گورے رنگ کا زمانہ کبھی ہو گا نہ پرانا
Vital Signs 1 released on March 1, 1989.
Junaid, Shehzad and Rohail wanted to be a real rock band. They had grown up as musicians playing Rush, A-ha and Pink Floyd. Later Fleetwood Mac and Duran Duran would become influences. They played music because they liked to, no one really thought anything would come of it.
But here, in 1989, under the mentorship of a certain Shoaib Mansoor, and under the shadow of their greatest hit Dil Dil Pakistan, the Vital Signs put out an eponymous debut album that to this day frames the image of Pakistani popular music. The focal point of that image, is Gori playing on the streets of Pakistani cities.
Vital Signs 1 is a soundtrack of urban celebration. It is the celebratory pop music that accompanied the political euphoria around the country, buoyed by the triumphant return of Benazir Bhutto to Pakistan – and with it hopes of democracy, and urban dreams of a bright future.
Upon scratching the surface there are many distinct emotions to this album: soul searching, nostalgia, melancholy. But the album, like the time of its release, is remembered for its hope. The Vital Signs never quite estimated how much this hope, and in turn they themselves, would mean to people. And it seems still that they don’t quite understand why.
Songs are your own creation and they are like kids and when people praise any of yours kid you start loving that one more. There’s no such most favorite song but due to occurrence of a number of interesting incidents some songs can’t be forgotten. When we were doing “Goray Rang ka Zamana” friends forbade us to do this song. They said this song was not of your style and it wouldn’t be appreciated by masses. This is why we put it in last place on side A of our first album. Shoaib Mansoor had written that song and he urged us to do this song because in his views it was going to be a big hit. But we did it half-heartedly; I sang it without any devotion or dedication and just got rid of this song after recording in the studio. Shoaib Mansoor did mixing of this song himself and when the album was released, the song was a magnum opus. When people used to request to sing this song in concerts we tried to avoid it but later we realized that this is our culture and this is the kind of songs people love in our country. On the same theme then we did “Sanwali Saloni Si Mehbooba” and the practice went on. Anyways my personal favorite song is “Aitebar”.
The Signs’ music, on Vital Signs 1 and later, was really just about dealing with “urban existential crisis”.1 This in itself does not set them apart from many other rock bands. But what was special about the Vital Signs is that they operated in a very specific context: Pakistan. This contextualization came from Shoaib Mansoor, through the lyrics he wrote and the general influence he had on the band. It was Mansoor that turned the Vital Signs into the voice of Pakistan’s urban youth.
One way of dealing with this “urban existential crisis” was for the Vital Signs to romanticize their cultural and political roots as they did in Dil Dil Pakistan. And also in some sense in Gori2. And this made perfect sense in the political climate of the time, where questions of patriotism and progress were at the surface of urban discourse.
In Vital Signs 1 however, were also Tum Mil Gaye, Musafir & Yeh Shaam: songs that were less about any communal sense of progress, and more about a very personal fear of a “sudden loss of happiness”. These are songs almost devoid of hope, songs of resignation to the failures of urban life. With a view to their later work, one realizes that it these songs that make up the Signs.
But of course, in the euphoria of their arrival as a whole, Vital Signs 1 remained in public perception an anthem of celebration and happiness.
As the country’s political outlook began to embrace a disappointment, as it often tends to do after victorious claims of hope, the Signs’ dealt with it and their own emotional turmoil with a much more reflective, serene Vital Signs 2.
In it were Ajnabi, Tere Liye, Yaad Karna, Hum Rahe Rahee – all songs of sweet melancholy about relationships. Other songs looked outward, but with a similar, dark undertone: Aisa Na Ho – a song of political warning, Mera Dil – a dark comedic take on America, Bazaar – a melancholic exploration into the perils of rural-urban migration.
Yet there is also a silent hope in Naraaz, Paas Rehna & Nazar – an optimism almost that despite love losing its innocence, it might still remain alive in some form. A gusto of military patriotism even makes an appearance in Aisay Hum Jeeain.
But the album started, with Sanwali Saloni.
