Why did Pakistan produce the lovely “Coke Studio” music series and not India? Why is Pakistan’s “Coke Studio” more popular with many Indians than the new Indian version? Is it because Pakistan’s musicians are better or more creative than India’s musicians? Let’s explore the question.
My introduction to this sort of music came before “Coke Studio” began. It happened many years ago when I was staying in Lahore with my friend Iftikhar, a retired colonel from General Pervez Musharraf’s batch in the Pakistan Military Academy.
One evening Iftikhar took me to the Waris Road residence of Masood Hasan, later to become a fellow columnist of mine at The News. We had a few glasses of the good stuff with some other guests (friend Ejaz Haider was also present) and then Hasan took us to a part of the property where his son Mekaal had built a studio and was playing with his band. This was when I first heard the music that is now so distinctively the sound of “Coke Studio”. I would define it as a folk song or raag-based melody, layered with western orchestration. This included a synthesiser’s wash, guitars, a drummer, a bass punctuating the chord changes and backing vocals and harmony. Essentially, it was traditional Hindustani music made palatable for ears accustomed to listening to more popular music.
Mekaal did this very well and his band’s first album, Sampooran, is as good as anything produced by Rohail Hyatt at “Coke Studio” later. Indeed, many of the musicians Mekaal worked with eventually ended up at “Coke Studio”. Gumby, the Karachi drummer on “Coke Studio’s” first four seasons, played on Sampooran. Zeb and Haniya, the stars of “Coke Studio 2”, were originally produced by Mekaal.
The first-rate Hindustani singer Javed Bashir, who adds depth to the singers that are not classically trained, used to be a lead singer with Mekaal’s band. The great Ghulam Ali was on a flight with me from Ahmedabad to Bombay once and I told him I was friends with Javed. “Mera hi bachcha hai,” he said with great pride. And Lahore’s Pappu, Pakistan’s best flautist, has played flute for Mekaal’s records. I know all these people well and most have stayed with me in Bombay over the years. I am very fond of all of them.
Gumby and I went to a concert next to my house where guitarists Frank Gambale and Maurizio Colonna played. Gumby says Colonna’s playing brought tears to his eyes. Javed and I have drunk a few places dry and have been banned from one. Mekaal is, of course, a dear friend, as are Zeb and Haniya. I’m dropping these names so it is understood that I am familiar with the music and the musicians as few Pakistanis are. Now, to understand why India did not produce “Coke Studio” but Pakistan did.
The reason is linked to what I said earlier — that “Coke Studio” is a popular interpretation of India’s traditional music. India’s talented musicians and producers already have a commercial outlet: Bollywood. This is where money is made and this is where Pakistan’s singers who want commercial success must also come.
Their talent, however, is spent on making music that is purely popular, because that is what they are paid big money for. Indian musicians like Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and Kailash Kher can make the sort of classical-popular mix of music that one hears on “Coke Studio” easily if they set aside a couple of months for it. But they choose not to because their working day is spent making music that makes them rich (Kailash, whom I’ve known since before he sang for Bollywood, today charges Rs20 lakh for a two-hour concert). In Pakistan, there is no commerce in music and even the most talented musicians must do something other than sing or play to get by. Mekaal rents out his studio.
The disadvantages of not having a commercial outlet for one’s talent are many. The only advantage of this is that musicians are free to make popular music that is still non-commercial. Fortunately, for all of us, whether Indian or Pakistani, Rohail Hyatt and his team have used this space to produce the music that we love so much. The reason why Coca Cola produces the show is that the Pakistani public will not directly pay for it, unlike Indians and Bollywood.
It is cruel to say this but it is true.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 10th, 2012.
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