Event Review: Pakistani musical project ‘Coke Studio’ launch

Announcing Coke Studio

The disastrous launch of a sublime project

When Coke Studio goes on air, you will be mesmerized by it. But don’t forget to thank your lucky stars that you weren’t there at the launch!

By Muniba Kamal

The Coke Studio promos running on television channels are preparing us for the most ambitious musical project to be taken on in Pakistan. A bit of what Coke Studio is has seen its way into print already, but for the serious music aficionado, nothing will compare to seeing this phenomenon on television, or better yet, holding the Coke Studio Sessions CD in their hands. This brainchild of Rohail Hyatt uses the musical talents of people as diverse our pop artistes like Strings and Ali Zafar, rock stars like Ali Azmat and alternative acts like Sajid and Zeeshan, rock stalwarts like Gumby on drums, Omran Shafique on lead guitars and Mannu on bass and throws them together with maestros like Ustad Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Ustad Hussain Bakhsh Gullo and Tufail Shaikh. And these sessions were recorded live with back up from Baloch lewa musicians, Abdul Lateef and company. It’s the first time I think in Pakistan that someone has managed to bring these influences together on such a mammoth scale. Rohail Hyatt had the vision to do it and Coke had the muscle to back him. And in doing so, one can see the makings of an event that has a similar kind of hold over the public imagination that the Lux Style Awards have come to exercise ever since they were conceived at the turn of the millennium.

The brilliance of the Coke Studio concept is similar to the brilliance of the Lux Style Awards. It is about a corporation using its muscle to give to the industry a strong platform that while helping with brand building goes well beyond the publicizing of a soft drink. The Lux Style Awards have given Pakistan’s entertainment industry its only credible awards show that gets written about, talked about, dissected, analysed and so has millions across the country tune in to the grand night. Every controversy makes the LSAs bigger and with every year, they have grown, both in the scope of the show and more importantly the evolution of the jury and process of deciding the nominees and winners. Coke Studio is not about winners or competition, it is about an experience – the live music recording – and it has the potential to get bigger and bigger as the years roll by.

I was lucky enough to witness Coke Studio in the making at Studio 146. Beginning with a rehearsal of Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Ali Azmat, which the latter had invited me to, the experience had me hooked. I went there every day for over a week, sometimes with colleagues and other times alone. There was the feeling of greatness in the making and though one was not an intrinsic part of it, there was a thrill to witnessing the process that remains embedded in memory. I remember… Rohail Hyatt manning the controls, working through sound with Zeeshan Parwez, Omran Shafique and Gumby who formed the core music group. Selina and Saba, the backing vocal girls trying valiantly to make their vocal parts heard over Rahat’s massive voice. Strings redoing ‘Sar Kiye Yeh Pahar’ with the lewa beat played by Abdul Lateef and gang and Faisal Kapadia rehearsing with Ustad Gullo with both him and Bilal grinning from ear to ear as the maestro took ‘Duur’ where no untrained vocalist is capable of taking it. The surprisingly easy energy between Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Ali Azmat and noticing how when they spoke, it was Ali’s who was loud and Rahat had such hushed tones and then when they sang, how Rahat could eclipse even the defeaning sound that is Gumby on drums. I remember getting goosebumps when Ali Zafar performed ‘Allah Hoo’ with Tufail stunned at how controlled and melodic Ali Zafar is when he’s not being the pop prince. And I remember pure pleasure as I grooved to both the funked up version of ‘Channo’ and most of all to Ali Azmat’s ‘Main Challa’ that saw Omaran Shafique and Zeeshan Parwez go manic in the best possible way. Coke Studio was an unforgettable experience that one is looking forward to reliving via television.

And this wave of nostalgia unfortunately brings me to the launch. With a corporate evening followed by a party, the Coke Studio launch did no justice to the project whatsoever. Looking at the red carpet pictures, one can see that all the world was there and when that happens, it’s perceived to be a successful launch. That is simply not the case. A successful launch is one that accurately portrays the project to the invitees. In this case, it was the press. A short segment of Sanam Saeed explaining Coke Studio in English, inviting Rohail Hyatt to say a few words and calling on the Coke Studio core music team to just say hi to the audience didn’t do anything to convey the scope or spirit of the project.

Looking back, I remember the Pakistan Fashion Week media launch, cleverly conceived by IMG as a talk show where by inviting a series of fashion people on stage, Simon Lock managed to convey the gist of fashion week to the media present. Coke Studio needed to be launched in a similar way, to convey what it was about. Had I not attended the making of Coke Studio itself, I would have walked out of the launch saying: “What are they trying to do?”

Frieha Altaf was roped in to handle the event which she did as she does most launches. Here it must be said that Frieha is one of the most efficient organisers of fashion shows and parties. The problem with Coke Studio is that the project is neither. It needed to have a sophisticated launch tailored to give the invitees a feel of the event. Instead, what one saw was a bad press conference, conducted in English with a media catering to an Urdu speaking nation. No questions were asked, nothing was explained. And this was followed by an influx of the party crowd of Karachi. A group of boys did numbers on the dance floor and slowly, some people around joined in. The dance floor was sleazy, packed with people who one didn’t know. It was the Karachi that has just learned to party. It seemed to that everybody there had somehow managed to get a hold of a ticket, because one could see no reason on earth why they would be invited to the launch of Coke Studio or indeed why they would want to come. And so the launch of one of my most sublime experiences in covering the local music scene turned into a free for all for the party animals of the city… and believe me when I say, it’s a jungle out there!

The climax, which is when one decided to leave was when the dance floor turned onto a stage setting for a disco mujra, when a well known model followed by a dancer made some really raunchy moves on stage, as a crowd around them clapped and egged them on and rolling cameras captured it all on tape. The launch of Coke Studio was as awful as the Coke Studio experience was memorable.

Strings left soon after the party had begun. I saw a bemused Tufail sitting with a friend. Rahat was hanging on the fringes of the evening when he disappeared. Omran, Gumby and Zeeshan were at wit’s ends. Rohail Hyatt’s children were sitting with their friends laughing at the scenario before them. And while, the evening was funny in a “What the hell is going” on kind of a way, ultimately it was no laughing matter.

When a project that attempts to bring together the classical and folk traditions of Pakistan together with the best pop and rock acts this country has to offer is launched by an event that shows no regard for the talent, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Coke Studio is a mind blowing concept that deserves better. Here hoping Coke, Rohail Hyatt and Frieha Altaf live and learn.