Earlier this week, Pakistani music performance show Coke Studio won over a lot of hearts with their inspirational, unique new idea – they made the deaf perceive music. Led by current producers of the show, rock band Strings, Coke Studio got a hold of technology that creates visuals and rhythms which corresponded to the music from previously recorded performances. And like any video that goes viral, this one knew just how to tug the heartstrings.
Of course, parent company Coca-Cola knows its way around innovative corporate social responsibility campaigns, being the long-running multinational organisation that it is. But using Pakistan’s Coke Studio as a vehicle just proves that they bet on the right horse. Then again, why not pick its counterpart across the border?
It’s impossible to compare the well-crafted magic that goes into both, Coke Studio Pakistan and India’s Coke Studio @ MTV without talking about the two countries’ history of music.
Unlike its Indian counterpart, which started out in 2011, Coke Studio (Pakistan) has been on the air since 2008 and thus, became an important source for music from the region for Indian music fans as well. As Coca-Cola India’s Wasim Basir, the director of integrated marketing communications said in a 2013 interview, “We had conducted research in 2010 which revealed that 25 percent of all Google searches in India were for Coke Studio Pakistan — this was amazing!”
Coming in from its Brazilian concert performance version’s success, Coke Studio Pakistan was led by producer Rohail Hyatt, who knew his way around elegantly placing Balochi, Sufi and Urdu folk music into a contemporary sonic territory. This job was later taken over by famed pop rock band Strings.
Hyatt was also part of a hugely popular rock band called Vital Signs, which was active since the 1980s. It’s only fair to point out that MTV India found someone with a similar background when they launched Coke Studio, tapping producer, singer and guitarist Leslie Lewis, who’s also been active since the late 1980s with the Colonial Cousins.
But what’s different here is that Hyatt was working from scratch, whereas Lewis and the Indian team were already in the shadow of their Pakistani counterparts. Perhaps the most important thing about the producers is how they approach music. Hyatt was firmly entrenched in the independent pop and rock music scene in Pakistan for two decades before Coke Studio came long and picked him up. So when he came around to rounding up musicians and picking songs to recreate for the show, there was a strong sense of encouragement for artists to play their own original music.
Meanwhile, the first episode of Coke Studio in India, while innovative in its choice of bringing musicians together specifically to create a new song as part of the show, also put the spotlight on their Bollywood hits. And first impressions don’t just fade away. The Indian show firmly relied on Bollywood songs, playback singers such as Shankar Mahadevan, Sunidhi Chauhan, Shaan and more. Of course, they were collaborating with some of the best independent folk artists in India — from Papon to Raghu Dixit and more — but you know what they led to? Indie artists getting offers to feature on Bollywood songs.
While Coke Studio India became that bridge between independent artists and Bollywood composers, it didn’t really do much for the quality of the songs. Across the border, Pakistan was doing a fantastic job, notching up millions upon millions of video views because they trusted their traditional folk songs in a fusion setting. Artists such as Atif Aslam (who was later, yes, a Bollywood singer), The Mekaal Hasan Band, Strings, Noori, Zeb & Haniya and plenty more were leading the front for independent artists in Pakistan. Classical singer Shafqat Amanat Ali Khan and Sufi powerhouse Abida Parveen were also notable guests in a series that has now completed nine seasons. Granted, it’s been a bumpy ride for Pakistan in the later years, but even India’s in-charge, Aditya Swamy, the then executive VP of MTV India, owned up that it didn’t exactly have the best run, saying that they “failed to meet expectations”.
Pakistan may not have a flourishing independent music scene as such compared to the alternative music circuit India is producing, but their version of Coke Studio started without the presence of any looming giant (read: Bollywood). And as long as Bollywood continues to be the showrunner in India’s music industry, Pakistan will be marked as the Coke Studio that’s always been much more memorable.