Coke Studio is making a mockery out of our culture

Suleman Akhtar is a mechanical engineer based in the UAE originally belonging to Gujrat, Pakistan. You can read more by Suleman here, or follow him on Twitter @SlmnAkhtar. This article was first published on Express Tribune.

Suleman Akhtar

At the risk of sounding judgemental, let me state flat out that “Coke Studio” is the place where a revitalisation of folk culture is endeavoured by slaughtering it.

A not-so-thoughtful cogitation, in this case, has led people to believe that through commercialism a win-win situation can be achieved to the benefit and amusement of all the stakeholders, i.e. the producers, the conglomerate and the MTV generation.

The idea clicked.

The “Coke Studio” fad is running amok. Social media is replete with ‘Naulakha Charkhas’ and ‘Jugni’. Rohail Hayat seems to have acquired the status of ‘god of music’.

Rambling on about the latest episode of “Coke Studio”, and the wonderful ‘stars’ is enough to make one an expert on contemporary music. Sufism is in the air. Meesha Shafi and Atif Aslam are new protagonists of Sufi thoughts that, till now, were terra incognita for the urban middle-class youth.

Money is pouring in.

Everyone – as was the plan – is getting their due share.

However, what is being missed out, amidst this entire episode of exhilaration, is the culture itself. The soul of culture is being sucked out, and that too so quietly that no one seems to have noticed.

The fact of the matter here is that it is not the culture itself that is being celebrated. It is being experimented with in a way that is uninspired and harmful.

Many movements can be cited in the West that set an outright challenge to the then prevalent cultural discourse. The modernist streaks of literature and art did a lot to revive what had been lost during the age of enlightenment, i.e. religion and culture. Whereas, on the other hand, surrealist and Dadaist movements called out bourgeois culture by rejecting many popular trends.

In post-modernist traditions, the lines between high and popular culture seem to be blurred. The genres of music are being experimented with by infusing the traits together. The point is, each and every upshot of the above cited instances imparted something enriched to society, by adding to the cultural and artistic traditions. This is in stark contrast to trivial experiments like “Coke Studio”.

If we strictly stick to music only, the Qawali or Sama was the most popular genre of music. The great Amir Khusroo was the one who introduced this genre to the subcontinent, which would become so popular and widely celebrated that a large chunk, if not all, of poetry of popular Sufi poets were acknowledged through Qawali.

Qawali is an indispensable part of popular shrine culture that has been attracting the masses for centuries in the Indian subcontinent. In Pakistan, these were the Sabri brothers, Aziz Mian, Farid Ayaz, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and many others who took it to new acme.

The melody of a Qawali is the melody of the masses.

So, in line with the collective cultural consciousness of the locals, Qawali is the only indigenous genre of the music that can enthral people, irrespective of their social status, caste, creed or religion.

The process of industrialisation and urbanisation started during Ayub’s era, but it was not until the end of Zia’s regime that urban pop music started emerging to fore. That was a response of the urban youth to severe curtailing and repression of cultural and social development of a once dynamic society.

The 80’s and 90’s are hailed as the heydays of Pakistani pop music. This was a time when Junoon, Nazia Hassan, Vital Signs, Alamgir and Bunny held sway over popular music in Pakistan. The stage was all set for a vibrant pop music industry in the region. Then, owing to the underlying seeds of radicalism sowed over the years, it started to fall apart at the end of the last century.

Pop stars opted to band themselves with religious organisations and some joined the conspiracy theorists’ bandwagon – the antithesis of art and music. Musharaf’s confused-to-the-core enlightened moderation proved to be the last nail in the coffin for, the once prospering industry, when the highly tortuous socio-political conditions started taking their toll.

That’s where “Coke Studio” made its entrance.

Meeting with the commercial needs of a rapidly expanding electronic media culture, folk culture was distastefully incorporated in the music vestiges and the outcome was a commercial success.

The phenomenon, notwithstanding, cannot be accepted as some kind of a development by any standard of music and art. This is more of a distortion of ‘original’ than a revivification. The right way to go about it would be, utilising the rich folk music and poetry traditions, as a foundation in lieu of making a horrible blend out of it.

A case-in-point in this regard is the highly ingenious work of Ismail Darbar and A R Rahman who have churned out enchanting numbers lately incorporating the folk traditions of the subcontinent.

In a nutshell, you cannot make Justin Bieber sing ‘Kalaam of Bulleh Shah’ in Led Zeppelin style. By doing that you are making a fool out of all three.

 

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