The monotony of Coke Studio becomes more evident with each passing episode. It is not just the overdose of Sufism that is causing problems. It is the repetitive arrangements, redundant reinterpretations, and above all, the forgettable melodies. One can barely tell the songs apart on the radio, but mesmerising pieces like Laili Jaan are a notable exception. In the latest edition of the popular music show, the listener meets with heavy weights Abrar and Rustam Fateh Ali, both performing songs below their musical talent and capabilities. Then there’s Ayesha Omar, giving us yet another reason to dislike her vocal capabilities. While Rustam’s song is one of a kind, it’s the devastating and almost demeaning disco take on Lagay Rae Nain by Ayesha Omar that unfortunately eclipses the multitude of talent on this episode.
Why Ayesha? Why?
Omar lists the raags she has learnt and elaborates on her long musical journey from the age of nine, only to present us with a flat, mechanical, Barbie version of Lagay Rae Nain. She is not the only one to blame, perhaps we can fault the synthesizers and electronic effects that have been heavily layered over her audio, turning the song it into what she calls a “Sunday drive to the beach song” and Rohail calls “very soulish”.
One thing is for certain; her selection as an artiste on Coke Studio wasn’t in Rohail’s control. The brand probably forced him to bring mainstream, popular faces into the show in order to make it look grand. Whatever it is, Rohail’s limitations as a producer, along with his vision as a music arranger, are quite clear in his modern rendition of the classic thumri. The song sounds more like a remix of a 2000s Bollywood hit than a piece of auditory art by one of the most renowned producers of the sub continent. The song is catchy for all the wrong reasons, which is why platforms like Coke Studio should be very careful when attempting to reinvent classics like Lagay Rae Nain — a number that’s been sung by the likes of Hamid Ali Khan and Mehnaz begum, to name a few.
One keeps wondering why Rohail chose Ayesha to perform such a prestigious number, when he already had classicaly trained vocalist like Zara Madani on board. For Ayesha Omar, the lesson is quite simple — sometimes it takes more than just passion to be recognised. Either accept that you have vocal limitations and work on them like Zoe Viccaji did, or don’t talk about your classical training in music when you sound flat and unmoving.
Not challenging enough for Abrar
Abrarul Haq makes his Coke Studio debut in this episode with Ishq di Booti, presenting a composition rooted in folk rhythm. When brought onto the Western scale of music, the track finds itself comfortably placed in shades of Jazz and Funk. The song has an incredible beginning, with the right mix of eeriness and happiness being created by the brass section and the keys, but dies as the song progresses. The song by its very construction has roots in folk tradition. That’s why its melody is repetitive, and doesn’t stay charming to the ears for long. That is also where Rohail fails as an effective produce and arranger, as he doesn’t offer enough musical variety to keep you glued to the melody. Vocally, Abrar has done a great job, but this song doesn’t even come close to the original caliber and range of this Pakistani gem.
Rustam Fateh Ali Khan: Never too late for a genius
Tori Chab by Rustam Fateh Ali Khan and Sumru Ağıryürüyen is a well orchestrated collaboration of a rarely-rendered South Indian Raag called Aboghi Kangra, and the traditional Anatolian classic Kalenin Burcu Muyam. The final product is both haunting and soothing, and the credit for that goes to the beautifully played instruments in the nine minute long song. It is one of the rare songs from the new season where, despite the length of the track, the arrangement has actually worked, and the orchestra doesn’t sound repetitive. The African harp, the Kora, Oud — alongside what some consider the ancestor of the piano — the Kanun, are the soul of the song.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 26th, 2013.