When the heat rises across the subcontinent, a large part of its population, across borders, greets the new season of Coke Studio with the rapture usually reserved for thunderclouds in late summer. Since 2008, this Pakistani television show has brought together classical, folk and pop musicians to create new sounds out of Pakistan’s old and diverse traditions, and acquired a formidable army of Indian and expatriate fans around the world.
Some of its extraordinary appeal could be gleaned, perhaps, in the joy with which MTV began recording the Indian edition of the show in April. As producers and executives greeted each other, the refrain, “We did it!”, echoed around the sets.
“We’ve been thinking about this for years,” says Aditya Swamy, channel head, MTV India. Months of scouting for performers across India, of a gruelling schedule of collaboration and practice, of days and nights of recording have now come together.
Surround sound: The Coke Studio set
On Coke Studio’s signature black and red set, with no interruptions from anchors, judges or audience, Sunidhi Chauhan records with the stalwart Wadali brothers. Assamese folk superstar Khogen Da sings with Shankar Mahadevan. Classical singer Bombay Jayashri jams with Chinna Ponnu, perhaps best known outside Tamil Nadu for the folk anthem Nakku Mukka.
“We want the Kashmir-to-Kanyakumari experience for listeners,” Swamy says.
Pakistan’s Coke Studio reinvented the pop-folk crossover. As teen pop icons sang the poetry of Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah, and Strings re-recorded their monster-hit Duur accompanied by the classical stylings of Ustad Hussain Baksh Gullo, it seemed like a wholly new musical idiom was emerging; slick and easy on the ear, but without the limitations of a shallow remix.
Leslie Lewis, the show’s music director
In a country where recorded music was failing to keep up with piracy and the concert scene increasingly threatened by security concerns, a TV show that was all music and offered, moreover, free downloads of every song and episode on the Internet, became a phenomenon.
In India, the behemoth of Bollywood music already offers a platform, warts and all, for the crossover sound. Vocalists such as Kailash Kher and Kavita Seth, for example, are already well known for bringing their Sufi-inspired music to the increasingly diverse soundtracks of Hindi movies. But Coke Studio@MTV chooses not to draw a line between itself and an industry often accused of crushing the life out of the independent artistes it chooses not to swallow whole.
Leslie Lewis, the show’s musical director, is keenly aware of this. “When ‘Indipop’ began in the 1990s, it took seven or eight years to pick up. The Yaaron Dosti (his song, with KK, recorded for indie film Rockford) phase was one thing. Colonial Cousins (his project with Hariharan) was totally different; by this time people were saying they had heard music before, but never like this.”
But Lewis’ success apart, that scene began to repeat some of Bollywood’s own mistakes—prizing saleability over talent, creating a landslide (in the closing years of the 1990s) of poor products. Bollywood eventually overwhelmed a fledgling recording industry of non-film music.
In collaborating with the show’s other artistes, and performing himself (he and Hariharan will have a Colonial Cousins set), Lewis has lost months of sleep, but found a whole new groove.
Independent music is increasingly popular, finding new venues and audiences in English and Hindi as well as, in a limited way, in other languages. But Coke Studio@MTV may be the first product built on a scale that begins to approximate film music’s mammoth reach.
“I think this might widen MTV’s target group like nothing else has,” Swamy says. “We’re not thinking 15-25 (years) here, it’s probably 15-75.” He says the channel is “not looking at numbers” for the show’s audience.
In India, where Shafqat Amanat Ali is perhaps best known for singing film hits such as Mitwa (from 2006’s Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna), the show will bring an Indian audience closer to the performer who, on Pakistan’s Coke Studio, reworked the enchanting Hindustani “light classical” sound of Khamaaj and Aankhon Kay Saagar, his early hits with his band Fuzon. It will lay down classic blues guitar lines behind Mahadevan and Khogen Da’s voices, and have the folksy Kher improvising as per Lewis’ jazz sensibilities.
Seen one way, it could be an enormous project of reconciliation—to bring the Sunidhi Chauhan fans to the Wadali brothers, and Wadali enthusiasts to Chauhan, and bring both these audiences to music in “Kannada, Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil—a host of languages”, as Swamy says. For a generation of listeners who may not remember Mile sur mera tumhaara, MTV is looking to recreate the idea of an India connected by its music.
“Everyone’s always asking, what’s new? What’s next? What else after Bollywood?” Lewis says. “So, you know, here you go. This is a great starting point for what’s next.”
Coke Studio@MTV will air on MTV starting 17 June, every Friday at 7pm. For details, follow www.fb.me/cokestudioatmtv