How Coke Studio Got Its Mojo Back

How Coke Studio Got Its Mojo Back
Showing signs of exhaustion and complacency during its last few seasons, Coke Studio (CS) returned this year looking refreshed, rejuvenated and reinvented. Helmed by a new producer Xulfi Jabbar Khan, with Abdullah Siddiqui acting as his deputy, the show’s new season was able to make the show relevant again in a scenario where platforms such as Velo Sound Station and Pepsi Battle of the Bands had begun to make CS look like something that was just going through the motions.

CS was launched in 2008 when, due to rising incidents of Islamist violence, the country’s pop music scene had all but collapsed. Outdoor concerts and music festivals evaporated, and the advent of online streaming services (mostly illegal) put a dent on CD sales. One can’t claim that pop and rock acts went ‘underground’ as such. Many of them simply withered away. New acts were hard to find. Even the so-called ‘underground’ platforms got lost in the clutter of multiple online avenues. It became almost impossible to pin down who was singing what.

But the most pressing issue faced by Pakistan at the time was a surge in religious radicalisation and violence. The Pervez Musharraf dictatorship (1999-2008) believed that the creation and proliferation of art informed by ‘Sufism’ could work as a bulwark against Islamist extremism, and aid young people to ‘reconnect’ with the region’s Sufi past. This experiment was carried forward by the PPP-led coalition government that replaced the Musharraf regime after the 2008 elections.

This is not to suggest that the new government was in anyway involved in the launch of CS. But it is a fact that CS as a concept emerged from a narrative that had originated during the Musharraf dictatorship and was being worked by the new government.

Rohail Hyatt

The first 6 seasons of CS were studded with modern renditions and reworkings of popular Sufi and folk songs sung by veteran folk and pop stars, gathered inside a large studio with a plethora of musicians. These seasons were helmed by former Vital Signs founder and member Rohail Hyatt who had also become a music producer. After producing six seasons of CS, Rohail was replaced by the two mainstays of the now defunct pop act Strings — Bilal Maqsood and Faisal Kapadia. CS had done well to establish itself as a popular and quality music platform. But many fans felt that by season 6, Rohail had exhausted the ideas that he had come in with.

Rohail, though credited as a ‘synth player’ in the Signs, had also taken the additional roles of producer and engineer on the band’s last three albums. After the Signs, Rohail grew even further in his role as a producer. Also, whereas the Signs’ lead vocalist, the late Junaid Jamshed, ventured into Islamic evangelicalism (and then quit music), Rohail saw himself drawn towards Sufism. The ‘Sufi’ blueprint for CS was largely mapped by him, until it became an act of convenience rather than anything a bit more meaningful.

The conceptual framework, blueprint and setting remained the same during Maqsood and Kapadia’s stay in the producers’ slot. But both did try to slightly widen the sonic scope of the show by introducing more contemporary pop in the mix. Technically, they were as good as Rohail. However, one felt CS was becoming increasingly fossilised in its ways. It was overtly banking on established acts and on the ‘Sufi’ vibe which, by then, had been milked so vigorously that it began to wilt. It became rather obvious that the COLAnization of Sufism could not be stretched any further.

A new set of producers was brought in for season 11. They were Noorie’s Ali and Hamza Noor. They were competent musicians who had tasted their share of success. But theirs was the weakest CS season. Maybe they were just a make-shift arrangement. But to be fair to them, I do not think they were given any clear mandate to revitalise a wilting product. Rohail was asked to return, in the hope that the memory of him ‘pioneering’ the CS concept, might reignite interest in an audience that was not only leaving, but was also changing.

Kapadia and Maqsood

The so-called ‘millennials,’ who were the core audience of CS, were giving way to the so-called ‘Gen Z,’ who, as it turned out, were growing up on genres of music that were rather different than what CS had been milking year after year. The first signs of this happening became apparent when in 2017, Coke’s arch-rival Pepsi launched its own music platform, Pepsi Battle of the Bands. With Faisal Rafi as its music producer, it banked less on nostalgia and more on giving space to a new breed of acts and new songs. The talent that appeared was quite impressive. Young acts played around with various genres, mixing them beyond the worn-out formulas of old-school-fusion.

