ And I say it’s not a commercial platform, it’s become commercial because people have liked it, but it was never meant to be. We have never succumbed to the pressures like, ‘Oh God, there are so many fans now that we have to cater to the public taste.’ In fact, it’s even more experimental this time. We are staying true to what we do and have always done. And I’m happy with the fact that people are going along with it. That, for me, is unexpected.
It’s an innovative idea, a new sound. Fusion has been happening since a long time, this is different. I know it is because I know what goes on in the methodology aspect of it. As with everything new, it takes time. There is always an ingestion period. There is comfort in familiarity, so the moment you are in unfamiliar territory, the reaction is, ‘What’s this, I don’t like it.’ But then slowly this is what becomes familiar to you and you want more of it. Then again something new comes about and they say, ‘No, I liked the previous season more.’ Our biggest enemy is the previous season.
Q: Will we ever see/hear a Vital Signs song in Coke Studio?
A: The truth about Vital Signs is that it is over. I don’t think Junaid is ever going to return to singing and I would not be comfortable having somebody else [do the vocals].
We were what we were, and we had a good run. It’s okay to be a part of history now. Maybe somebody else might want to pick up our work like we are picking up older tracks. So 30-40 years down the line, some kid band might revisit Signs or Junoon, whatever the music trend of that time is. That’ll be nice. It makes very little sense for me to be doing it all over again. But if somebody else wants to some day come along and do a song of Signs from the platform, I wouldn’t say no, but I wouldn’t be chasing them to do it either.
That was a part of a totally different era, we were very innocent. I mean we had no idea what we were doing. Now that I know better, sometimes when I go back and revisit those songs, I think what tukkas (flukes) my God! We made some really bad songs too, but that’s okay because we didn’t know what we were doing. Today, perhaps I’m slightly wiser and I’m sure that if the mind keeps evolving and the knowledge keeps coming, 5-10 years down the line, I’ll look at this time and say, ‘Tumhain to Coke Studio ke waqt kuch pata he nahi tha. Tum kar kya rahay ho (You had no idea what you were doing at the time of Coke Studio — what on earth were you thinking?).
Farieha Aziz is a Karachi-based journalist and teacher. She joined Newsline in 2007, rising to assistant editor. Farieha was awarded the APNS award for Best Investigative Report (Business/Economic) for the year 2007-2008. She is a co-founder and Director at Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum of Digital Rights.