جگ کو جگانے کئ دیوانے روشنی بن کر چلین گے
It’s perhaps still too early to treat the emergence of Coke Studio as folklore. All we have of the back-story is occasional remarks from Rohail Hyatt and his colleagues, made to a famously selective list of journalists. Hyatt doesn’t like talking to the media.3 At times you get the impression that he’s overthought it all, that the idiosyncrasies of his outlook and his work are merely the results of thinking himself into a corner. But you also sense that it is the framework of this thought that makes you feel what you feel when you listen to his work.4
The story goes that Hyatt spent some time in the wilderness after the Vital Signs stopped working together. But through the decade after the Vital Signs, the music remained alive. From the many production companies he would found or work with came Pepsi’s Battle of the Bands, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s Charkha, and music to Shoaib Mansoor’s Khuda Kay Liye. But in 2005, he was back to “poverty”.
The way out, was an unlikely collaboration with a corporate giant. Rohail had worked with many corporate sponsors before, Pepsi’s collaboration with the Vital Signs being perhaps the most prominent – which at its best allowed the band the financial freedom to record well and travel all over the country to make music videos, and at its worst had them turn Dil Dil Pakistan into Pepsi Pepsi Pakistan.5 Despite successful collaborations after the Vital Signs, such as the Pepsi Battle of the Bands, Rohail found there was always someone saying ‘no one is going to listen to this’. But in Coca-Cola’s brand charter Rohail found a kindred spirit – one that fostered inclusiveness, and the belief that Coca-Cola wasn’t just selling sugared water, but happiness.
After some wrangling Coca-Cola gave the go-ahead to Rohail, now their music consultant, to begin a ‘fusion’ music project.
Rohail had ventured into Indian classical music some time before Coke Studio, and he began to notice a chasm of emptiness between how he (along with other western style musicians) understood music, and how many Eastern classical musicians thought about their music. This gap here wasn’t created by differences of style, but rather of the fundamental theory of sound and music that underpinned the two traditions. Rohail dug deeper and deeper and went farther and farther away from the world, enchanted by this new world of raw sound. Alone in a room Rohail had his computer play raw frequencies of sound and began to notice the effects on his physical person and even on plants around him. He began to believe that there was a resonance between certain kinds of sound and living bodies. To the outside world he began to look mad, and he tried to figure out a less hermitic way of having everyone else feel what he was feeling.6
This desire to bring back his euphoria to the world, met in the political and social circumstances of the time a desire to build Coke Studio. Around himself, and within himself, Rohail noticed an identity crisis after 9/11. The ‘you are with us or against us’ narrative shaking Pakistan to it’s core. In parallel he saw the damned status of folk artists in Pakistan whom he had learned so much from. This to him, was a deep injustice. In Coke Studio therefore was personal exploration and a cultural statement. This statement was not a reply to the Taliban, as many in the Western media would see it, but a challenge much more introspective, much more exploratory, and perhaps much more fragile.
The first season therefore, was tentative: “you can tell the concept of fusion was there, but it was limited to something like a dholak in every song”. But something hit home with a song called Allah Hu, performed by Saieen Tufail and Ali Zafar. Allah Hu was a real re-think of spiritual music on a pop-stage. Perhaps the most daring since Nusrat, and certainly the most influential. It had two singers, one a great folk artist unknown to the country’s TV audience, and the other one of the country’s biggest pop singers. Any by pop I mean real poppy pop. But Allah Hu was serious, deep, and yet accessible. It was not pop at all, but it was easy as pop to swallow.
The reception to Allah Hu gave Coke Studio the confidence to build a more solid framework to explore eastern classical. A tasteful attempt at ‘fusion’ music was going to become an all-out rethink of how to make Pakistani music accessible and relevant.
Season 2 was the real definition of Coke Studio’s functional framework. In the refinement of the process of Coke Studio the show also found a crystallization of its conceptual underpinning, i.e. the thinking around how Coke Studio would make music helped to really understand how Coke Studio would become the practical application of Rohail’s abstract experimentation with sound.
The functional form of Coke Studio 2 revolved around a few broad guidelines, which it would continue to hold for the next four years. Each song revolved around a raag. The song could be folk or pop, if it wasn’t set in a raag before, it was decomposed and constructed on top of one again. This gave all sounds DNA from the soil that Rohail believes makes them special, familiar, and touching. Each season consisted of a handful of episodes, each episode consisted of a handful of songs. One song in each episode was to be a ‘fusion’ song, in that it had two artists share the stage. One artist each from the two traditions Coke Studio represents: the classical/folk scene and the pop/rock scene.7 A house band orchestrated by Hyatt played on every song alongside the singers. The live audience of Season 1 was disposed of in the interests of better recording quality, but the recording was still of a ‘live’ studio performance i.e. all musicians played together and the final recording was one take.
