Aye raah-e-haq ke shaheedo, wafa ki tasveero/ Tumhein watan ki hawayen salaam karti hain (Martyrs on the righteous path, you are the epitome of loyalty. The nation salutes you)
It had been 15 days since Amjad Sabri — one of Pakistan’s foremost qawwals — was gunned down in Liaquatabad in Karachi, when Coke Studio Pakistan got a slew of Pakistani artistes to croon this Naseem Begum ditty as a tribute to the martyrs of their land. It was also a way to announce the commencement of the ninth season of the popular show that has been in Pakistan for almost a decade.
Sabri was only metres away from his residence and near the underpass that was named after his father — famous qawwal Ghulam Farid Sabri — when the incident occurred. He was listed as one of the artistes on the show’s new season. Sabri’s death was followed by a terrorist attack on the government hospital in Quetta days later, killing 70 and injuring more than 130 others.
Five days later, On August 13, the eve of Pakistan’s independence, Coke Studio Season 9 went on air with Abida Parveen and Ali Sethi singing Aaqa, which said Yeh sab tumhara karam hai aaqa, ke baat ab tak bani huyi hai (It’s due to your blessing Oh lord, that our affairs are held together). While Zeb and Noori sang Aaja re More Saiyaan, a piece that talks of wanting to be with one’s beloved, Meesha Shafi, with her red lipstick as prominent as her resonant voice, turned a sad wedding song, Aaya Laariye, into riotous perfection. Her Jugni Ji with Arif Lohar in Season 3 had turned into a cult track in 2010 and suddenly raised the bar of the show.
With Coke Studio Pakistan, you hear it, you like it. Then you watch it again and gradually sway with it. And here it is, a different world, where one not only finds music, but a cackle of laughter, something that lacks in the finest acts of today. Everybody seems happy here.
The camaraderie on this live stage is so contagious that it has become more than just a music show. It puts out a liberal and compassionate philosophy, which embraces folk music, artistes and lyrics of tolerance, bringing a sort of social revolution at a time when Pakistan is going through situations its people don’t deserve.
When the concept was introduced to the world via YouTube in Karachi in the summer of 2008, Benazir Bhutto had just been assassinated, 37 people had been killed in a bombing in the town of Parachinar at an election rally, the Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan, Tariq Azizuddin, had already been kidnapped and at least 45 people had died and 82 wounded in a suicide attack on the funeral of a district superintendent of police in Swat.
Nothing anyone said or did could change anything. But the show, inadvertently, was slowly becoming a respite from all things terrorism, from all things with discordant undertones in Pakistan. It showcased a broad-minded, secular and slightly indulgent side of the nation, something people needed.
Musically, it did quite a few things right. It did not allow its musicians to settle for or stick to broad categories of music. It went beyond progressive rock, and even beyond those who consider anything other than classical music a dreadful din. With a lack of commerce in their music industry, there came talent that could surpass some of the finest musicians we’ve heard in India; something that has not let Coke Studio @MTV come anywhere close to the success or quality of Coke Studio Pakistan.
In the episode that was aired last week we spotted an elderly Noor Zehra playing out all of life’s dramas in an interlude on a sagar veena with her shaking hands. She sat in white, playing raag desh, and accompanying Indian singer Shilpa Rao, who sang a Sohni Mahiwal piece on the show. Zehra seems to have made a hidden statement here, likely to have been missed by the Track One diplomacy of the two nations. There was also singer Naseebo Lal, dressed in a black sari, singing the Rajasthani folk song saasu maange kookri (my mother-in-law wants me to serve her) and there was Rahat Fateh Ali Khan singing his uncle Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Aafreen, a piece written by poet Javed Akhtar. Here it was — a musical equilibrium taking shape amid the turbulence of politics.