By Sonya Rehman
Since its inception in 2008, Coke Studio has come a long way in Pakistan. Currently in its 5th season, the show has featured contemporary and classical Pakistani musicians sharing the stage, collaborating on songs, blending different genres in a fusion of Eastern and Western melodies.
From mainstream artists such as; Ali Azmat, Strings, Ali Zafar, Atif Aslam, Hadiqa Kiyani, Noori and more, Coke Studio also gives a podium to new, undiscovered and unexposed Pakistani musicians and singers in addition to classical/folk maestros like Abida Parveen, Arif Lohar, Akhtar Chanal Zahri, Attaullah Khan Esakhelvi, Fareed Ayaz & Abu Muhammad, Ustaad Naseer-ud-Din Saami, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, and Tina Sani, among others.
However, given the security situation in Pakistan, the music scene in the country seems to have suffered the most.
While local fashion shows and fashion weeks are held at exclusive locations, for a limited audience (and hardly publicized), Pakistani fashion designers seem to be doing rather well – garnering immense local and foreign media mileage, and roping in buyers and enough money in the kitty to pay the bills, surpass breakeven and even make a solid profit.
But the Pakistani music ‘industry’ remains hanging precariously on a thread, oscillating between complete, unflinching self denial on the one hand, and bitter angst on the other. The golden years for Pakistani music are long gone, with both modern and old-school artists either nursing a prolonged sense of rage or a quiet resignation vis-à-vis the disappointing state of affairs.
Infact, in the summer of 2011 when I interviewed Arif Lohar – one of the country’s most popular folk musicians, he’d stated that the local music scene was “dead,” and that Coke Studio seemed to be the only initiative that was managing to keep the scene alive in whatever way it could.
Concerts and gigs for the public at large have dwindled down to a smattering of performances around the country.
Primarily self-financed, local musicians’ piggy banks have run dry, genres of music are being swapped for mainstream pop, and those lucky few who are raking in the money have sourced contacts across the border, simultaneously plunging into Bollywood and performing for an Indian audience.
While it would be naïve to state that Coke Studio can revive the local music industry, the show does stand as the only widely watched local music show which brings Pakistan’s classical maestros, local pop stars, rockers and talented (albeit fledgling) newbies into the spotlight.
In a country minus large-scale concerts, Coke Studio stands as the only alternative, and dare I state, the ‘next best thing?’
Interestingly, since its introduction, each new season of Coke Studio instigates much debate in the country. While local journalists and bloggers write articles and blog posts complimenting the episodes, in addition to constructively criticizing which songs and collaborations worked and which didn’t, there are some who remain unwavering in their opinion against the entire nature of the show.
The critics state that a multinational such as Coca Cola – the multinational funding the Coke Studio endeavour – only aids in diluting, commercializing and bastardizing Pakistani music, in addition to exploiting local musicians.
While music and commercialism is a long drawn debate – the relationship between music and multinational sponsorship goes back decades. There are countless examples of multinationals using well-known artists in advertisements, product placements in TV shows, songs, et al. It’s a global phenomenon, a trend and a common, popular tool of advertising which has been practiced for years.
But coming back to Pakistan, does Coca Cola’s funding of Coke Studio truly take the fizz out of Pakistani music?
It doesn’t. For one, look at the exposure local artists get through the show – each season is broadcast on a number of local television channels, after which episodes can be viewed on the internet (via Youtube) and heard on shows at local radio stations. The reach of Coke Studio is immense.
Undiscovered talent and less mainstream artists – due to the spotlight – get picked up by local media for interviews across broadcast and print media in the country. So much so that Coke Studio Pakistan has also seemed to have generated quite a buzz in India and overseas, too.
Secondly, the show fuses classical and contemporary music to give it a modern flavour – much needed in this day and age to appeal to a wider audience and to cater to a new generation which seeks out art forms that it can relate with, understand and enjoy.
That being stated, these days when one looks at the large billboards – sprinkled across the main cities of the country – advertising episodes of Coke Studio’s new season, one can’t help but feel nostalgic for the Pakistani music scene of the past: when concerts and gigs were regular and in abundance, and when there wasn’t even an inkling of fear of bombs going off.
Those days, regrettably, are long gone indeed.