One wondered: where on earth had they learned to play music the way they did in a country where musical avenues had continued to shrink? At times, the new acts seemed to actually be a lot more innovative and technically sound than the ‘seniors’ who were judging them on the show. Pepsi had thrown down the gauntlet, and began to draw more attention and fans, as CS viewership continued to nosedive.

And as if this wasn’t enough, Velo Sound Station came in and showed just where CS should have gone. Produced by Maqsood and Kapadia, it took the CS concept, but replaced live music with a live audience, and offered some wonderful (pre-recorded) music made with all the new electronic gadgetry that musicians have at their disposal these days — and which Gen Z relates to more.

Rohail was taken by surprise. CS was now being compared to two very lively and refreshing ideas. CS began to be seen as a show for ageing millennials. But whereas Rohail had turned the whole idea of a music show in Pakistan on its head when he began helming CS, on his return in 2019, he chose to stick to the familiar. He just wasn’t able to stall the show’s decline and fossilisation.

Pepsi Battle of the Bands introduced brand new acts

In theory, an expensive cultural product with diminishing returns often gets the axe. But for Coke, CS was still an important cultural asset. But it just couldn’t have lumbered on the way it did by going through the same old motions that were once fresh but had become a liability. CS couldn’t gauge the generational shift that had begun to take place from the mid-2010s.

Tastes were changing, and even the instruments. New talent was cropping up from odd places: city streets, bedrooms, on Tik Tok, etc. Class divides too had begun to overlap. In the 1990s, the first major waves of pop music in Pakistan often emerged from urban middle-class realms. Now talent was not only emerging from this segment alone, but also from the streets of impoverished areas.


Xulfi was a guitarist in a ‘nu-metal/rap-metal’ band Entity Paradigm at the tail-end of the country’s first major pop/rock waves. But it seems he was quite keen to keep in touch with how music was changing in the age of streaming. It was thus a shrewd move to get in Abdullah Siddiqui as his assistant. Siddiqui is considered to be an ‘electropop prodigy.’ Just what was going in the country’s Gen Z music scene can now be heard to its fullest thanks to Spotify’s entry in Pakistan.

For the last five or six years, young men and women were producing music on various electronic instruments, playing with some rather irreverent lyrical and musical ideas unbound by the old notions of fusion, pop, rock and that deadweight genre, ‘Pop Sufism.’ Xulfi and Siddiqui assembled a list of crooners and musicians, many of whom were appearing for the first time on CS.

Gen Z glam; Velo Sound Station

What’s more, even the few ‘oldies’ who returned, found themselves willingly crooning over sounds emerging from exotic electronic instruments. The impact was immediate. Also, out went the old set that had become static. Now the songs dictated the set. Sets changed according to the mood of the tunes. The cameras moved with the singers as they walked past walls, into different rooms or strolled along hallways, finding musicians placed and playing in different locations. It was stunning stuff. As stunning as the music.


4: Excellent

3: Good

2: Average

1: Poor


Abida Parveen/Nasibo Lal: Jhoom [4] 

The authentic folk disposition of Parveen’s vocals and the populist appeal of Lal’s voice interact seamlessly in making Jhoom one of the most refreshing ‘Sufi pop’ ditties in years. Helping it become this is the brave move to arrange and carry the song with exotic electronic instruments. These add a whole new dimension to the song’s ethereal aura.


Kaifi Khalil/Eva B/Abdul Wahab Bugti: Kana Yaari [3]

A catchy Balochi song punctuated by rap bits. It promises to escalate into becoming something punchier but, unfortunately, isn’t able to. It’s played too straight. The rap portions do add some energy, but these too seem curtailed by the song’s somewhat subdued arrangement.


Atif Aslam/Momina Mustehsan: Sajjan Das Na [2]

Atif Aslam is a pop legend. Mustehsan, not so. But she has a pleasant voice. Nevertheless, in this Punjabi pop softy, nothing new happens that hasn’t already happened in dozens of Atif Aslam songs. What’s more, Atif is also made to rap a bit. Enough said.


