How 'Coke Studio Pakistan' is building bridges through music

Season 14 of the hit show has transcended borders in India, where Pakistani artists are still banned from performing

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Season 14 of Coke Studio Pakistan was a coming of age for art and music in Pakistan.

Launched in 2008, Coke Studio is the most popular television show in the south Asian country, featuring studio-recorded music performances by leading artists who play alongside young and never-seen-before talents from all over the nation.

The show is lauded for diversity as it brings together artists from different religions, backgrounds, regions, genres and languages.

In an effort to "open people's’ hearts to Pakistan" — the new producer's words — the powerful themes employed this season transcended borders and built bridges, even making waves in India, where Pakistani artists are immensely popular yet currently banned from performing owing to political divisions.

Themes of inclusivity, empathy, longing, spirituality and love reverberate throughout the whole season, which ran from January 14 to March 22 on its YouTube channel.

In a first and exclusive interview with The National, Zulfiqar Jabbar Khan, this season's producer, says the aim was to empower the new wave of music that represents the "true sound" of Pakistan by embracing the evolving creative landscape through up-and-coming artists and genres.

While introducing the world to Pakistan's alternative, hip-hop, RnB, grunge and electronic music scenes, Coke Studio Pakistan also encompasses classical music spanning several millennia.

Khan wants the world to see Pakistan for what it is — "artistic, progressive, inclusive" — and as a country that makes great music. Coke Studio's latest season had the biggest names in the music industry, from Abida Parveen to Atif Aslam, collaborate with new and young talent, from veiled female rappers to viral music talents blowing up on social media, and Pakistan's first Grammy-winning artist Arooj Aftab.

It released 13 original tracks with exclusive music videos, featuring the works of more than 58 artists.

Eva B, the first burqa-clad female rapper from Pakistan’s Baloch community, shone on the platform, while Pakistan's biggest superstar Aslam took on new genres and collaborated with dynamic young artists such as Abdullah Siddiqui, 21, on Go.

Siddiqui is the youngest associate music producer on the show and describes the groovy track as the "blueprint for a new sound" of desi music. It required "a powerful voice to legitimise that and there's no one more powerful than Atif Aslam".

The track starts off with a sarangi (string instrument played in traditional music from India and also played in Pakistan and Bangladesh) along with tabla and sitar, which builds into a contemporary upbeat track. Siddiqui makes his singing debut on the show as he croons, in English, to Aslam's Urdu rap verses.

Besides Eva B, the new season also launched Pakistani rappers Faris Shafi and Young Stunners, as well as singers Hassan Raheem and Kaifi Khalil among others.

While many of the songs went viral and trended on social media platforms, tunes such as Ali Sethi and Shae Gill's Pasoori made it to No 1 on Spotify's Global Viral 50 list and crossed more than 100 million views on YouTube. The track embraces unity in diversity as it features Pakistani dancer and activist Sheema Kermani performing bits of a Bharatnatyam, an Indian dance. The Turkish baglama (string instrument) features in the video while Shae Gill, who's from the Christian community, is joined by Sethi, a Muslim, as they sing in Punjabi, a language spoken in both India and Pakistan.

The song and video have spawned fan artworks, TikTok dance videos and empowering slogans, proving that Coke Studio has become a force to be reckoned with.

Khan describes curating the new season of Coke Studio Pakistan as a "dream come true".

"The most exciting aspects of conceptualising the new season included thinking about the story we would tell people, how can you engage their emotions in a way that every narrative connects with them," he says. "Ultimately, I wanted to create a feeling that resonates with the audience.

"And, of course, the opportunity to showcase Pakistan, the way I see it: artistic and progressive."

This was a long time coming and something he had always wanted to do, he says. But assembling the right team for the job was a challenge, he says, and he chose members based on their "sensitivity".

"Honestly, I have always believed that sensitive people impact the biggest changes," he says.

"Sensitivity is a superpower for anyone. For every team I make, be it video or sonic, you'll find them all to be very emotional people."

Khan's collaborators this season were musicians Sherry Khattak, Abdullah Siddiqui, Action Zain and lyric writer Adnan Dhool.

"These four are not chosen just because they're young and have fresh ideas, but also because they're wise, intellectual, they have their own stories and those stories are very unique and diverse," he says.

"They have a lot to express and hence have a lot to contribute. The great thing about the team is that they want to make a difference.

"It was about getting everyone together to create magic. That's how magic happens. I am so happy I got to work with people detached from bias and ego, and if you see the credits for each song, you'll be able to see how collaborative the process was."

Khan set the tone for season 14 with its opening song Tu Jhoom, meaning to groove or dance in Urdu, featuring acclaimed singer Parveen. It's a soulful track with qualities of a devotional Sufi song that inspires hope and healing.

The season ends on a similar promising note with Phir Milenge, which translates to "we'll meet again".

"Everything in between helps the audience channel their emotions," says Khan. "It felt like all emotions culminated into a unison; the way they reacted to, absorbed and propagated Coke Studio to make it their own. And that's how you know it was successful. When it no longer belongs to the makers, but to the listeners who have resonated with the song and made it their own. That is the most important part of any story."

The other most important aspect of the show was working with big-name stars such as Aslam and Parveen, which he says was exciting.

"Atif is probably our biggest star and seeing him experimenting [with rap] and putting himself in that position I feel is very empowering and inspiring for upcoming talent," he says.

"Working with him is always a wonderful opportunity, not just because he's a star but because he's fearless and wants to give his best. He's an expressionist as well."

Parveen, meanwhile, was "magical".

"She has this energy around her that you can’t miss," says Khattak.

Khan says Parveen's performance was one of the most highly acclaimed and powerful of the season — and one of the most "overwhelming" experiences of his life. Parveen performed with Naseebo Lal, a renowned Pakistani folk singer of Rajasthani origin.

"She had first called me praising a song I did with Naseebo Ji," he says. "This planted the seed for a collaboration with her. She was so excited to contribute, this is why I do music and why I love art. Because when people get together as one to collaborate it creates magic."

Khan says his "natural interest" lies in discovering new talents that "formed into a network of people looking for new talent".

"When I first heard Sherry's song Andhera I had tears in my eyes: the way he performed, the way he does things. Similarly with Abdullah Siddiqui, I was beautifully stunned, and the same goes for Adnan Dhool, and Shae Gill who I have been following for a long time and knew she had to debut on Coke Studio. Credit also goes to Ali Sethi — his heart being this big and open, who wants to create music with the world."

As for the country's new internet sensation, Hassan Raheem, Khan says: "I was so impressed with his lyric writing and authenticity; he represents the new generation and is a unique brand of modern times but has some sensibilities of the past as well.

"These new artists are waiting to be found, discovered and collaborated with. I want to be able to do this for the rest of my life."

Both Khan and Khattak say there are many plans for each of them in the future.

"I feel the journey has just started," says Khattak.

Khan adds: "There’s no doubt in my mind that a thriving live music or art scene is a must in a society for its balance. So, yes, a portion of our efforts would be geared towards that.

"There will a lot more music and art, a lot more collaborations and a lot more intent to keep making good music for the people as they are the ones who make the journey what it becomes."

Updated: May 11, 2022, 12:52 PM