Coke Studio Season 9 Promises A Let Down

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The show has abandoned the philosophy that made it special.

Pakistan’s critically acclaimed musical show, Coke Studio, returned for its ninth season on Saturday.

Coke Studio was started in 2008 with Rohail Hyatt at the helm. Hyatt was most known for being the keyboardist and a composer of Pakistan’s first mainstream pop-rock band, Vital Signs, and throughout the first 6 seasons of CS he proved himself to be an imaginative producer as well.

“Post 9/11, I did wake up and I wanted to discover who we really are and which part of the world we are in and what our history might be…Anything that suggests some other theology or some other people or some other religion, we shun immediately,” Hyatt explained, discussing his journey towards creating the Coke Studio platform.

“Unfortunately, we just lost so much we don’t even know what we lost…We are a melting pot of all these people and these cultures and they’ve brought their art forms over the years, their instruments and their ways and their philosophies. So that was liberating, and of course that led to a process of self-discovery.”

Hyatt’s beliefs are evident in the music that has come out of Coke Studio over the years. Its signature sound is one that is eclectic; the program is known best for its pairing of sufi, folk and Hindustani classical lyrics with both South Asian and international musical styles and conventions.

Hyatt left CS after the sixth season and Bilal Maqsood and Faisal Kapadia of Strings, another stalwart band in the Pakistani pop scene, took over as producers for Seasons 7 and 8. Unfortunately, some of the magic of Coke Studio departed with Hyatt.

One of the best things about the program is how it managed to sound technically excellent yet feel unpolished. That was a refreshing and much-needed sound in a subcontinental industry dominated by often overproduced Bollywood tunes. Yet Season 7 had exactly those kinds of flaws — too often it sounded like Bollywood-lite.

To their credit, Strings picked up their game in Season 8 and left us with more than a handful of catchy, creative songs, including a few runaway hits. This year’s Season 9 is a multi-producer project, and performances like Abida Parveen and Ali Sethi’s ‘Aaqa’ from last week’s Season 9 episode 1 prove that CS can still conjure up the Sufi lyrical sensibilities enveloped in globally sourced beats that first made it successful.

That said, though I will still repeat last summer’s ritual of waking up Saturday mornings to obsessively refresh Coke Studio’s Youtube channel until Season 9’s new songs appear, I no longer feel as intensely I used to about Pakistan’s groundbreaking, wildly popular musical program. While the music is showing signs of a return to form, what has definitely changed for the worse in the past two years, perhaps irrevocably, is Coke Studio’s self-representation. It has gone from being the manifestation of Hyatt’s curious, open-minded vision to selling itself as a national symbol.

Last year, when I clicked on Season 8’s promo video, I felt alarm at the text on the opening screen. Since when was Coke Studio the “sound of the nation”? I searched for the promo videos of previous seasons to find that the phrase was conspicuously absent. I object to the words ‘sound of the nation’ on a fairly basic level, first of all. It’s only natural to expect a show that proclaims itself the sound of the nation to maintain a line-up that is representative of this supposed nation.

True, Coke Studio has given space on its platform to regional languages and music performed by artists like Akhtar Chanal Zahri, Rostam Mirlashari, Hamayoon Khan, Fakir Juman Shah, and the Sketches to name a few.

Yet even with these performances in its repertoire, it’s a bit rich to call a program the sound of the nation when, in its eight years of existence, I can count on my hands the number of Pashto, Baloch and Brahui songs have been broadcast, and when not a single song has been featured in any of the languages of regions like Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan. Also, most of these artists made their first appearances in the program well before Season 8 and its ambitious proclamation.

Some might say my standards are unreasonable or that I’m playing an unfair numbers game with a program that has already done immeasurable good for Pakistan’s music scene. Yet, in a country where the state has a tragically and ridiculously bad history of respecting the languages and cultures of its diverse people, holding so-called liberal institutions like Coke Studio accountable is absolutely essential. Otherwise, these apparent voices of liberalism and coexistence will reproduce the same state-driven, majoritarian image of the nation that the state has done, to its citizens’ constant detriment.

While presenting these songs to the listening public, Coke Studio never explicitly professed to be crafting a particular nation out of its music. If anything, Hyatt’s thoughts above express a desire to go beyond the strictures of a national identity that is inherently exclusionary. Instead, Coke Studio was meant to explore what was “already always there”: the art forms of a land now called Pakistan that were for too long neglected and erased from popular consciousness.

For example, the artists involved in ‘Larsha Pekhawar’ from Season 5 spoke about how much they enjoyed getting to perform a Pashto folk song, and introduce what they saw as the beauty of Pashtun music and culture to the rest of Pakistan, a country they have a right to just as much as anyone else.

For me, the deeper question that needs to be asked, as Season 9 rolls in with the same slogan and another promo video of patriotic serenades, is whether we want CS to be better at its job as the ‘sound of nation’ or to ditch that job entirely?

After all, this is not simply a matter of representation, but a matter of meaning. What does it mean when a popular music show like CS ties itself explicitly to a liberal nationalism composed of patriotic tunes — ones usually dedicated to the military boys, remember — sung by pop stars and sufi masters celebrating the beauty of the land and the sacrifices of its martyrs for the cause of the people?

That kind of politics celebrates the same forces that have wreaked havoc on the nation — militarism, majoritarianism, and patriotism at all costs. There is a very touching moment in the Season 9 promo where the late Amjad Sabri, who was assassinated this year, makes an appearance.

I’m not going to lie, Sabri’s gentle smile and sonorous voice brought me to tears. The video is dedicated to ‘those who sacrificed their todays for our tomorrows,’ perhaps elegizing him. Yet I couldn’t help but feel a bit angry when I saw this. I wondered if Sabri and God knows how many others would still be alive if they weren’t compelled to sacrifice their todays for the tomorrows and yesterdays of nation-making gone repeatedly awry.

This shift feels like a betrayal of the spirit that made Coke Studio such a valuable institution for over the years. That’s not to say that Hyatt’s Coke Studio didn’t have any baggage. Some commentators did try to hold it up as an example of a pluralistic, liberal-minded Pakistan within reach, quite a heavy expectation to place on a musical program.

Yet, in those years I felt that Coke Studio was engaged in a project of national exploration, not nationalist celebration. It presented an opportunity for a diverse bunch of artists to present themselves to their country-people on their own terms. If one still wants to argue that Rohail Hyatt’s Coke Studio was a nation-making exercise, it’s undeniable that it was a meandering, organic, often inward looking one.

If Season 9 is anything like Season 8, I won’t be keeping my hopes up for a return to that old ethos.

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