But all of these rules were loose. There was one rule that wasn’t.
One thing that was very clear from the beginning was that the intent – jo humara pehla qalma ban gaya hai; the artist must shine. So through all our efforts, from the time we approach them right to the track that we’ve achieved, if the artist doesn’t shine, then we’ve achieved nothing. That’s been the purpose from day one that a platform will be actually given – in the absence of artists getting proper facilities or good production value. As an artist, I know during the times of Vital Signs, that was a very difficult thing to want. Every time we wanted to do what we really wanted to do, there was somebody telling us that ‘no one is going to listen to this’. It always used to be a really weird thing to give in to – my creative expression [to corporate sponsors or record labels].
This mantra would shape the entire process, from trying to select artists, to selecting songs, to performing them and to distributing them. The role Coke Studio took was to act as a mediator between artists and audiences, to repair a relationship that it believed had intrinsic value but had been damaged by economics, poor production quality, and well, PTV.
I recommend songs to the artists and then it’s each artist who must own the platform. I’ve been an artist so I know that what an artist actually wants to do and the song that is most famous are almost never the same. With Vital Signs, it was always ‘Gori’ or ‘Sanwali Saloni’ but those were not the songs we always wanted to do. And if as an artist you do a song that you want to do, your heart will be in it. That is what I look for and encourage.8
There was an intention to signal the end of Goray Rang ka Zamana. The lyrics to that song claimed that could never happen, arguably for good reason. It would be an uphill battle.
دل ڈھونڈتا ہے وہی زمانہ
VS:2 was a commercial success, and had cemented the legacy of the Signs. It “remains to be perhaps one of finest sonic documents of local pop music … an evergreen gem and a definite Pakistani pop classic”.9
They band were playing more concerts than they ever had, and were more secure in their status as stars as ever before. As a result 1993 was the most stable, most successful year so far in the Vital Signs’ career.
Accompanying this stability was however, a definite sense in a large swath of the Signs’ audience, as well as in Pepsi (the Signs’ financial backers), that VS:2 was a bit too depressing. They all wanted the Vital Signs to make something more like VS:1.
And in response, there is a notable change of tone prevalent in Aitebar, the Signs’ third album. In the Signs’ legacy, Aitebar is now considered almost an aberration – a shallow exercise in saccharine pop addressed to an equally shallow market desire. Aside of the sweet title track, the “meaty” Yehi Zameen, and the obvious hit Woh Kaun Thee, no other songs are really held up as accomplishing something meaningful towards the Signs’ legacy.
Dil Dhoondta Hai is the poster-child for criticism against Aitebar. It is a harmless, but effectively listless exercise in nostalgia that addresses no depth of emotion felt by audiences of the time, or perhaps since. It is amusing to look back to but it possesses no emotional wonders. Yarian and Challa are nice, but they too are ultimately underwhelming.
The songs that interest me are Chupa Le Na, Khamosh Ho, Har Chehra and Bichar Kay. These appear simultaneously incomplete and overthought. Shoaib Mansoor’s lyrics almost allude to emotions, and don’t really capture any in their entirety. The musical identity of these songs appears to take on no holistic form, the instruments in tune with one another but not really in harmony. But yet the melodies are haunting, true, and on to something. If was ever a redo of Vital Signs songs, covers or rerecording, I would pin for these four. Because I think in the seemingly below-par natures of these songs lie the beginnings of perhaps the greatest rock album ever produced in the country, Hum Tum.
نی بالان وانگر ضد نہ کر تو، عشق دا راہ اے بھیڑا
The next three years of Coke Studio were about taking the framework of Season 2 and apply it to more music, and more musicians.
The hits kept on coming. Perhaps none bigger than Season 3’s Alif Allah Chambey di Booti, colloquially known as Jugni. It had rising pop-icon Meesha Shafi share the stage with folk legend Arif Lohar. Jugni is catchy and infectious. It is modern, yet traditional. Desi, yet cool. What is telling about these years of Coke Studio is not just how they got to hits like Jugni, but how they reacted to them.
There was a lot of pressure last year because you’ve got a hit like Jugni, now what are you going to do? You know instantly there was this notion that ‘Challein ji, Arif Lohar ko bula layein, Meesha Shafi ko bula lein wapis’ but I said ‘No, not yet.’ Of course they are most welcome to come back but this is not formula oriented. One thing I know I am not going to do is try and make another Jugni.
