Ever since Rohail Hyatt hung up his boots, there were many who wrote Coke Studio off. The excitement had faded. Things just weren’t the same. Strings’ debut was like a Javed Miandad innings – carefree in terms of aesthetics but full of intent.
Their second round has come out as a more thoughtful venture. The line-up is well-rounded. The Atifs and Ali Zafars are still around, yet the earthiness has only increased. With Asim Azhar, Mulazim Hussain, Mai Dhai and Karam Abbas aboard, the show has assuredly upped its inclusivity. Here’s insight into the first episode of season 8, aired on August 16, in what might be the biggest sweep across Pakistani television.
Mai Dhai earned her spurs last year with her folk tune Sarak Sarak, which instantly clicked with the audiences. Aankharli Pharookai is an exact shadow of that composition – a raw, festive treat that echoes the arrival of happiness in the wilderness of Rajhastan. The Marwari articulation, whose eccentricity is oft-discussed by its native speaker and humour writer Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi, is an ode to a guest. Be it Arsalan Ali’s harmonium fillers or Aahad Nayani’s spirited drumbeating, the aura is an upgrade to last season’s dangerously catchy Shakar Wandaan Re. But the experiment with Karam Abbas has been no less than a disaster. The track demands too much from the well-versed vocalist, who seems to struggle while keeping up with Mai’s energy.
An opus of Nabeel Shaukat Ali’s artistic prowess, Bewajah is one for the masses to hum to. While Nabeel’s voice quality and Sajid’s soulful reciprocation warm the heart, the string section’s riffs will provide the long overdue goosebumps. Haider Ali’s guitar notes on the keyboard walk the listener through the domain the composition transports them to. The music is not only reminiscent of String’s coming-of-age record Koi Aanay Wala Hai (2008), but also belts out nostalgia of popular Pakistan music in days of yore, when the playing was crisp, the Urdu was right and the product was honest.
Little has been done to meddle with the actual arrangement, which was originally part of Mekaal Hasan Band’s third record Andholan (2014). Ahsan Papu’s presence overshadows both Abid and Sajid, who could’ve been utilised in a more efficient way. While the euphony of Mekaal and Imran’s playing are a treat for guitar enthusiasts, the tight groove is questioned by Momo’s palm muting with the right helpings of distortion. The strings section’s presence could’ve spruced up the regality of the track, but for those who get swayed by Eastern melodic compositions, Sayon will stay with them for a long, long time. Many MHB loyalists may disagree, but Sharmistha Chatterjee has no shoes to fill. Both she and Javed Bashir are good to an extent that scares you. Seems the heir to Runa Laila’s throne has finally arrived.
With over a million views on Facebook alone in less than two days, the track fits the curtain-raiser bill. What’s being dubbed as a provocative attempt, gathering a crowd comprising both romantics and naysayers, seems to be an honest attempt at bringing to light the multifaceted musical acumen that Atif Aslam is hell-bent on portraying. While he manages to breeze through the eulogy, the qawwali craves for a vocal powerhouse, such as Amjad Sabri, who could’ve greased the rendition had it been a collaboration. When the vocals don’t interest the listener anymore, Ustad Tanveer Hussain’s rubaab provides some respite. The redundancy in chorus is vivid, while the arrangement is reasonably decent. Wish the producers could borrow the track’s metronome settings for last season’s Chaap Tilak and fix both the promising covers that fell a yard short. While a comparison with the original and an evaluation based on the aesthetics of qawwali are both unfair and unyielding, the attempt will certainly not make the mighty Sabris turn in their graves.
Verdict: By and large, the episode goes to prove Strings have undoubtedly upped the ante from the previous year. What might not excite many as it used to, is yet to lose its relevance.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 18th, 2015.