Asfar Hussain/Arooj Aftab: Mehram [4]

Arooj often does not move while singing. That is because she lets her voice do all the moving. It’s tranquil, yet melancholic, incredibly melodious, yet gruff. The writer of this song, Asfar Hussain, creates a perfect vehicle for Arooj’s trademark style. In fact, as a co-singer, he also adopts it himself.


Soch The Band/Butt Brothers: Neray Neray Vas [3]

This song may have become just another Punjabi bhangra-pop song designed to be played at weddings. It still can, but the groove is much deeper — thanks to juxtaposing electronic instruments with classic folk instruments, and keeping a check on its steady pace.


Ali Sethi/Sahae Gill: Pasoori [4]

The classically trained Sethi breaks out of his signature ‘dream pop’ style to embrace something a lot more upbeat and funkier. And he nails it. Gill, who is on debut, isn’t intimidated and does a wonderful job to make this one of the standout songs of CS-14. It will be interesting to see where Sethi goes from here.


Karakoram/Talha Anjum/Faris Shafi: Ye Dunya [2]

Critics got this wrong. This is not rap-metal. Nor is it a fusion. It is straight-up ‘symphonic-metal’ — a genre that emerged in the early 2000s. Songs get orchestral arrangements with rifting guitars, choir-like vocals and occasional rap interludes. The genre usually sounds like a person having a terrible episode of adolescence. Karakoram remains true to the genre, delivering operatic ‘anguish.’ But the main strength of the song is Talha Anjum’s grounded rapping. The weakest link of the song, surprisingly, is Faris Shafi, especially when he breaks into English rapping. And why on earth do the drums sound so tiny? Even the Pet Shop Boys had fatter beats.


Hassan Rahim/Justin Bibis: Peechey Hatt [4]

What a song! So much is happening here and yet, it never loses sight of its catchy centrality. The twists and turns are refreshing, almost like those of classic prog-rock. Talal Qureshi arranges a complex mix of straight-faced rap, South Asian ragas, and electronic music. Vocally, it is delivered brilliantly (and with a lot of attitude) by Rahim and the Bibis. It’s a an immediate charmer, and hard to pin down.


Meesha Shafi/Faris Shafi: Muaziz Saarif [2.5]

Meesha has one of the most exceptional singing voices. Her brother Faris is a natural rapper. I’m sure Faris on his own is terrific, and I also like the fact that his tongue is always in his cheek when he’s rolling out his words. But this duet doesn’t gel well. Both cancel out each other’s strengths and the smooth transition from the irreverent rap of Faris to Meesha’s power pop simply fails to materialise.


Momina Mustehsan: Beparwa. [2.5]

Momina is a conventional crooner with a flowery voice. She doesn’t have a signature style. Yet, she is a CS regular. Maybe the reason why she appears ever-so-often on the show is to deliver something much straighter and conventional? Perhaps. She’s pretty good at that, though.


Quratulain Baloch, Zain & Zohaib: Thagyan [3.5]

A ‘qawwali-pop’ gem, neatly done and steadily delivered. Thankfully the lyrics stay away from COLAnised Sufism. Instead, they are playful. I believe this didn’t get the kind of press that some other CS-14 standouts got.


Abdullah Siddiqui/Atif Aslam: Go [1]

Atif and Siddiqui hip-hopping in ‘minglish.’ Nothing interesting ever happens in this song. It sounds like a plastic toy whose batteries are about to …. go.


Faisal Kapadia/Young Stunners: Phir Milenge [4]

Former Strings’ man Kapadia has still got it. This reminds me a lot of the intense Ye Hai Meri Kahani by The Strings. Phir Milenge has lyrical and sonic depth. And the interplay between Kapadia and hip-hop stars the Young Stunners is empathetic. This is such a strong song. An apt climax of a wonderful season.


The writer is a journalist, author, cultural critic, satirist and historian.