This is the interesting battle between critics and Coke Studio. As these middle years progressed Coke Studio’s sound was increasing seen as static, formulaic; the same thing over and over again. To Hyatt one can imagine there was nothing formulaic about it. Each song was it’s own entity.
But there was a formula, not one engineered to produce hits, but a formula in the framework. What had become formulaic was the two-tiered lens with which to reinterpret modern Pakistani music: pop & classical. Pop was reinterpreted with classical theory, classical was repackaged with pop flavor. This, more than anything else, had become formulaic.
To the outside, Coke Studio had become static.
But really a lot was in motion. Many things were changing, more genres being explored, more risks being taken.
Some experiments never quite worked out all, such as inviting bands to the show and playing without the entire house band. Putting two pop bands together was also not their best moment.10 But others were brilliant. Coke Studio 3 expanded to explore Qawwali, and put in a little bit of 1970’s American funk. By Season 4 they had enough confidence to give Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad a Pink Floyd sounding backing band, in the epic Kangna. Bilal Khan’s pop proved almost an infinite blank canvas to merge standard chord-progression pop with eastern classical. Atif Aslam & Meesha Shafi continued to prove that Coke Studio gave them the freedom to be truly wonderful artists that could explore both themselves and their heritage and take us on a journey with them.
But to the press this was all “starting to feel like one too many classic-meet-pop fusions”.
The middle years, in my mind, suffered from a lack of context.
Take the set, for example. In Season 2 the set resembled a stage orchestra, mock performing to an audience that wasn’t there. Season 3 replaced this with the musicians assembled in concentric circles. Season 4 had them perform in a spiral governed by Da Vinci’s Golden Ratio. Season 5 had the set as a square within a circle. This was not random, it meant something. But we never found out what. The differences existed and they meant something, except the public never really had a chance to fathom them at all. Perhaps that was what Rohail intended, that the purity of the design remain as it is. It is a strangely Jobsian vision of the world, but perhaps not as successfully mass-market.
What the set illustrates is that the audience never really could understand what Rohail was trying to do. It was never about producing hit songs, it was about diversifying the range of accessible eastern music to Pakistan’s urban audience. And to increase the reach of Pakistani music abroad.
As the years progressed, the behind-the-scenes videos began to get more and more interesting relative to the music itself. In these videos you found glimpses of the process and thought that led to the song. Artists talking directly to the camera would tell you what the song meant, or what it meant to them. And then there were other snippets of interaction between the musicians that are sliced into the final behind the scenes videos without any narration or explanation. It is in these snippets that we learn that Rohail came up with the idea of a Money like backing track to Kangna, that Billie Jean was fused with Wasta Pyar Da because the jam just happened to lead in that direction, and that Sanam Marvi’s appearance in Koi Labda was a grand experiment that underpinned the foundation of Season 6. But the behind-the-scenes videos ended up being just a by-the-by, let alone the hope that audiences would study carefully the little snippets of unscripted interaction that illustrated what the production team thought were the most important or relevant bits of the production process. But these pieces were too random, too unstructured to hold any meaning. The stories never got to the audiences. Instead all the audience and the press went off of was the elemental feeling each song gave them. That they got from the structure of the music (which had begun to solidify in the format of Coke Studio’s framework as developed in Season 2) and in the texture of the sound (which increasingly it seems reflected Rohail’s taste).
Eventually Rohail acknowledged that there were perhaps too many surface similarities between Seasons 3, 4 & 5. He realized that something that appeared static, unwilling to change, can’t really be considered alive. And that something had to be done to make it breathe once again.11 Perhaps the audience was right about this, or perhaps the power of the audience over Coke Studio meant that it didn’t matter who was right. Change was coming.
In this stead, Coke Studio decided to expand beyond Pakistan. They were going to take on the musical traditions of the world. To Rohail this was a “natural progression”. The question was, would it be to everyone else?
سب ہی ناممکن ممکن ہوا، اک تیرے میرے ملن کے سوا
Hum Tum is the grand culmination of the Vital Signs, the spoils of great personal and emotional turmoil in the band.
“Each and every song is a more-than-direct allusion to a band melting helplessly away towards an eventual break-up”, said Nadeem Farooq Paracha. It happens often enough, that a band at its emotional breaking point somehow reaches its sonic peak. Hum Tum is the swan song we never asked for, but we dare not ask for a better one.
