The Arts

Inside Coke Studio Pakistan's Enduring Appeal – and Its Shortcomings

In conversation with Zahra Sabri as she talks about the reservations she has about the way poetry is being dealt with and delivered on the Coke Studio platform.

Not very long ago, Coke Studio was in the eye of a storm for its rendition of Ko Ko Korina, arguably the first ever Pakistani pop song. Composed by Sohail Rana, sung by Ahmed Rushdie and picturised on Waheed Murad, the song has been a staple of Pakistan’s pop music landscape since it was released in 1966. Coke Studio’s version, however, drew a lot of criticism for its sloppy execution.

In the past decade, Coke Studio has grown to be the country’s largest music platform. During this time, the platform has revived many old classics to applause and appreciation but several of these performances have been peppered with noticeable linguistic errors.

Herald got in touch with Zahra Sabri, who translated folk and classical poetry for nine seasons of Coke Studio, to share her experience of working for the show. Sabri talked about the reservations she has about the way poetry is being dealt with and delivered on the Coke Studio platform. She also talked about the impact of this on the music industry as a whole. Below are excerpts and an abridged recording of her conversation with Ahmer Naqvi, the former COO of music platform Patari, and a writer with a close eye on pop culture in Pakistan.

Ahmer Naqvi: Zahra, having worked with Coke Studio for nine seasons and translated all the episodes from Season 2 to 10, what was your big takeaway from the entire experience in terms of what you learnt about the state of poetry and the arts in Pakistan?

Zahra Sabri: I think the state of poetry and the arts in Pakistan can, to some extent, be judged by the fact that a forum like Coke Studio became very big in our times. Our folk and classical literary traditions are very rich and Coke Studio has reflected years of artistic talent and thought in the way the music was produced and showcased.

Also Read: As We Celebrate Urdu, Let’s Not Ignore the Signs of Its Decline in India

However, Coke Studio is not the first time that the folk and pop or rock combination has happened in Pakistan. If you remember, Muhammad Ali Shehki appeared in a famous pairing with Allan Faqir to create the hit song Allah Allah Kar Bhaiya. Shehki was to Allan Faqir, we may say, what Meesha Shafi was to Arif Lohar in Season 3’s Alif AllahJugni. Later on, we saw the band Junoon also take a lot of interest in the folk musical traditions of their surroundings.

The way I see it, one of the chief reasons why a forum like this – one which celebrates and reworks older poetic material – has become the largest musical platform now, rather than at any other time before, is because today, while we still have some decent musical talent, we are facing a serious crisis of good poetic material for lyrics.

The studio’s drawing upon classical poetry and famous compositions in order to create new and contemporary music has served to plug a growing gap in our musical landscape.

Naqvi: And what, in your opinion, is the reason for this crisis?

Sabri: There is a generational incapacity in broad sections of our young population to achieve original and meaningful self-expression in major local languages. This is largely due to the effect of a skewed and failing education system. Young musicians fail to express with verve and clarity the fresh sentiments of a new generation. This has contributed to the weakening of Pakistan’s pop and rock scene over the past two decades.

Another reason is that the Pakistan Television Network, which had long served as an institution that protected and promoted local artists, has lost its erstwhile prestige and influence. For a long time, our private television channels have opened their doors to Bollywood where an intense lyrical crisis has persisted for years. The language of lyrics in Hindi films has interestingly always been Urdu, and at one time these songs were of much better quality. But in the past couple of decades, the quality of Urdu lyrics in Bollywood has become increasingly formulaic, shallow and meaningless.

Thus you see, this crisis affected the music industry on both sides of the border and this is the background in which a forum like Coke Studio, which revives and reinterprets old classics, became as popular as it did throughout the region.

Naqvi: In the years that you translated poetry for Coke Studio, how did you perceive your responsibilities? What did you feel you were trying to achieve as a translator?

Also Read: At Jashn-e-Rekhta, Not Just Urdu but Being Muslim is Returned to the Normal

Sabri: I translated over 200 songs with the generous aid and assistance of a whole team of native speakers and academic experts who were kind enough to contribute to our understanding of their languages, chief among whom was the lyricist, Asim Raza. My goal was to try to translate each and every line of poetry as faithfully as possible so our audience could better understand the popular words of beloved poets like Amir Khusrau and Bulleh Shah.

