Exploring Pakistan’s musical landscapes with Coke Studio Eleven

In the last ten years, Coke Studio Pakistan, the hit musical platform television show, has become an international sensation. Previous producers Rohail Hyatt and Strings married the traditional forms and performers of Pakistan with well-established pop and rock stars, creating an electrical new sound that swiftly became the emotional and psychical soundtrack for a new Pakistan in the 21st century.

But with the start of its second decade, the previous producers of Coke Studio, The Strings, have handed over the reigns to two newcomers, Ali Hamza and Zoheib Kazi, for the upcoming eleventh season. Does the new duo have what it takes to continue the dream and push it to new boundaries in 2018 and beyond?

Innovative and inspiring, Coke Studio Pakistan has showcased emerging musical talent, spawned similar program formats as far afield as the Middle East and the Philippines, and most importantly, united millions of Pakistanis through a passion for music at home and abroad. Coke Studio is watched by people in 132 countries around the world; this is expected to go up to 150 countries, with 68% of the one billion minutes of Coke Studio content watched outside of Pakistan. The stakes are high for the new team, but they have the answer in the form of a new vision for the show.

Hamza and Kazi are eager to explain it to me in a Skype interview conducted between Karachi and Chicago with me: 9 pm for them, 11 am for me. It’s hard to feel close to Pakistani musical traditions at such distances, but Coke Studio has been able to bridge all divides: ethnic, geographical, and generational. My own older relatives living here in the United States talk to me eagerly about the latest acts and songs, often before I’ve even had a chance to hear them.

Thanks to the power of sound, the excitement of discovery, and a strong need among Pakistanis of all ages for love and unity, it’s the fans who have made Coke Studio what it is today, and there’s a strong sense that expectations for the new season are higher than ever before. And nobody feels the weight of responsibility of the Coke Studio legacy more heavily than the two young new producers themselves.

Keeping the Coke Studio format fresh has been one of Hazma and Kazi’s main concerns, along with questions of their roles as the new arbiters of a nation’s musical heritage. Both men have been involved with management and production of Coke Studio for several years now; Kazi worked on the show from Seasons 3-9, before taking time off to produce multimedia musical projects Ismail Ka Urdu Shehar and Fanoos. Ali Hamza co-founded the rock band Noori and worked on a solo project called Sanwal, before becoming a musical director of Coke Studio for Season 10.

Recently a rumor went around Twitter that Coke Studio was “involved with politics” and that the producers were preparing an election song for a political party (Coke Studio released an official statement refuting the rumors). But Hamza and Kazi are uncompromising in their position as fans of the show themselves, not tastemakers or kingmakers: “We see our involvement with Coke Studio very much as a matter of ethics and transparency. No act gets on Coke Studio without merit.”

That’s why one of the most exciting aspects of the new season had to be created and produced with strict secrecy and confidentiality. The producers realized that not only was social media the source of their giant fan base but could also be a rich source of new talent. So in addition to the usual studio sessions in an already familiar format, Coke Studio Season 11 features a new module called Coke Studio Explorer, which the producers call a “journey of how we discover untapped talent and unheard voices in the cultural soundscape of Pakistan.”

They embarked on a search all over Pakistan for those voices. Again, the role of social media is apparent in their quest: they used the Internet to find artists whom they then sought out in person, from the Kalash Valley and Muzaffarabad, Kashmir in the north, the rough lands of Balochistan to the west and the deserts of Sindh in the south. They used mobile recording to capture image and sound;

They harnessed the power of mobile recording to capture image and sound, using technology to tap into the age-old tradition of storytelling. This relays not just the music, but the people behind the music and their struggles and triumphs along the way. It anchors the artists in the context and culture of Pakistan; their own passion a common thread running across all the multitudes of cultures and identities in this diverse nation.

