Why did Pakistan produce the lovely Coke Studio music series and not India? Why is Pakistan's Coke Studio more popular with many Indians over the new Indian version? Is it because Pakistan's musicians are better or more creative than India's?
Let's explore the question.
My introduction to this sort of music came before Coke Studio began. It happened many years ago when I was staying in Lahore with my friend Iftikhar, a retired colonel from Musharraf's batch in the Pakistan Military Academy.
One evening Ifti, who is sadly no longer with us, took me to the Waris Road residence of Masood Hasan, later to become a fellow columnist of mine at The News. We had a few glasses of the good stuff with some other guests, and then Hasan took us to a part of the property where his son Mekaal had built a studio and was playing with his band.
This was when I first heard the music that is now so distinctively the sound of Coke Studio. I would define it as a folk song or raag-based melody, layered with western orchestration. This included a synthesizer wash, guitars, a drummer, a bass punctuating the chord changes, and backing vocals and harmony. Essentially it was traditional Hindustani music made palatable for ears accustomed to listening to more popular music.
Mekaal did this very well and his band's first album, Sampooran, is as good as anything produced by Rohail Hyatt at Coke Studio later.
Indeed, many of the musicians Mekaal worked with, eventually ended up at Coke Studio. Gumby, the Karachi drummer on Coke Studio's first four seasons, played on Sampooran. Zeb and Haniya, the stars of Coke Studio 2, were originally produced by Mekaal.
The first-rate Hindustani singer Javed Bashir who adds depth to the singers who are not classically trained, used to be lead singer with Mekaal's band. The great Ghulam Ali was on a flight with me from Ahmedabad to Bombay once and I told him I was friends with Javed. "Mera hi bachcha hai," he said with great pride.
Lahore's Pappu, Pakistan's best flutist, has played flute for Mekaal's records.
Gumby and I went to a concert next to my house where guitarists Frank Gambale and Maurizio Colonna played. Gumby says Colonna's playing brought tears to his eyes. Javed and I have drunk a few places dry, and been banned from one. Mekaal is of course a dear friend, as are Zeb and Haniya.
I'm dropping all these names so it is understood that I am familiar with the music and the musicians as few Pakistanis are.
Now to understand why India did not produce Coke Studio but Pakistan did. The reason is linked to what I said earlier - that Coke Studio is a popular interpretation of India's traditional music.
India's talented musicians and producers have a commercial outlet:Bollywood. This is where money is made and this is where Pakistan's singers who want commercial success must also come.
Their talent, however, is spent on making music that is purely popular, because that is what they are paid big money for. Indian musicians like Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and Kailash Kher can make
Coke Studio's sort of classical-popular mix of music easily if they set aside a couple of months for it. They choose not to however, because their working day is spent making music
that makes them rich (Kailash, whom I've known since before he sang for Bollywood, today charges Rs 20 lakh for a two hour concert).
In Pakistan there is no commerce in music, and even the most talented musicians must do something other than sing or play to get by. Mekaal for instance, rents out his studio. The disadvantages of not having a commercial outlet for your talent are many. The only advantage of this is that musicians are free to make popular music that is still non-commercial.
Fortunately for all of us, whether Indian or Pakistani, Rohail Hyatt and his team have used this space to produce the music that we love so much. The reason why Coca Cola produces it is that the Pakistani public will not directly pay for it, unlike Indians and Bollywood.
It is cruel to say this, but it is true.