When it came to the folk realm, this seemed to be an opportunity to put to paper many popular songs which may never have appeared in print before. Hence, we agreed to run these songs not just in standardised Roman script and English translations, but also in their original scripts. I felt all the extra effort involved in trying to pin down the exact spellings of Seraiki, Pashto, Brahui or Punjabi words would be worth it because ultimately we would be contributing to increasing speakers’ literacy in these languages.

Later on, we also decided to provide Urdu translations for Pashto, Balochi, Sindhi, Persian or difficult Punjabi songs so that Coke Studio could also cater to the needs of our wider domestic audiences.

Naqvi: What you are describing, then, was a unique endeavour to include literary and academic experts for a cultural or entertainment product. But how much of the process at Coke Studio brought new kinds of experiences and realisations for you?

Sabri: I can hardly describe how rich an educational and artistic experience it was for me. Over the course of nearly ten seasons, I had the opportunity to work with 13 languages and learn their respective scripts. We worked with Seraiki, Sindhi, Pashto, Punjabi, Brahui, Balochi, Braj Bhasha, Marwari, Bengali, Urdu, Persian, Arabic and Turkish.

Even within some of these languages, we saw a variety of living dialects which shifted every few miles across districts and provinces. Sometimes, the Seraiki that came to us seemed to lean more towards Punjabi, and at other times, more towards Sindhi. In a song such as Natasha Khan and Ali Zafar’s Yo Soch in Season 10, it was interesting to experience a dialect of Pashto from Mardan which had features which stood out from the Pashto of Peshawar.

Sometimes, the dialects of Punjabi also varied. A lot of people don’t understand the significance of the Punjabi language for a platform like Coke Studio. There was a time when most of the songs released were in Punjabi, which reflected the importance of this language for Pakistan’s mainstream culture.

Naqvi: When it came to the musicians and singers who performed on Coke Studio, what did you feel was their general attitude towards understanding the meaning of the poetry being sung and towards delivering it properly?

Sabri: Our flawed education system has been pushing people towards English, especially in larger cities. Though many young people from large urban centres still cannot claim to have mastered English, this over-emphasis on English has certainly led to a weakening of their understanding of Urdu.

If you have good immersion in Urdu, which shares the Persian and Indic literary canon and vocabulary with other local languages such as Punjabi, it becomes possible for you to have a deeper understanding of many languages spoken in Pakistan, including Sindhi and Pashto. But investing in English will not achieve similar results for the simultaneous promotion and protection of a wide variety of our local languages and traditions.

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Young singers who come from small towns usually have a much stronger grasp of Urdu, especially those who also know proper Punjabi. However, many artists – who have become big names in the music industry during the past decade – have fallen into the recurring habit of getting the basic lyrics of songs quite wrong.

The language most affected is Persian, which is reflective of our growing distance from our own classical traditions. The second most affected language is Punjabi because artists sometimes just assume that they know it and understand it. But in reality, their knowledge is quite weak.

For example, Tajdar-e-Haram is an iconic qawwali with poetry in Urdu, Persian, Braj Bhasha, and Arabic. My personal opinion is that Atif Aslam has done a great job in singing this piece, turning a popular qawwali into a powerful and heartfelt devotional song.

However – perhaps because he picked up a faulty copy of the lyrics written in Roman Urdu from somewhere on the internet– he ended up making an utter muck of quite a few of the Persian verses and even a couple of the Urdu ones. Instead of calling the Prophet Muhammad ‘Prince of Arabia’ (‘arab ke kunwar), he mistakenly changed it to ‘Prince of God’ (rabb ke kunwar).

While referring to the pain of being apart from the Prophet, instead of singing the correct line ‘dar furqat-i to ay ummi-laqab’ (In your separation, O you who bear the title of the Untaught One), he has sung ‘daar-i furqat to ay ummi-laqab’ (House of separation you, O you who…) which basically results in a rather strange and pointless meaning.

Instead of singing ‘gaahe ba-figan duzdeedah nazar’ (Cast towards me a stolen glance sometime), he has mistakenly sung ‘gaahe bagaha duzdeedah nazar’ (a stolen glance sometime) which really does not mean anything. Further on, he has made even more prominent errors. Instead of singing ‘ay mushk-bed ‘ambar-fishaan (O musk-willow, scattering fragrance), he has ended up singing ‘ay mujtab-i zumbar-fishaan, and instead of saying ‘ay qaasid-i farkhundah-pah’ (O auspicious messenger), he has erroneously sung ‘ay qaasid-i purkhanda-pah’ which effectively changes ‘auspicious’ to ‘a foot that is full of laughter’.