Junaid takes on the role of prog-rock frontman as if every ounce of his body was preparing to resonate at this frequency. Shahi provides a now familiar punch – but this time it has more movement, more fluidity than ever before.12
The rolling cast of guitarists in Rizwan-ul-Haque, Assad Ahmed and Aamir Zaki provide stellar performances, in the Signs’ most guitar focused album.13 What sounds like drum machines on the first three albums makes way for an actual drumset. And Rohail finally lives up to the dream of having the Vital Signs stand up for something – to take on an identity of their own, not one bestowed upon them by the adoration of their audience.
Shoaib Mansoor’s lyrics too take their most poignant form, compared to any of his lyrical writing before or after. They draw less specific pictures about emotions but instead create intricate emotional scapes instead, bestowing on the words and the songs a timeless, relatable quality. The lyrics here are expansive like the B-side of Aitebar, but they feel more complete, more powerful.
Hum Tum has incredible individual performances, but so did Aitebar. What sets it apart is a vision along which all the parts were stitched together. This came from Rohail, who more than anyone else perhaps was done playing Gori & Sanwali Saloni.
Not much is known about Rohail’s actual process during Hum Tum. He is quoted as saying the entire album was done in fourteen days, which seems to suggest the album was an effortless, inevitable coming together of the many individual journeys of the Vital Signs. His ex-wife says it “had to be taken from him or he would’ve continued producing it”, suggesting it was almost painstakingly constructed. The greatest music often tends to exist in crisis between the two extremes.14
One way or the other, what is clear now is that Hum Tum was testament to the fact that the Vital Signs were truly pioneers in the forging of Pakistan’s rock history. And that Hum Tum itself represented something meaningful about who the Vital Signs wanted to be. More than anything the band that played Hum Tum was the band the Vital Signs always set out to be, before Shoaib Mansoor gave them the gifts of Dil Dil Pakistan and popularity and stardom.
I personally think it’s the best Signs’ album. It was the most ‘my baby’ album.
Junaid, I remember very clearly, disliked it and the media sort of agreed with him. Perhaps what was happening was that there was a Vital Signs’ overdose by that time. I was very disappointed because I personally thought that this particular line and direction would be welcomed; that finally the Signs were now going somewhere. And mind you, there was another phenomenon happening it was called Junoon.
But no amount of album sales could make up for the fact that the album was not VS:1. Hum Tum, like VS:2, is about unrequited, unreachable love. These were the fatalistic dreams of Shoaib Mansoor’s words. They had finally come true.
Hum Tum was not loved. And while the Signs never announced, or perhaps even decided that they were breaking up, they never put out a fifth album.
Work on this mythical fifth album fizzled out as Rohail and Shahi pursued other fronts. The songs became a successful solo album for Junaid instead. A breathtaking reunion concert in 2002 would fail to hold them together to correct a premature end.
رمزے رمزے ساز کھڑے تھے، گاون والے گایا ہے
Rohail had started Coke Studio when he found himself sitting on a treasure trove of a complex, uncelebrated heritage of classical music and an identity crisis about what it means to be Pakistani. The theory, it seems, was that making this musical heritage more accessible, and hence better understood, would help modern Pakistan be just a little bit more comfortable with who it was.
The accessibility came from dressing eastern music theory in a pop-disguise. To Western-style pop songs this meant giving an eastern-classical processing. To folk and eastern-classical music it meant giving visibility, accessibility and a pop-like appeal.
This was the framework, the ‘formula’ if you will, that found it’s vision in 2008’s Allah Hu. Season 2 had it take real shape, and the next three seasons were about applying it to a growing range of pop, folk and classical music. Unfortunately by Season 5, audiences were no longer enthralled by the breadth of musical offering. The self-discovery had begun to appear long-winded, boring and formulaic.15 This criticism illustrated an “increasing distance between the intentions of the show, and the popular perception of it”.
While Coke Studio started out thinking of itself as a way to make a greater body of music accessible, it had also become the pinnacle of Pakistani music performance. To be invited to Coke Studio was a stamp of approval, and the quality of Coke Studio was a barometer of the vibrancy of the industry.
And as a result, Coke Studio became the ‘Sound of the Nation’. A title we can now realize it never attempted to receive, and a burden it never signed up to accomplish.
