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It’s impossible to predict the afterlife of a piece of blockbuster pop culture, but here is an early radical proposition: The recently concluded season 5 of Coke Studio Pakistan has been its best yet.

There are excellent reasons to disagree. Coke Studio 5 doesn’t quite set new standards for fusion music in the manner of, say, season 2. Its outstanding reconstructed qawwalis are a follow-up of the form perfected in season 4. What we get in the 25 sets over these five episodes is a sort of remastered anthology of the different sounds Coke Studio has introduced to us over the years: high-octane indie, powerhouse folk, remixed pop staples, lo-fi classical.

Pitch-perfect: Hadiqa Kiani interprets Bulleh Shah’s Kamlee. Photo by Kohi Marri.

Season 5 is a model of restraint in comparison. There are songs here that make us dream, but none that exceed their—or our—ambitions. Still, it’s as hard as ever to accuse producer Rohail Hyatt of being unimaginative. No one else would push prog rock with Pashto folk, or drop a musical quotation from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan into a teen pop song, with quite the same self-assurance as he does. But ultimately, this season’s reputation will hinge on the question of whether the music plays it safe, or if it’s actually discovered a quieter, more controlled way to be.

Perhaps the only really new introduction to the Coke Studio soundscape is Punjabi rapper Bohemia. He gives us three fine sets, Paisay da Nasha, School di Kitaab and the Kandyaari Dhol Geet in collaboration with the brilliant Chakwal Group, who must count as the find of the season. This group of male singers from Pakistan’s Potohar region shine in their collaborations with Bohemia and with Coke Studio veteran Meesha Shafi, although I think Wah Wah Jhulara, their solo performance on the last episode, will emerge, over several listens, as their best work here.

The show has built, this season, on its knack for bringing together musicians from across frequencies. It introduces 18-year-old Uzair Jaswal, who will be giving Atif Aslam and Ali Zafar a run for their money one day very soon, and brings back Aslam himself to do something different from his superstar shtick. Aslam’s bovine quaver is never going to please everyone, but even his staunchest critics (of whom I am one) will find it hard to resist the opening notes of the long, complex Dholna, or the final sections of Rabba Sacheya.

My one serious complaint with this season is its relative lack of female singers. There are great performances—from Rachel Viccaji on the cheeky Neray Aah with Overload, Shafi’s rock-queen alto on Ishq Aap Bhe Awalla with the Chakwal Group, the wonderful Marvi on Koi Labda with SYMT—but only two women have solo numbers.

Shafi sings the Faiz classic Dasht-e-Tanhaai, a performance made all the more divisive by the fact that she’s a young pop star, not a radio idol.

And the silver-voiced, note-perfect Hadiqa Kiani will be criticized for her interpretations of Bulleh Shah’s Kamlee and the Amir Khusrau qawwali Rung (“Aaj Rang Hai"). She strips both down to linear melodies, inviting us to focus on her playback-perfect voice rather than her improvisation. But she has the show’s hardest job, since Rung is reprised, in the very next episode, as a heart-stopping classical performance by qawwals Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad. It made me miss the voices of Abida Parveen and Tina Sani from past seasons of Coke Studio. Overall, though, this season is so quietly glorious that they are honestly the only things I missed.

Coke Studio season 5 can be viewed in full atwww.cokestudio.com.pk

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