Kazi and Hamza also went on Instagram to discover what was out there on the “vast terrain of the Internet.” One of their ambitions for the Coke Studio Explorer module was to showcase the ways in which Pakistanis are using the power of social media to put their music out in the world. However, they are adamant that they don’t want people to start thinking of Coke Studio as a talent incubator or launch pad to fame along the lines of The Voice or The X Factor.

“We don’t want them to see appearing on Coke Studio as the end, but rather as a means to an end,” Hamzi and Kazi tell me. By traveling to see the musicians in their own environments, the producers were better able to tell the stories of the artists, while avoiding the mass hysteria that a nationwide call for auditions would create. In this way they believe they can remain true to the original vision of Coke Studio as a musical fusion project that spreads hope and positivity among Pakistanis through the mediums of art, poetry, music, and instrumentation.

Five prodigiously talented performing acts have made it to the first ever Coke Studio Explorer segment. First, there are two Kalash girls, Amrina and Ariana (who changed her name from Farsi Gul to Ariana in honor of her idol, Ariana Grande). Next up is Muzaffarabad’s Altaf Mir, known as “Qasamir”, who interprets the poetry of Manzoor Ahmed Khan while playing the traditional Kashmiri instrument, the Tumbaknaeer.

Shamu Bai and her younger brother Vinshu come from rural Sindh, and perform the traditional Hindu devotional songs called bhajans. A trio of throat singers, Mangal, Darehan and Shayan, bring the Baloch tradition of “Nar Sur” to Coke Studio, relating folk tales with roots to the nomadic traditions of Central Asia. And finally, an Instagram discovery comes in the form of Mishal Khawaja, a Toronto resident whose unique brand of singer-songwriting draws its inspiration from her Pakistani roots.

After speaking to the producers and reading the press releases, I get to do something very special: watch the songs before they go on air. I’m sworn to secrecy, so I feel an illicit thrill as I open up the first clip, the promo.

The scenes unfold before my eyes, stutter-cut shots of the producers traveling into the snowy mountains of Chitral, interspersed with the faces of the musicians –Ariana and Amrina wearing headphones over their traditional headdresses, the Baloch tribesmen swirling in the rhythms of a circular dance, Shamu Bai and Vishnu walking in their village with the children following behind them. This is a visual and aural treat, a Humans of Coke Studio approach that immediately hooks you both through the ears and the heart. It is, in a word, dynamite.

Ariana and Amrina’s segment shows the producers making the tough journey up to Chitral in the depths of winter to find an indigenous female Kalash act; it incudes conversations with the girls; technical setup and soundchecks, and interactions with the people of the village. And then there’s the song itself, Pareekh, which feels almost like a community effort, with input from all the women of the village watching the proceedings. It smashes preconceived notions of the “oppressed” women of Pakistan, showing instead traditional women who are bold, outspoken, and fully confident in their ability to create art.

Another clip follows the producers going to Sohbat Pur in Balochistan to record the throat singers Mangal, Darehan and Shayan. The producers acknowledge that they would never have been able to find the authentic sounds of the nation by staying in the studio; getting out and about in the country to go to the source breathes new life into the tried-and-tested format of the studio recording. The villagers meet the producers with the legendary respect and hospitality of the province, and are present at the recording session of the song Naseeba, a beautiful testament of how music and performance function as the soul of a community.

These are only two examples of what’s ahead for viewers of Coke Studio Explorer: the five episodes are replete with musical and cultural treasure of the kind that has just been lying in wait for discovery. Ali Hamza and Zoheib Kazi have taken the extra step in bringing these stories to our television screens. They’re the explorers who have scoured the length and breadth of Pakistan, found examples of musical talent in every province, and in doing so, have told the story of Pakistan. Boosted by this affirmation of who we are and where we come from — the fields, the mountains, the villages and the streets — the sounds of a nation become the spirit of a nation, and Coke Studio looks set for another successful season ahead.

Here’s a sneak peek at the first song released by Coke Studio 11, “Pareek” by Ariana and Amrina of the Kalash Valley. Enjoy…