After classical singers Puranchand Wadali and Pyarelal Wadali finished recording their performances for Coke Studio @MTV, the Indian instalment of the fusion performance show popular in Pakistan and Brazil, they told channel head Aditya Swamy, “Who thought we’d be on MTV one day?”
Perhaps several among MTV’s regular audience, listeners between 15-25 years of age, heard of the Wadali brothers for the first time last fortnight. Coke Studio @MTV has pursued its fusion project, gathering classical and folk collaborators from all over the country to collaborate with popular musicians, with unprecedented earnestness. The show’s Facebook page has over 400,000 fans, with numbers growing. But critical reception has been mixed, largely due to the presence of voices already made famous by the Hindi film industry.
While Shankar Mahadevan, Sunidhi Chauhan and several others appearing on the show are fine artistes, their voices have long run the risk of overexposure, singing as they do for an industry that produces hundreds of soundtracks a year.
Across the Indus: Naeem Shah (left) and Saif Samejo of The Sketches perform on Coke Studio. Photo: Courtesy Coke Studio
The show’s defenders say that Coke Studio @MTV is unfairly judged by Indian listeners’ experiences with the last three seasons of the subcontinent’s first Coke Studio project in Pakistan. While Coke Studio Pakistan has featured popular voices like Ali Azmat and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, its breakout hits have all been sleek, beautifully arranged jams by artistes rarely heard across the border (its most popular video is Meesha Shafi and Arif Lohar’s Alif Allah Chambey di Booti from Season 3 last year).
This year, Coke Studio Pakistan, which began broadcasting a week before its Indian iteration, seems to have taken the experimental project further than ever before. Each 1-hour show has ended with an extended classical performance, a mini-kutcheri in harmony with the show’s contemporary house band. A number like Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad’s qawwali Kangna, a 16-minute performance with a 5-minute alaap, pushes the boundaries of fusion.
On the classical performances, house band guitarist Omran Shafique, “being a standard-tuned electric guitar player”, played raga-tuned acoustic guitars. The experience, he says, has been “transcendent”.
“It seems with each successive season that the vision of the show gets clearer,” Shafique says. “I think Rohail’s (Hyatt, the show’s executive producer) primary focus is Eastern music, and Coke Studio has slowly come more in line with an Eastern approach, not the other way around. Now the music isn’t fusion, it’s exploratory.”
From these explorations come sets that have some of the miraculous quality of found art. One of this year’s standout performances has been the exceptional Mandh Waai by The Sketches. A young Sufi band from Jamshoro, Sindh, they chose to sing the poetry of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai. After a rigorous phase of creative reworking with Hyatt, they ended up crafting a luminous performance, its folk rhythms accented with Western arrangements. “When we watched it on TV,” says singer Saif Samejo, “it felt like we would have if we were performing on the banks of the Indus, or on the mountains of Jamshoro.” Many Sindhis, he says, wrote to the band after the performance, saying that Coke Studio had done for their music what Sindhi media had not.
Coke Studio has demonstrated from the beginning that its producers, especially impresario Hyatt, have an unmatched knack for reinvention. With a talent for surprising collaborations—witness the Balochi folk singer Akhtar Chanal Zahri singing with former VJ Komal Rizvi—and musical arrangements that take care to enhance vocalists’ styles, rather than drown them out, they reinvent not just the oeuvres of bands such as Strings and Jal, well known to the whole subcontinent, but also introduce their audiences to fresh perspectives on artistes like Ayaz and Muhammad, or the vocalist Ustad Naseer-ud-din Sami, whose 11-minute classical Mundari may well be one of the season’s best-received tracks.
Critics of the Pakistan show have much the same complaints to make of it as their Indian counterparts: Parts of it are too familiar, parts too jaded, and the sound often too processed. “A lot of Coke Studio viewers are dedicated fans of traditional music,” points out Danish Hyder, who blogs about the show for Pakistan’s Newsline magazine. “I’ve regularly heard the criticism that certain classic songs are reimagined crudely, with mainstream popstars tackling beloved standards.” That being said, Hyder maintains that “viewers aren’t biased against younger artistes. Sanam Marvi and Quratulain Baloch (both young female singers) were both praised this season.”
Each show has proven one point over the last month: that success counts even more than failure. Coke Studio’s legacy over the last few years has been made by the unforgettable jams; the inspired re-working and the fresh voices. We will only learn over time—and repeated listening—what those successes will be for the Indian show.
Coke Studio’s final episode airs in Pakistan on Sunday. For videos and downloads, visit Cokestudio.pk.com