The knee-jerk reaction would have been to add more clarity to the thought process behind the production. But clarity never really had been Rohail’s strong-suit. Instead of trying to explain himself to critics that clearly didn’t get what he was saying, he one-upped them by burning the formula down wholesale. Season 6 decided to explore Pakistani music not just through binary western pop and eastern classical lenses, but through musical frameworks across the world. The house band was effectively gone, as was the live studio recording. Instead it was all replaced with a staggeringly complex stitching of musical bits and pieces contributed by individual musicians and orchestras all over the world.
Rohail’s original Coke Studio used music to explore what it meant to be Pakistani. The shake-up six years in decided to answer an even more elemental question: it dared to ask what it means to be human. Coke Studio 6, perhaps as much as Coke Studio 2 (and maybe more), is an attempt to find an identity. It is an effort to really be something meaningful, to really move the world forward by taking a stance no one has taken before.
Except it really turns out that the audiences were bored not just of Coke Studio’s formula, but rather it’s introspective, exploratory intent itself. It’s not just that the critics didn’t get their heads around the fact that Coke Studio wasn’t trying to be the annual State-Of-Pakistani-Music address, it was just that they wanted it to.
Herein was the fork in the road. Coke Studio could either continue to remain true to it’s original exploratory intent, to be a window onto a larger Pakistani self. Or, it could take on the role that it’s audiences thought it to have, to be a mirror that helped put some shape into a sense of Pakistani identity that already existed in popular music culture.
What would it choose to be: window or mirror?
ھم کیون چلیں اس راہ پر
They had never set out to sing Goray Rang ka Zamana. In fact, they were reluctant to put their names to it at all, but budged at Shoaib Mansoor’s behest. Mansoor was right, the song was a hit. As was Sanwali Saloni a little while later.
It is clear that these songs, or rather their blaring popularity, gave the Vital Signs an identity crisis. People always wanted to hear them sing Gori and Sanwali Saloni, they were always asked to serenade the audience. And they loved them when they did.
Junaid embraced this adoration. You get the feeling that he cherished being loved in this manner, that he always wanted to be loved as a star and that these songs had made him one. He owed everything to these songs and to Pakistan’s fair maidens.
Rohail never quite came to terms with being the boy that everyone wanted to be loved by. Performing Gori was imprisoning – an identity was put on him that he never wanted.
Junaid wrote most of the melodies for the Vital Signs. Rohail chipped in, but his main role was as the band’s producer. As they set on their separate ways after Hum Tum, Junaid continued to sing to Pakistan in the archetype of VS:1. Rohail went into production so no one else ever felt that they had to.
Junaid’s solo work after the signs is stellar. His voice and his melodies both powerful, emotive, memorable. Us Rah Per, his second solo album was legendary – a beautiful stitching of strings, tablas, electric guitars and even slap bass in a feel-good, romantic hangover. Junaid remained through the nineties, flag-bearer of twentieth century Pakistani pop. He was, and perhaps still is, the king. As his religious beliefs led him away from pop music, Junaid became flag-bearer to another kind of movement, but he still remains the pop front-man to an ultimately intellectual pursuit.
Rohail went to work on advertising and production, his most powerful musical work lying not in releasing music of his own but in creating frameworks for other musicians to produce theirs. The Pepsi Battle of the Bands gave birth to an early two thousands’ entourage of rock musicians. His soundtrack work on Khuda Ke Liye gave the film polish that helped it spark a rebirth of the local film industry, and then he built Coke Studio.16
Junaid and Rohail present two opposing philosophies in how to further the function of their work. And neither is really an obvious choice if one were to find themselves in the hypothetical position of choosing between them.
It’s not exactly clear which path of the two has more value. What’s worth more, the framework or the art that comes out of it? Who does more, the visionary or the evangelist that actually gets people to see the vision? Is the artifact because of the movement or is the movement because of the artifact?
Answering this question fundamentally achieves nothing. Except, that our leaning may tell us a little bit about who we really are. Because at the center of the debate of which was the better way to live a life, is the question of who we want to be. Do we want to be what people see in us? Or do we want to stick to what we stubbornly see in ourselves?
سٹھ گانا سٹھ گانا سٹھ گانا
After a first-ever completion of a parliamentary democratic term, Pakistan ran into elections in 2013 with much fervor and gusto. Yet mantras of change couldn’t accomplish what they promised. The old guard remained, nothing new, nothing exciting, but efficient and non-spectacularly progressing as always. Imran couldn’t change as much as he said he would, and his opponents turned out to not be as bad as he said they would.