What this basically proves is that many of the younger artists, despite their fame, don’t fully understand what they are singing. If they did, they wouldn’t make such mistakes.

Naqvi: So younger artists may have a general sense of what a song is about, but not a particularly deep understanding of each specific line of the lyrics. But why is it even important for an artist to be faithful to a poet or lyricist’s original words or to understand the meaning of each line being sung? Why does it matter that with a change or distortion of words, certain nuances are getting lost?

Sabri: It’s not just that certain nuances are getting lost in what these artists are singing. The artists are actually singing some completely meaningless lines and you can imagine what that means for the transmission of meaning for traditional poetry that has been passed down orally from one generation to another.

Also Read: ‘At Once Silent and Eloquent’: A Glimpse of Pakistani Visual Poetry

Coke Studio has a very wide influence on music in Pakistan. This is why we should be careful to ensure that our efforts are doing more good than harm to all this classical and folk material that the country’s largest music platform is drawing upon.

Naqvi: The process of producing music at Coke Studio is different from how music is produced by a record label. Coke Studio, through its music, is delivering a corporate advertisement. So then why should they worry about matters like correct words or diction in poetry as long as their product continues to sell and be a hit?

Sabri: I agree that the corporate aspect of the project has a definite effect on the production process. But I would not agree that the producers did not care about standards or correctness. They recognised that they were drawing upon famous classics and wanted to be faithful to the text of the originals.

Overall, though, I must credit both Rohail Hyatt and Strings for taking proper notice of these things, if and when they were pointed out to them in time. If possible, they would try to rerecord the faulty parts, though often it was too late for that. Where errors persisted in the released audios, both Rohail Hyatt and Strings agreed that rather than try to cover up the artists’ mistakes, the studio should at least acknowledge the fault by keeping the original, correct words in the subtitles of the songs.

It is not just the re-singing of older classical and folk poetry that proved problematic. Even new lyrics being penned could end up being rather suspect. The worst case I saw was in Season 10 when a sub-producer brought us a stanza of Persian verses which he had written himself, without knowing any Persian at all. I was mystified as to where he might have got it from because it was absolutely senseless.

Thankfully, Strings had the foresight to have the verses checked before the song went into the final recording and told the sub-producer that they could not knowingly sanction such gibberish even if the majority of the audience was unable to distinguish the real thing from the fake in a language they didn’t understand.

From what I have observed, regardless of whether it is Rohail Hyatt at the helm or Strings, these kinds of mistakes can unwittingly be made under any kind of producer, because the format of the show itself affects the process of production. The same artist who makes huge blunders on the Coke Studio platform may actually record the same song with fewer errors on his or her personal album.

The reason is that an artist or band can spend as much as a month on a particular song on their personal album, whereas in Coke Studio almost 30 songs are being created, rehearsed and finalised in a matter of three or four months. I am not suggesting that such mistakes have not occurred on any other platform in the past. However, they occur occurred far too often from what has become Pakistan’s largest music platform over the past few years.

Here, the sponsor is not some art academy or music company but a corporate organisation – a soda seller whose marketing requirements mean that a premium is placed on doing everything in a great hurry, perpetuating a culture of mistakes.

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Naqvi: Can you give us some specific examples of such mistakes?

Sabri: For example, in Sanam Marvi’s song Sighra Aaween Saanwal Yaar in Season 4, she made one quite serious mistake which members of the audience also noticed. Instead of saying ‘nafi asbaat’ which means ‘negation and affirmation’ (i.e. ‘no god, but God’), she got confused and said ‘nabi asbaat’ (prophet and affirmation) which significantly changes the meaning of the verses. However, we kept ‘nafi asbaat’ in the captions because the point was to educate audiences about such an important piece of traditional poetry as ‘alif allaah chambe di booti’ rather than misinform them.

Sanam Marvi’s Sighra Aaween Saanwal Yaar

Then, we can take the example of Meesha Shafi. In three of her major Punjabi tracks, she has distorted verses. In Chori Chori in Season 3, she ended up saying something to the effect of ‘Every moment of my beloved, my life’s wir’ (jis da nah ik pal, wir meri jaan da). I was so confused about this when I heard it, because wir is not a recognisable Punjabi word. Now weer is a word – it means ‘brother’.

But what on earth is wir? Therefore, I consulted Reshma’s original song, and, sure enough, the implication of the real line is ‘My beloved doesn’t appear before me for a single moment, he doesn’t want me to live’ (disda nah ik pal, wairi meri jaan da). Now this makes proper sense because wairi in Punjabi is indeed a real word! It means ‘enemy’. Hence, the meaning becomes ‘jaan ka dushman’ (mortal enemy), which is an idiomatic Urdu phrase everyone would recognise.

