How Coke Studio Pakistan Put South Asian Music on the Global Music Map 

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Coke studio Pakistan

In 2008, Nadeem Zaman and Rohail Hyatt changed the way South Asian music was perceived by everyone- those who lived in different parts of the world and who were far removed from the culture, and also those, who lived in the region but were unaware of how dexterous South Asian music could be- with Coke Studio Pakistan. With a live-music format that uniquely blended traditional Pakistani music with west-influenced music, the show had started something that would deliver many hits in the years to come and unite fans across borders. Pasoori is one of its latest hits, have you heard of it?

To seasoned fans, whatever Coke Studio touches is turned into gold. What is this magic touch that the Pakistani television programme inspires? Other versions have tried to create the same success with the same formula. Yet, Coke Studio Pakistan remains the undisputed king.

Coke Studio Pakistan was, majorly, the brainchild of the head of The Coca-Cola Company, Nadeem Zaman. He wanted to create a musical show for Pakistan, which would resemble the concert-like performances in Brazil. However, the musical concept of the show was handled by bassist, composer and musician, Rohail Hyatt. Hyatt is a former member of the immensely popular Pakistani band Vital Signs that had a key part in transforming the pop and rock scene of the country. The first season was produced in 2008 in front of a live audience. While the subsequent seasons changed this format to a closed studio performance, the initial season was enough to catch the fancy of the entire nation.  

Hyatt’s plan for Coke Studio was to “promote Pakistan’s folk, classical and traditional music by marrying it to more popular or mainstream music” [1], and boy, has the show- especially the first few seasons- achieved this spectacularly! The show has reintroduced sufi, qawwali and other kinds of music to the youth, by giving it a modern touch and mixing them with Western influences. Take a look at how Saleem Raza’s Ae Dil Kisi ki Yaad Mein was transformed by Ali Zafar and Sara Haider in Coke Studio season 8:

Coke Studio Pakistan has also played a laudable role in launching new, up and coming artists. Every season, the show has provided a platform for independent artists with diverse styles, who have not been discovered by commercial enterprises. They are paired with older, more known faces for their debut performances, but each young talent has made a name for themselves on their own after that. 

Spurred by the success of Coke Studio Pakistan, Coke Studio India began its journey in 2011 with ten one-hour long episodes. Soon after, Coke Studio Bel 3arabi had their first season in 2012 and the latest, Coke Studio Bangla, started in 2022. While it is too early to comment on the popularity of Coke Studio Bangla, neither of the former had the same impact on the world- or even Southeast Asia- as Coke Studio Pakistan. This is especially surprising in the case of India, since there is no dearth of traditional music, and more importantly, many of them share the same origin as those of our north-western neighbour. This is not to say that Coke Studio India does not have its fair share of soul-stirring melodies- case in point, Amit Trivedi and Mame Khan’s Chaudhary– but none of them have reached the level of Pasoori or an Afreen Afreen

A Reddit thread dedicated to finding out why Coke Studio India season 1 could not match up to Coke Studio Pakistan faults the producer for the shortcomings. Rohail Hyatt’s corresponding Indian counterpart, who is the musical producer of the show, was Leslie Lewis. Lewis is one half of the duo Colonial Cousins, along with singer and composer Hariharan. [2]. Some believe that he did not have the same vision as that of Rohail Hyatt. The first season started out wanting to achieve something big and became a slightly underwhelming version of the original. The show picked up its quality over the next seasons, when each episode featured one music composer showcasing his compositions. 

Some fans believe that Coke Studio Pakistan will always remain superior since it is the first of its kind and it has managed to strike a bullseye on its very first try. Other versions will be seconds, and later ons, and it is wrong to compare it to the original. 

Some others think that the Pakistani version is better because of small but key differences in visual appeal, like set design. Coke Studio has sets that evoke every mood- courtesy of Hyatt’s collection of novelties from all over the world- while Coke Studio India’s sets seem lacking in some way. 

But, perhaps the most important difference is the existence of Bollywood, as a music producer in India, which is absent in Pakistan. The film industry in Mumbai swallows up a lot of space that independent, regional talent would otherwise occupy. Sometimes, for the sake of diversity, it takes up regional music, puts its own spin on it- something that has often resulted in the drowning of the uniqueness of the regional composition- and has delivered it as a Bollywood tune. The foremost example that comes to mind is the rapper Badshah’s rendition of Genda Phool– to Bengalis, more popularly known as Boro Loker Biti Lo

Not only was the new song completely devoid of the essence that the original folk song had, the makers of Genda Phool did not credit Ratan Kahar, the composer of Boro Loker Biti Lo. It is only after facing a lot of backlash from a section of folk music enthusiasts that Kahar’s name was credited for the 2020 song [3]. Despite its negative reviews, the song currently has 926 million views and will be known to most as a song from Bollywood with the heightened glamour that is very uncharacteristic of folk or regional music, rather than a rework of a popular Bengali folk song.

Since Coke Studio is essentially about exchanging diverse forms of regional music, it becomes a major setback for Coke Studio India.   

It is this lack of scope and the affinity to turn any melody into a Bollywood song that has stopped it from scaling the heights that Coke Studio Pakistan has scaled. But compositions from both the major Coke Studios have crossed borders that have been drawn because of politics and jingoism. While a healthy competition is present, no side refuses to accept when the other has created a beautiful melody and doffs their hats respectfully.   

Info:

Coke Studio is the longest-running annual music television show in Pakistan. It was started in 2008 by Nadeem Zaman and Rohail Hyatt as a form of musical exchange. The episodes were telecast on television channels as well as on YouTube. Videos from Coke Studio Pakistan can now be found on their official YouTube channel. Coke Studio Pakistan inspired Coke Studio India, Coke Studio Bangla and Coke Studio Bel 3arabi.    

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