Where does that lukewarm emotion leave us? Haven’t we asked ourselves enough questions to still be in a position where we can’t decide who we are and what we want to be?
When you’re perplexed by the ambiguity of life, about choices you can make and about who you are, it’s really annoying to run into a friend who instead of giving you directions asks you what it means to be alive. It’s an important question, but it just doesn’t help at the time.
And Rohail’s exploration wasn’t helping here. For Coke Studio to become celebratory and Pakistani again, the disjointedness of internationalization had to go. It had to become a set of Pakistani musicians, singing Pakistani songs in Pakistan. The set and the format are immediately familiar from previous years, but for them to work something had to change. And in 2014, that was the production. Hyatt had to make way for Strings for Coke Studio to actualize its inevitable political role.
Strings took on the challenge with grace and aplomb. Their perception of Coke Studio mirrored that of the audience:
We’re going to stay true to the CS feel and continue to merge elements of folk with modern music. There are so many untapped musical treasures in Pakistan and we’re looking forward to exploring into them. At the same time, we’re hoping to bring back the oomph that has been missing from the show during the past few years. Coke Studio was spectacular up till Season 3 but after that, it lost out on its element of surprise. We plan to bring it back.
Their solution to address the complaints? Give the audience something memorable. Coke Studio 7 is therefore, essentially an exercise in spectacle.
Spectacles can happen, or they can be constructed. Rohail’s Coke Studio created a framework of interaction, and then let the spectacles occur if the stars aligned. The policy was to never mess with the stars. Strings weren’t going to take that chance, and the spectacles were duly, and carefully constructed.
This required cultural changes. They weren’t going to spend a year on production, only three months. The artists weren’t going to bring all of the songs, Strings brought in some themselves and then hired artists to front them.17 The old house band made way for mostly new faces, all ones that Strings regularly works with. Omran Shafique and Assad Ahmed were replaced by a roving cast of guitarists, clearly the Pakistani pop industry’s most prevalent popular produce. The fusion didn’t need to be purely east-meets-west. The walls were broken, it was all just songs.
And all of this meant that the two greatest living stars of Pakistan’s spiritual music could sing a song together. It meant that a lost eighties pop icon could stage a comeback with girls on either side. It meant that a virtuoso guitarist that never seemed to have received the appreciation he deserved could solo on an international stage and have the world watch as he carefully switches from an acoustic to an electric guitar mid-song. It meant that a Pushtun punk rock band could re-do their most famous song on a stage that finally gave them the recognition they deserved.
The framework is the same. The rules have been tweaked a little, but so have the promises.
Is this Coke Studio different? Yes. But does it sound like Coke Studio still? Yes. Is it better? That’s irrelevant. Because the two phases of Coke Studio are trying to accomplish aims so different that any comparison of success dilutes the efforts of both production teams and the value of their aims themselves.
Coke Studio finds itself in a place where it can provide a reflection of the Pakistani optimist collective conscience. It may not have set out to take on this role, but it is better placed than any other cultural creation to take on the role to re-emphasize the belief that the Pakistani identity is not numb. That our connection to happiness in the past is alive, and that it makes us more human in the present.
It is for the first time, that the production promises to live up to be the ‘Sound of the Nation’. This is a daunting task, considering consistent criticisms of previous seasons around the lack of diversity, missing stars, and missing songs. It seems that everyone wants something different to be represented in Coke Studio, but that everyone is united in feeling that what they want has not been represented. In this respect, Strings come out winners.18 The new emotion is more raw, more immediate. The songs are more clear, the connections more obvious. It is the true reflection of Pakistani emotion that the audience wanted Coke Studio to be.
I don’t think Coke Studio 7 gives us a new way of thinking about our music. But I don’t know if that’s a bad thing. All I know is that it got me listening to Pakistani music again, and perhaps that’s all that matters.