In another song, Sun Ve Balori in Season 7, Meesha Shafi has accidentally turned the word ‘saanhwaan’ (breaths) into ‘raahwaan’ (roads/paths). Madam Noor Jahan’s original line had been ‘saanhwaan wich agg jayi baldi’ which implies ‘the state of my love and passion is so great that it feels as if my very breath is on fire’.

But with the change, it means something like ‘the state of my love and passion is so great that it feels as if the roads are burning’. A world of difference. A friend of mine, when he heard Meesha Shafi’s version, was wondering why the roads are burning. Is there a protest march, where demonstrating are burning tyres on the road?

In Season 8, in an absolutely beautiful song called Ajj Din Vehre Vich, Ali Zafar skips a whole word by accident in a very famous she‘r of Ghalib that he recites near the end. Naturally, this affects the meaning of the verses. Anyone who knows Ghalib, even a little, knows this she‘r by heart, but somehow in the rush of rehearsals and recordings at the studio and the environment all this creates, an error like this was made.

Also in Season 8, a band called Siege completely defaced the Marwari classic Khari Neem Ke Neeche. Almost every sentence was distorted in utterly meaningless ways. If you compare the audio to the captions, you will notice significant diversions between the two. Much of the audio is the kind of gibberish that people who speak Marwari would not be able to make sense of.

These are just a few examples of some of the more straightforward mistakes to give you an idea of the nature of the errors.

Naqvi: What effect do you think these kinds of mistakes or oversights have had for our music industry as a whole?

Sabri: Some months ago, I heard on the radio a singer called Zaryab Sultan, whom I don’t know at all and had never heard before, singing a cover of Atif Aslam’s version of Tajdar-e Haram. What was disturbing for me was that he copied every single one of the dozen or so mistakes and distortions that Atif Aslam had made while singing this qawwali.

Zaryab Sultan could have gone back and learned the words of the qawwali from the Sabri Brothers’ original version of it. He could even have consulted the corrected text of the song that we had ourselves supplied from Coke Studio for the audiences’ benefit. But no, he heard Atif Aslam’s audio alone and copied every single mistake from it.

Similarly, Aaya Laariye had so many mistakes that were pointed out to producer Shuja Haider by multiple means, including countless comments by members of the audience on YouTube, complaining that the song had been sung wrong. Yet, no effort was made to correct these accidental errors even when the Coke Studio version was re-sung by fresh singers in the sequel of Jawani Phir Nahi Ani and now all those errors have been reproduced all over the new film version of this household wedding classic.

Coke Studio has promoted a culture where many new singers, who would perhaps struggle to earn fame through an original song of their own, have found a means to earn it by re-singing classical material. When someone else’s song is granting them so much in terms of fame and recognition, the very least an artist can do is come prepared and ensure that what they sing is correct. Too many artists are just trying to pick up things randomly from audio tapes of older recordings instead of reaching out to knowledgeable ustaads for a proper understanding of the words and meaning of the poetry. Artists are often singing words which simply do not exist.

There is an existing educational crisis, as a result of which our urban and rural artists are all making mistakes. Coke Studio is merely reflecting this situation, not creating it – that is how I long thought of the situation. But I think now that when mistakes are entering and being showcased from a big and influential platform on such a regular basis, then perhaps that platform is also actively contributing to creating a culture of mistakes. When you are working on a huge national platform, you should be highly conscious of the responsibility you bear. It’s going to affect the relationship that generations of singers and listeners will form with this music.

Naqvi: You acknowledge, of course, that despite these concerns, Coke Studio has had a profoundly positive effect on promoting arts and culture in Pakistan and in building bridges between inhabitants of different social worlds within the country?

Sabri: Definitely. Rohail Hyatt’s intellectual and aesthetic vision and efforts in establishing this platform have brought immense advantages for local artists in terms of new kinds of artistic and financial opportunities, and for the audience in terms of increasing cultural exposure. 

Watch: ‘I Am The Greatest Of All Urdu Poets’

Coke Studio also served an important diplomatic function for Pakistan. Its early seasons not only played a part in shaping Pakistan’s international image during a particularly turbulent time, but they also helped shape the country’s self-image. Numerous languages were brought together onto a single platform and music enthusiasts had a chance to develop a genuine interest and intimacy with folk music in a variety of Pakistan’s languages.

