Sanam Maher studied Film and English Literature at the University of Melbourne (Australia). She writes regularly for Herald and The Friday Times and blogs for the Express Tribune. Sanam is a Karachi-girl currently living in Lahore, pursuing a Masters in Film and Television.
Singing to the Choir: Coke Studio and Pakistani Identity
Last September, bookshops in Karachi found themselves sold out of the American Vogue on the first day the magazines hit the shelves. With their hefty price tag, magazines usually linger in the shops well into the next month, when fresh copies replace them. Francis, who works at a bookshop I frequent, pulled me aside to explain conspiratorially, “All the designers, they have bought all the copies. Because this time, they have been featured in Vogue, you see.” Fashion journalist Carla Power’s coverage of Pakistan Fashion Week in her article Revolutionary Style, gave good face to some of the most prominent Pakistani fashion designers and models, lauding their courage in a country that is projected as a place of bombs, burqas and bad government. When I finally got my hands on a well-thumbed copy of the magazine, despite the hyperbole of the article, I felt a sense of pride. It was the first time I had seen Pakistan in those glossy pages, sandwiched between paeans to fashion and design heavyweights; reports on the latest accessories and clothes (which, if you’re lucky, you’ll spot on only the most well-heeled of Pakistani women); and work by some of the best photographers in the business. I felt a sense of belonging, of recognition and a (somewhat misguided) feeling of affirmation.
I experienced the same emotions while watching the first episode of Season 3 of Coke Studio, as thousands of boys swooned over their first glimpse of Meesha Shafi singing Alif Allah Chambay Di Booti, and thousands of girls thought, she looks just like us (albeit thousands others probably thought, I wish I looked like that). Since its inception in June 2008, the show has fostered and encouraged this sense of recognition and community amongst its viewers, whatever their age. In addition to wide coverage on radio and television channels across Pakistan, Coke Studio’s music and videos are downloadable through the show’s website, while you can request songs straight to your mobile phones during episodes. It has become standard practice to hear snippets of songs on calls to mobile phones. English subtitles added to YouTube videos of the songs have only escalated their popularity, with millions of hits and shares on Facebook and other social networking websites amongst both Pakistani and diaspora communities. The official Coke Studio website also encourages fans to download the shows logo and branding and tweak it to express their creativity and ‘make it their own’. Fans can also download ‘I heart Coke Studio’ and ‘I love Coke Studio’ support badges while bands and musicians can download ‘Watch me on Coke Studio’ badges to be displayed anywhere on the internet.
The show embraces a multitude of musical expressions – sufi, rock, devotional, pop, modern and so on. It suggests that as Pakistanis, we are cultured, rooted in tradition, while also straining at the leash of conservatism – the music reflects our curious nature as straddling both Eastern and Western culture. As Haniya Aslam points out, Coke Studio is ‘the perfect way to reach out to the world with our culture and remind the world that we’re not isolated, we’re linked.’
Producer Rohail Hyatt’s brainchild has been applauded for its ability to seamlessly bring together two generations of Pakistani viewers – Amanat Ali’s rendition of Noor Jehan’s classic Ae Watan Ke Sajeelay Jawanon, for instance, is a bittersweet refrain from 1965. While speaking to an older generation of listeners, the current adaptation of the song has a poignancy for younger viewers of Coke Studio as well – as Louis ‘Gumby’ Pinto says, “I played this song with a lot of pride,” while Amanat Ali dedicated the song to the thousands of soldiers currently fighting for Pakistan.
Coke Studio’s YouTube channel offers video-blogs and blooper footage designed to suture the viewer further into the studio experience. The format of each episode gives audiences an intimate behind-the-scenes glimpse into the production of each song – cumulatively, such access to artists not only gives unprecedented insight into the creation of music within the Pakistani industry, but also serves to highlight the level of professionalism and technical expertise of the men and women behind the scenes. While as a nation we may be flailing in various arenas, Coke Studio offers a refreshing image of Pakistani art and culture as thriving despite the odds, flirting with experimental forms and attracting the attention of millions across the world. It remains to be seen, however, if the show continues to straddle the fine line between presenting popular artists in a fresh light and showcasing new talent or more traditional forms of music that may be ignored by music channels and radio stations across the country.
“If it doesn’t come on television, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” pointed out Tina Sani, when discussing the traditional forms of music present on the show. Ms. Sani’s pronouncement is apt when considering the model of Pakistani identity adopted and catered to by Coke Studio – this identity may not be present in the faces of those we have become familiar with on the daily news, but it is a far more malleable, flexible face, ever cognizant of the changing times and Pakistan’s precarious position in our world today.
In July 2010, when an organization called the Pakistan Peace Builders held the first New York Sufi Music Festival in the city’s Union Square, Abida Parveen, Mekaal Hasan Band and Zeb and Haniya’s lyrics underscored a message often repeated amongst those labeled Pakistan’s ‘educated elite’: this is our true face, this is our nature. A diverse line-up of musicians from all four provinces, ranging from Sindh’s Soung Fakirs to Balochistan’s Akhtar Chanal Zehri, emphasized the multi-faceted nature of the Pakistani identity. Aunty Disco Project’s Omar Bilal Akhtar pointed out a similar presence of such diverse voices within Coke Studio, saying, “We’ve got so many different artists and they’re all coming together on the same platform and it’s something you don’t see very often.” He further suggested that the show presented a positive model in that ‘if we can do it in this industry, it sends a great message to everybody that we can bring so much diversity together and make it work.’
Eschewing the politics of provincialism, Coke Studio seemingly endorses Arif Lohar’s belief that ‘Hum Pakhtoon, na Punjabi, Sindhi na Balochistani hain. Aik Khuda aur aik nabi, hum saaray Pakistani hain.’