- Nadeem Farooq Paracha’s Vital Signs: A Personal History is perhaps the most elaborate Vital Signs history published. Linked here to a web archive of Chowk, it was republished with additions in Dawn on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the band’s first release. Rohail Hyatt has disputed some claims, most notably the anecdote about Amir Zaki’s expulsion from the group in his interview with Madeeha Syed. Which might I add also tells you more about Rohail as a man, and as a thinker than perhaps anything else. Maybe other than Fifi Haroon’s latest interview with him on BBC Urdu. Both are highly recommended for people interested in how he thinks about his work and his process, but also about his values. ↩
- Albeit the connection here is less to cultural heritage and more to a stereotypical cultural perception of beauty. I’m going to go out on a limb and classify this as the romanticization of Pakistani culture. ↩
- Madeeha Syed: “It took Rohail six months to grant me the privilege of interviewing him; he had chosen to remain elusive from the public eye for a long time. Rohail had thoroughly vetted me for those six months, through an exchange of emails and text messages, and ensured that my philosophy on life, music and journalism were all acceptable to him.” ↩
- This is Hyatt, talking about the set for Coke Studio Season 4 to Ahmer Naqvi: “You know, we’ve got the golden ratio of the set happening on our show. Again you don’t see it, but that’s okay, we know it’s there and that’s what matters. That’s what the shape of the set is – it’s a spiral. The artists are sitting in the centre of the spiral and Gumby’s sitting right at the other end of the spiral. And it’s a weird shape to shoot, to record on even, but it signifies fundamentals of creation, signifies the fundamentals of music, it signifies so much that I don’t want to ruin it by talking about it.” ↩
- Despite its misgivings, this model is even today successful in a way that no other financial model of the Pakistani music industry has ever been. ↩
- Rohail talks about this retreat and his abstract theories of sound in a lecture delivered at Harvard this year. ↩
- I sometimes like to think of this as the Urdu-medium and the English-medium scenes. I’m afraid of a political presumptuousness that may be assumed when this terminology is used, but want to attest that no judgment is intended. It is merely an attempt to connect musical traditions with a prevalent sociological divide in today’s urban Pakistan. ↩
- This is from an article about Rohail and Umber Hyatt in the leadup to Coke Studio 2, by Maheen Sabeeh for The News. This article, among other tidbits, laid out the chemistry of Rohail and Umber on the Coke Studio sets. ↩
- NFP’s definitive review of the Vital Signs discography also quite great. ↩
- I’m thinking Tann Doley with Noori and Zeb & Haniya. My theory is that the half-baked nature of Tann Doley, Noori’s subsequent public acknowledgement that it was incomplete, their then subsequent re-release of another version of the song that was significantly better, and their lack of musical output and therefore perceived ideological, musical and professional stagnation are all reasons why they never came back to Coke Studio. ↩
- He recounts his thought process about the end of the Coke Studio 2 through 5 framework to Fifi Haroon here. ↩
- Traditionally the bass will connect rhythm and melody, providing suggestions of mood in a song. And the vocals actually move the song through it’s melodic sections. In a fundamental shift, Junaid and Shahi switch roles for Hum Tum. Junaid’s vocals take on a subtle suggestiveness, as a result Junaid’s role in the song becomes less of leading the song through it’s parts but more about underpinning the general emotion. Instead, it is Shahi that leads the pronounced punch that moves the melody forward. ↩
- More than anything it is the tone of the guitar work, that one imagines Rohail had something to do with, that lends the album its identity. ↩
It reminds me a little bit of Aik Alif, from Coke Studio 2:
“On hearing Saeen sing ‘Aik Alif’ (Zahoor calls it ‘Buss kareen o yaar’), it was clear to us that this is the song we wanted to do. It is a very spontaneous performance for all the musicians involved.
Both Rohail and Hamza (who was mainly handling the song from the Noori side) were aware of this and they consciously chose not to rehearse this song to maintain the purity of the basic elements of musicianship. In Ali Hamza’s words, “we could either rehearse this once or twice and perform it, or we needed to work on this for a good year. The approach towards ‘Aik Alif’ had to be very different from the way we approached the rest of our songs.”
- Of course, looking back at Rohail’s original vision to start with Coke Studio, one can only imagine the frustration of feeling there is so much more to explore, only to be told that no one’s interested in sitting through it. ↩
- Along with Rohail, Shahi also produced local artists, laying the groundwork for a generation of new musicians. ↩
- And it appears, though I can’t say this for certain, that Strings had a more defined outlook into the composition of each song than Rohail. i.e. that Rohail’s role was more of a traditional rock producer, providing suggestions and feedback and occasional compositional output, but that Strings often went in with a more complete melody in mind and had the band work around it. ↩
- I’m not sure they could have pleased more people. Aside of perhaps accomplishing the miracle of turning around Mekaal Hasan to the idea of Coke Studio. ↩