In terms of musical impact, Coke Studio has proved to have a bigger influence on mainstream music in Pakistan and North India than perhaps any other musical phenomenon in the past decade. It also inspired the creation of parallel Coke Studio platforms in the Middle East, India, and Africa.

Naqvi: What advice would you give to the current producers of Coke Studio for making songs that are lyrically strong?

Sabri: Every new producer brings their own particular sound, and I think the sound that Ali Hamza and Zohaib Kazi have brought to Coke Studio is edgy in an interesting way. From my past experience of working with Ali Hamza’s songs, it seems to me that he comes up with some really good ideas and catchy compositions, but the extra effort needed to give the song true depth is often missing.

This means that a potentially great song often ends up being rather hollow and forgettable. You get the impression that first drafts of lyrics have been run rather than properly polished work. I mean, the ‘man bole, tan dole’ brand of lyric-writing that we saw in a variety of songs like Jo Meray in Season 2 can get quite monotonous and vague after a while, and doesn’t sustain much depth of thought, unfortunately.

I think most of Ali Hamza’s truly great work has been when he has worked with other people’s poetry. His Paar Chanaan De was extremely soulful and elegant. That was an existing folk classic. His Aaja Re Moray Saiyaan which he did with Zeb Bangash and his brother Ali Noor was, in my opinion, one of the best original songs Coke Studio has ever produced. It was built on some really solid and meaningful verses by the famous poet Zehra Nigah, and the mood of the music completely captured and accorded with the poetry in a really beautiful way.

One thing that has worried me, I must admit, is that Season 11 has fallen into the habit of going with faulty and made-up spellings for many local languages. The producers have been apprised of this several times and they know about it. It is simple – if there is no time or money to get the spellings for the original scripts of these songs checked then it is better to publish only the translations and not the lyrics in their original scripts. You should not knowingly allow the cybersphere to be flooded with linguistic and spelling errors through the popular means of your platform.

The reason why many of us Pakistanis loved Coke Studio was because it was thoroughly different from Bollywood. That’s why Indians also loved it so much, and the popularity of the Indian Coke Studio has proved to be less even in India because of its inability to escape the influence of Bollywood as effectively so far.

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The strength of Pakistan’s Coke Studio was both the different sound of our music and the quality and depth of our lyrics. However, the lyrical trends we used to mock in Bollywood are fast catching up with us, even though we used to consider Coke Studio a bulwark against such trends at one time. When artists and lyricists are careless with regard to language, the result will be hollow and formulaic-sounding songs.

I think our younger musicians need to develop better collaborations with experienced lyricists and poets in order to introduce a bit of depth, individuality and variation to their songs. We definitely have seen this among a few of the younger artists in Coke Studio in the past. Abbas Ali Khan’s Mujhay Baar Baar in Season 7 made expressive and meaningful use of verses by a modern, contemporary mystical poet. 

Sab Aakho Ali Ali and Mohsin Abbas Haider’s Uddi Ja in Season 9 were songs that stood out for their lyrics. Uddi Ja in particular, which Mohsin Abbas Haider wrote himself, proves to us that fresh mystical poetry which is also greatly meaningful and has all kinds of subtle classical references is still possible for younger artists to write in twenty-first century Pakistan if we only put in the necessary mental and emotional effort.

There are also other examples of non-traditional original lyrics which were also very powerful. Bilal Khan’s work in his own songs, Jaffer Zaidi’s work in his band Kaavish’s songs, and, above all, Bohemia’s immensely fresh and original penmanship for his songs are talented examples of that. Hence, thankfully, we do see this depth in some of the younger artists, but not as often as we should from the largest music platform of the country.

That being said, I think, in many ways, the prime value of Coke Studio to our music industry has already been availed. New audiences have been created for folk and classical music among the younger generation during very trying political and financial times for our music industry. Now, perhaps, it is time for forums other than those linked with multinational soft drink or ice cream companies to try to make a more visible appearance in our industry and to try to promote both fusion and non-fusion music.

Ahmer Naqvi is Creative Head at Teeli. He was previously the COO of the music platform Patari. He has been writing on music, cricket and pop culture for the past decade.

Zahra Sabri has translated folk and classical poetry for nine seasons of the music programme Coke Studio. She is a doctoral student in Mughal history and Indo-Muslim literature at the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University.

A version of this piece appeared on the Herald website on Nov 29, 2018. This article was originally published on the Herald on Nov 29, 2018. Read original here.