It’s the kind of thing that makes you curse Partition. It is also the thing that makes you love the internet even more. In its seventh season, Coke Studio is back. And all is suddenly well with the world again.
First things first, those who haven’t heard of Coke Studio — the Made in Pakistan version, not the wannabe copy on Indian MTV — must stop reading this immediately and shift attention to YouTube. Not for nothing have all other, pressing issues taken a backseat in this column this week.
The season opens with Abida Parveen, and you immediately know the classic flavour of the timeless show is back. From her ‘Main Sufi Hoon’ in collaboration with Ustad Raees Khan, to Niazi Brothers’ charming rendition of ‘Laai Beqadraan Naal Yaari’, to the surprise package, Asrar’s ‘Sab Akho Ali Ali’, the first episode seems to have all the ingredients that Coke Studio is known for. Even Pakistani pop’s peppy star Sajjad Ali, whose ‘Kirkir Kirkir’ a few seasons ago stands out as the happiest number to have emerged from the Studio stable, does something magical in ‘Tum Naaraaz Ho’.
Strings, the band known for its unhurried compositions on this side of the border too, has taken over from Rohail Hyatt, the producer of the first six seasons, and seems to have set the right tone. This is just the beginning.
But, for all its playfulness and mix of sounds, don’t call the show unique. I fail to understand what is unique in an enterprise that is essentially Sufi in spirit. If you have forgotten how it feels to forget yourself for a while, even for those 10 minutes when Abida Parveen soars, the music might sound unique. But calling it unique is somehow an insult to what is actually the truest form of music, a music that is generic to our existence, a genre genuine to the core, a sound that if found in all compositions, soothes your ears, stirs your soul, and also heals your heart, if you allow it to. You do not have to die for nirvana.
The show has a glorious past. The legendary Abida, as a matter of habit, loves to leave you one part dissatisfied so that you want more, faster, louder; and then want some more. It is frustrating, in a good way. An Arif Lohar can pluck out ‘Jugni’ from his father’s repertoire and make it sound as rustic as ever. Meesha Shafi is a heavenly vision anyway, but even more fiercely lovable when you hear her sing Reshma’s ‘Chori Chori’ in raspy Punjabi.
Forgive and forget the occasional Atif Aslam, please.
Where else will you find Rahat Fateh Ali Khan lend his brilliance to Ali Azmat’s over-the-top ‘Garaj Baras’? Rahat lifts the song to a new high, so much more than the version featured in that Indian movie ‘Paap’. But Rizwan and Muazzam, with ‘Naina de Aakhey’, make you wonder why all the hoopla only about Rahat when Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has these other nephews too, who sound more like Nusrat himself.
There is, of course, some soulful sorrow. Tina Sani’s rendition of Faiz’s poetry in ‘Mori Araj Suno’ is one such classic. If you close your eyes and hear closely enough, you’d be overwhelmed by the sheer range of the verse and Tina’s voice, and be inspired to seek freedom from whatever shackles you find yourself in. In the mix is Sanam Marvi, that village belle you would do anything to marry, even if she perhaps can’t speak English amongst your friends or act all fancy. That kind of thing will not matter when she sings ‘Pritam Mat Pardes Padharo’.
Life lessons in classic Sufi verses are aplenty. Right at the beginning of ‘Aik Alif’, dervish Saieen Zahoor urges you to look within, employing Bulleh Shah’s words. In this matchless fusion that makes your heartbeat rise and ebb dangerously, the young band Noori — high-pitched Ali Noor and his sexy-baritone brother Ali Hamza — seem to be singing in reverence, as much to God as to Saieen Zahoor.
There is a political statement in the very existence of a show like Coke Studio in Pakistan, where fanaticism is a constant threat. It is as brave as it is beautiful, as rousing as it is calming, perhaps personified by Zeb and Haniya — the two-girl rock band known for singing Farsi and Pashto songs — whose understated power blows you away, quietly. And when Lohar unleashes the power of ‘Mirza’, the world suddenly melts away, borders are rendered irrelevant, and everything else can very well just go to sweet hell.